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By Heather Wisner
The living has never been easy for arts organizations, but the recession has cut support sharply enough that this winter, Dance/USA conducted what it called the Rough Waters Survey, asking more than a hundred dance-based organizations how they’re faring economically.
Results weren’t pretty: Over 40 percent of respondents said ticket sales and/or donations had fallen by five percent or more, and corporate and foundation funding had also dropped. In light of the economic situation, Dance/USA president Andrea Snyder has been organizing conference calls in which company managers, presenters and agents share what they’re doing to cope. And Washington, DC’s Kennedy Center is now offering financial advice through an initiative called Arts in Crisis.
Awareness and advice are undeniably helpful, but what is needed right now is cold, hard cash. Dance companies, like other arts organizations, are learning to apply their creativity to fundraising just as they do to performance (see “Dance Matters,” April). And more and more, the dancers are getting directly involved in those efforts.
Dancers Make a Difference
Company artists factor into fundraising at Philadelphia’s Koresh Dance Company. In the year that director of development Deborah Crocker has worked with the company, membership has doubled, due in part to the new interaction between dancers and viewers. The company has had good results with the patron luncheons at the studio, followed by open rehearsals. “Patrons want to be up close to the dancers—they want to see them sweat,” she says. The dancers also attend post-performance parties, where they mingle with viewers. “It’s fun for the patrons to see them sweaty at rehearsal, in full stage make-up at the show,” says Crocker, “then at the party.” Developing these relationships with donors is critical to raising money, she says: “Someone once told me that development is 65 percent romance. You have to get to know people who you’re asking for money. The most successful ideas are the most personal ones.”
That’s what Atlanta Ballet dancer Anne Tyler Harshbarger has found. “The best way to fundraise, in my opinion, is to just talk to people,” she says. “Donors want to hear our perspectives. A real conversation gives me the opportunity to express how important their support is. When they know how grateful we are, it inspires them to keep giving.
“As for potential donors,” she continues, “when they get a glimpse of our lives up close, they see that we’re not unattainable stars across the footlights. We’re real people who work hard and need their help to keep doing what we’re doing.”
Harshbarger says she and her colleagues have participated in pointe shoe signings, sneak preview parties, and even a fashion show where they walked up and down “what seemed like a never-ending runway” on pointe.
Company members of Minnesota’s ARENA Dances were so dedicated to their work that they modeled swimsuits in March for a fundraiser called ARENA Bikini. “I felt a little self-conscious at first, but once I was out there, it was fun,” admits artistic director Mathew Janczewski. Dancers did a runway show in a nightclub, performing excerpts from their show clad in swimsuits provided by a department store.
The event was such a success that the company has revived it this year. “It’s a way to find a new audience,” says dancer Julie Brant McBride. “It reaches out, with fun and fashion, to a population that wouldn’t go to a dance benefit.”
In the case of Arts Ballet Theatre of Florida, the dancers’ personal contributions included family recipes for the company’s cookbook, a fundraising idea dreamt up by the company’s board. “Our board always has ideas, but the hard part is making them come true,” says marketing director Ruby Issaev. Many ideas, she acknowledged, require too much money or time to execute, but the cookbook has proved successful.
Know Your Audience
“Companies need to learn which perks will attract viewers and prompt them to give,” says Amanda Nelson, deputy director of development for Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater. “We try to learn what interests our donors have,” she says. “There are people specifically interested in supporting new works, or supporting our camps and programs. I track which campaigns people are responding to. We really analyze our data.”
Whatever the data says, what counts is an emotional connection with the company. “Ailey donors all have an Ailey story: the couple who went to see the company on their first date, someone who was inspired by seeing Ms. Jamison onstage. They feel that they are part of the Ailey family,” she says. To further that feeling, the whole organization is involved in fundraising, whether for open rehearsals, luncheons, or post-show events.
Snyder believes some dance companies are combating the funding drain by keeping supporters loyal and following what she calls “the Obama methodology: They’re looking for smaller contributions from a much larger universe.”
Joan Myers Brown, artistic director of Philadanco, recently revived a fundraising strategy she first tried in 1991: ’Danco Dollar Day. The idea was to ask the Philadelphia area’s six million residents for one dollar each, with the hope that many smaller contributions might be easier to obtain than a few large ones. “A lot of people said they’d give, but they thought their five or ten dollars wouldn’t help much,” she says. “So I asked for one dollar. We put coupons in the neighborhood newspapers and mailed out coupons in the form of a dollar bill—we had people who read about the campaign in the paper come to our door and say, ‘Here’s my dollar.’ We found that people also gave 5, 10, 25 dollars; we generated 36,000 dollars over three weeks. We still get some dollars and people saying, ‘I hope it’s not too late.’ ”
In hard times, asking many people for a little bit may be a smart strategy, as Crocker has found at Koresh. “Even if it’s small gifts, it’s great that people are giving a little,” she says. “It’s not all gloom and doom.”
Dancers Take Charge
New York City Ballet principal Jonathan Stafford was asked by Peter Martins to head up the Dancers’ Choice program last June—the first such program organized by the dancers themselves. The purpose was to raise money for the Dancers’ Emergency Fund, which has been used to pay for anything from hospital bills to furniture for a dancer whose apartment was robbed.
In an effort to fill nearly 3,000 seats, the company hung posters, did radio spots, put an ad in the Sunday New York Times and handed out postcards to local businesses. Their efforts paid off: “We wanted to raise 75,000 dollars to cover the costs of the performance; any proceeds we made out of additional ticket sales, T-shirts, and the souvenir book, those would all go into the funds,” Stafford says. “It was a really, really successful evening. We ended up raising 100,000 dollars in addition to the first 75,000 dollars.”
When he found out how much money they made, “I was so ecstatic,” he says. “I never thought we would raise that much. We had to sell every ticket from scratch; there was no subscription for this.”
And Stafford wasn’t at all sure the dancers would be up for the extra work. “I was a little worried about the dancers’ time; I knew it was gonna be at the end of the season when people are really tired and they’ve been working hard,” he says. But he was thrilled to find that everyone was a good sport, “above and beyond what I would have expected.”
Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre corps member Nicholas Coppula probably wouldn’t be surprised to hear it. He and soloist Julia Erickson (now a principal) participated in the January Dancers’ Trust Performance—a benefit for the Dancers’ Trust Fund, which gives financial assistance to Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre dancers who retire and continue their education. The dancers run the program, performing selections of their choice, with costuming, music and rehearsal space help from PBT.
The pair say the show had its best year yet, financially speaking, and the dancers seemed enthused about joining in. “We all love what we do and we want to continue,” Coppula says.
As in other cities, bringing the dancers’ need directly to patrons seems to have resonated. “I think dancers are an underutilized resource,” Erickson says. “But some of the donors don’t see us as approachable. This bridges the gap between dancers and donors.”
Heather Wisner, a former DM editor, is managing editor of Make-Up Artist Magazine and lives in Portland, OR.
From top: NYCB corps member Kyle Froman offered his photos to the souvenir book as part of the Dancers' Choice program. Photo by Kyle Froman, Courtesy NYCB; Kelsey Yip of Atlanta Ballet in a fashion show to raise money. Photo by Jim Fitts, Courtesy AB; NYCB's Robert Fairchild, Allen Peiffer, Sean Suozzi, and David Prottas in Adam Hendrickson's Flit of Fury/The Monarch, which he choreographed for Dancers' Choice. Photo by Paul Kolnik, Courtesy NYCB.