COVID-19 has brought about rapid shifts in how dance artists work. But the business side of dance, just as essential to a company's success, has been equally challenged. As the industry continues to shift in response to the current crisis and beyond, what should arts administrators be doing to keep up?
Engaging audiences through technology
Dance companies haven't skipped a beat when it comes to leveraging technology to reach their audiences. New York City Ballet has brought their spring season online through their YouTube channel. American Ballet Theatre has utilized Instagram to host dancer talks with leading artists. Pennsylvania Ballet recently hosted a virtual "Party on the Stage" via Zoom, which featured a live DJ and small online auction (there was a suggested minimum $20 donation).
In these ways, dance companies are not only able to maintain a relationship with their existing fan base, but also potentially broaden their reach to new audiences that have not yet seen them perform live. "The current focus on virtual engagement will have a lasting impact on the industry, both in how we create and deliver artistic product, and in how we engage others," predicts Julie Goodman, head of Drexel University's Arts & Entertainment Enterprise department. "By using this moment to take a deep dive into alternative methods of artistic creation and audience engagement, artists and organizations are discovering techniques, practices and opportunities that can support and strengthen their work going forward."
Dance/USA executive director Amy Fitterer agrees. "I hope the post-pandemic dance world will be a combination of extraordinary in-person events where the public rediscovers the power of the live performing arts," she says, "while, at the same time, utilizing more technology than pre-pandemic times for dance creation, dissemination and engagement."
Making sure arts workers get paid
Even with the cancellation of performance seasons, contract workers and other employees need to be paid. With the sudden shortfall in earned income, "a lot of philanthropic organizations are shifting their contributions from project to general operating support," says Goodman. This allows donations typically flagged for high-profile productions to instead fund jobs. "What's happening now is asking arts administrators to think about how we can better support what has always been one of the highest cost areas: our workforce," Goodman adds.
Though the onus for systemic change does not solely lie with administrators, continued advocacy for the inclusion of the arts in government funding and relief efforts will be key to building long-term protections.
Maintaining donor engagement
"You can't give donors tickets to a show right now or invite them to a gala or dinner," says Fitterer, "but there are creative ideas out there of how to virtually engage donors to support the relief fund." As with artistic programming, many dance companies have worked to transition their fundraising efforts to virtual platforms. While it is still early to measure the effectiveness of online campaigns, galas and special events, this could be another area for technological innovation.
"These virtual fundraising efforts are focused on relief funds," Fitterer adds. "I am sure there will be learnings from this time of urgent experimentation that inform fundraising in the long-term—and potentially expand the donor pool moving forward."
Even when social distancing mandates are lifted, people may still be hesitant to travel by plane. But travel plays a critical role for touring troupes. "How can we deepen and grow our local relationships and programming?" Fitterer asks. She believes this potential limitation presents an opportunity for companies to revisit and reinvest in their local offerings, looking for potential partners or artists they can present in their communities.
Looking outside your organization
As administrators think about how to reopen their organizations, Goodman advises them to take cues from other fields—music, sports and "any other groups that hold large-scale events"—as they structure their own reopening.
Don't ignore another rich source of knowledge: other arts administrators and organizations. Fitterer hopes to see more collaboration going forward, and for the field to collectively learn and grow from these challenges. "Graciously respect what was done before but seize the opportunity to do things a new way," she says. "Celebrate that this is an art form about our humanity. Find ways to be grounded in that purpose and then let the business decisions flow from there."