It's Time to Reimagine Dance Funding

February 24, 2021

It was March 2019. Waiting inside my daughter’s doctor’s office, I scrolled through my email, coming upon a grant notification that seemed hopeful. Usually, I delete email responses to applications, sparing myself the piercing disappointment of “Thank you for your application…We received an unusually high volume of…regret to inform you…” Something about this one seemed unusual, so I dared to open it. The news was very good: A Guggenheim Fellowship was finally coming my way! To the dismay of my young teen, I screamed ecstatically, emitting tears of joy and relief.

I was sure that this meant there was much more to come. That the funding (and other) gates would flood open, and that I would never again face the debilitating fear that I might not have a future. It goes without saying that this amazing recognition changed my life in ways I would never have imagined: Besides funding through the mirror of their eyes at New York Live Arts in early 2020, it supported me and my family through many dark COVID-19 months. But, like all funding meant to take care of a single project or moment in life, as soon as the money was spent, I was back at zero.

I recognize that this is a privileged problem. That many artists, despite years of applying, never get their dream grant—the one they think will change everything. But whether you get one or a plethora of project grants or fellowships, the deadening cycle of project-to-project funding can lead to career-abandoning burnout. And yet we continue to grovel for this funding because, for many of us, it’s all we have, even at more developed stages of our careers. How many times have I heard (and felt): “I’ve gotten X, Y and Z, so what’s left?”

In this period of crucial rebuilding of our industry, let’s allow ourselves to really dream for a moment. We deserve funding that covers more than a single dance and set of fees. What if it expanded into an artist’s life and body of work, so that when one project ended, we didn’t find ourselves in the dust, having to begin again? What if funding allowed artists to pay themselves and provide a living wage over a period of time to an extended group of people (dancers, staff, technicians, designers), and/or to permeate a community so that their work became an essential part of it rather than a drive-through item? And what if we could actually apply for this kind of expansive funding rather than be nominated by some secret MacArthur- or Duke-like closed-door committee?

In the foreground, two male dancers are photographed in middair while leaping forward and using each other's arms for support. In the background, a female dancer looks on midstep.

Kimberly Bartosik’s through the mirror of their eyes

Maria Baranova, Courtesy Bartosik

My dream grant would prioritize artists who have built a life through their work, have consistently supported those who work for them, yet are working outside of institutions. It wouldn’t be granted as an unrestricted lump sum of money, but would require recipients to budget for and articulate ways they would offer long-term support to those helping them realize their work.

Beyond-the-project funding would allow artists time to build an infrastructure; to support themselves while considering the future of others; to grow from the inside rather than piece together a flimsy exoskeleton through a series of patchwork grants. We need to secure a core so that if we have a few bad years, or we are struck again with the decimating force of a pandemic, all is not lost.

With sustained support, we could lessen attrition (who doesn’t know a freelance dancer, choreographer, designer or arts administrator who has abandoned the field because they could not afford to stay in it?); push artists from the margins and into the deepest foundations of the culture; and watch investments take hold, allowing more artists to realize their fullest potential.

For too long we’ve perpetuated the myth that hard work is all you need to succeed. That if we just stick with it, sweat it out no matter what, we’ll get our breakthrough moment. Yet no amount of hard work will fix a system that is failing artists. And then there’s the other dangerous myth that living on the edge leads to cutting-edge work. In truth, scarcity only breeds burnout. The edge is not something to be literally teetering on, but something we should be developing in our work.

We need funding models that embrace cycles of nourishment. We need funders to take more risks on more artists working in many different genres and for longer periods of time. An artist’s potential isn’t often realized in a single work, and sometimes the most significantly funded work isn’t the most successful. When we have systems that believe in us—when we don’t have to continually prove ourselves project after project—we make our best work.

We are greater than a single work of art.