The Color of Money: When lean times hit artists of color, finding funding becomes a test of community and resourcefulness.

July 10, 2007

By Cynthia Hedstrom

Times have been tough economically the last few years, and many dance companies have felt the crunch. Some of the hardest hit have been the small to mid-sized groups that work outside the white mainstream. What obstacles do these companies face? Is the situation changing? Is it improving?

First, a look back. In 1970, there were an estimated 100 dance companies in the United States. By 1994, the number had leapt to approximately 650, according to John Munger, director of research and information for Dance/USA. Most of them were incorporated as not-for-profit organizations, a charitable system developed a century ago by a civic-minded and wealthy establishment of European heritage.

In less wealthy communities the nonprofit model was problematic. As Olga Garay, program director for the arts at the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation, says, “The underlying thinking that you’re going to get a group of committed citizens with deep pockets and a network of friends who have a commitment to building a civic life is based on a very white, very privileged model. That structure does not translate to most organizations of color.”

Jawole Willa Jo Zollar, founding artistic director of Urban Bush Women, agrees. “One of my biggest concerns is access to wealth,” she says. “When you’re trying to do work, a big part of it is having access and resources within your community, within your family—those things that help give people the conditions for success.”

As the number of dance companies grew, with no parallel increase in funding, many groups remained small and became financially unstable. Michael Kaiser, president of the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, identifies a common problem in the reliance on government and foundation money. These funds are vulnerable to social trends and economic downturns. For example, during the 2002 recession, grant dollars were slashed and many funds targeted to artists of color were lost.

Kaiser, who recently helped Dance Theatre of Harlem’s school get back on its feet, says it’s essential to build a donor base of committed individuals. “A large white organization will get typically about 70 percent of its contributed funds from individual donors,” he says, “whereas organizations of color will frequently get less than 10 percent. There’s only so much that a government agency or foundation will give you, which means you hit the ceiling and you can never get larger unless you start to raise from individuals.”

Kaiser points out that “African American or Latino or Asian giving has tended to focus more on church and education and less on arts. So you basically have to train your community to be generous. That takes time and sophistication.” To help performing arts groups strategize to reach their goals, Kaiser launched a mentoring initiative with bi-weekly online chats called the Capacity Building Program for Culturally Specific Arts Organizations. Dance companies that are participating in the initiative include Lula Washington Dance Theatre, Philadanco, Urban Bush Women, H. T. Chen & Dancers, and Dayton Contemporary Dance Company.

For new choreographers and companies, there is a stepping-stone system—admittedly a fragile one. Beginning with showcases for up-and-coming artists, choreographers may find shared management under a not-for-profit umbrella, graduate to a full-evening presentation, and eventually develop a small touring program that fits into the National Performance Network (see “Dance Matters,” DM, April 2005). But the resources within this system are extremely competitive.

Other networks do exist, although they may be invisible to the mainstream. Roberta Uno, program officer for arts and culture at the Ford Foundation, tells the story of a “cutting edge” Thai performance artist whose work she saw at a conference in the Philippines. When Uno encouraged her to perform in the U.S., she was surprised to learn that the performer had already toured to many major cities, all organized through Thai temples. “I said, ‘Did anything get written up about this? How did I miss this?’ And she handed me this big packet of reviews. It was all written in Thai.” Uno continues, “That’s one example of the many ways immigrant communities use their resources for things they value. It’s also an illustration of how people get marginalized.”

Lack of visibility is a concern for artists working outside of the main centers of wealth. Merián Soto, a Latina choreographer and co-founder/artistic director of Pepatián, a presenting organization in the Bronx, laments: “I feel like the work we do is invisible to the dance world. We do it; we’ve been doing it; we just keep doing it. Does it get the attention that it would need for funders to come in to diversify funding? There is some money, but it’s a really, really slow process.”

In the ’90s, some funders and presenters championed community engagement projects, bringing artists, community members, and cultural leaders to the same table, often for the first time. “Transformative and thrilling things happened,” says Ella Baff, executive director of Jacob’s Pillow. Artists from David Dorfman to Urban Bush Women created dances with residents in Detroit, New Haven, New Orleans, and Lincoln, NE, sponsored by major presenters in those cities.

But community engagement could also pigeonhole artists as fulfilling social agendas rather than letting the artistic work stand on its own. Wendy Rogers, a white choreographer on the faculty of the University of California, Riverside, says, “When the state of one’s funding becomes about the success of predetermined outcomes, you’ve just sabotaged the artistic process.”

Another issue is the fact that Eurocentric work is dominant in our society, as opposed to work whose sources lie in other heritages. Soto asks, “Who judges this work? What are the parameters by which we decide some work is excellent? How can you divorce work from its intention or where it springs from?”

Perhaps the door is beginning to open. “A few years back,” Soto relates, “artists of color were feeling that they were not being addressed by the New York Foundation for the Arts fellowship process. I was at a meeting where we were saying, ‘Why don’t you make a [peer review] panel that consists only of people of color? We’re trained to negotiate at least two different aesthetics—from our own cultural background and the Eurocentric aesthetic that prevails everywhere.’ A few years after that I heard that NYFA had a panel that was all artists of color. I was thrilled.”

Just as artists of color have begun to sit on grant-making panels, they have also been embraced by many in the (predominantly white) presenting community. Bonnie Brooks, the dance chair at Columbia College in Chicago, which presents an annual series focusing on culturally specific groups, reflects: “The voices of artists of color have not been invited to the table historically. The fact that the field is listening more to those voices is very important.”

One of the concerns in the presenting community, as voiced by Ella Baff among others, is the need to think broadly about diversity, not just in terms of the hot-button cultural group at the moment or the filling of programmatic slots. “Trends are fickle. I don’t trust what they’re going to do for the field in the long run without a commitment to true diversity. We should be trying to enlarge, not narrow, our view of dance.”

Michael Kaiser raises another issue. “Foundations have encouraged not just the arts organizations of color to do ethnic work, but also the white organizations,” he says. “A lot of the big white organizations are picking off the biggest and most visible projects and they are funding them in a way that the black or Latino organizations can’t. As a result they take the audience away. Now I don’t think that’s evil. I just think that it’s another challenge for small organizations.”

Many smaller institutions that produce or present work by artists of color need shoring up. Some of the larger institutions, like the New Jersey Performing Arts Center, whose mission was shaped by African American leadership, created a home for both “stars” and less well-known artists. Its Alternate Roots series presents artists who are visionaries within their own communities, from New Jersey’s Planet Hip-Hop to Cloud Gate Dance Theater of Taiwan. Major artists have also created links with culturally specific organizations, such as choreographer Bill T. Jones’ association with Aaron Davis Hall in Harlem.

As traditionally white organizations open their doors to individuals of other racial backgrounds, whether in boardrooms, on funding panels, or in presenting circles, solutions to these issues will evolve. As culturally or racially specific companies stabilize, their work will become more visible. Over the years, racial diversity has sharpened the discourse in our society. It can only have a similarly beneficial effect in the dance world, contributing to a greater understanding of the many voices with which it speaks.

Cynthia Hedstrom, a former dancer, has programmed and produced dance since the ’80s.