Yes, Dancers Should Be Fundraising Tools

At Oklahoma City Ballet, thinking of professional as well as artistic “development.”

In my last article, I wrote about the need for dancers to act as fundraising tools so the modern business model of Western ballet companies can survive, particularly as public funding for the arts becomes harder and harder to come by. I got a lot of feedback from this article, which I always appreciate. One of the comments I heard several times is that it is sad that dancers cannot solely be valued for their artistry. I could not agree more. But the truth is, in America, there is simply no way to privatize a dance company — that is, operate without contributed income — and that is the only method by which we could have art produced that would solely and truly speak for itself. There will never be enough ticket sales to cover the cost of performance and infrastructure. Without tax-exempt status, there is no way to maintain the giving, especially from individuals and foundations, that is critical to our success.

Dance is certainly not the only art form facing and experiencing these issues. Even the esteemed Michael Kaiser, formerly head of the Kennedy Center, wrote about all of this in his new book Curtains?: The Future of the Arts in America. Here is part of a review of his book by the Washington Post:

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By 2035, Kaiser predicts, large organizations will monopolize what funding remains, and their tickets will be so expensive that most people will see ‘live’ performances only in broadcasts or online in their homes. Small local groups will manage with low-paid (or unpaid) performers who want a creative outlet; poor communities, with fewer financial resources, will mostly do without. Mid-size institutions will flounder, just like mid-priced retailers between Walmart and Neiman Marcus; they will either downsize or grow by merging.

If Michael Kaiser is nervous, you should be too.
If Michael Kaiser is nervous about the nonprofit business model, maybe you should be too.

If we are to create an alternative future that is different from the dark one that Kaiser predicts, nonprofit performing arts groups will have to use every tool in its arsenal. When it comes to donors, for example, you cannot dictate what inspires them to give, but we do know it’s all about relationships with the company they give to — and those artists who are supported by that company. At Oklahoma City Ballet, our development team — really, the entire staff — goes to great lengths to make sure we have a relationship with our donors. And that is why dancers must have a relationship as well.

Our staff, of course, knows that this is expected of them; it is not necessarily expressly written into their job descriptions. For dancers, however, establishing and maintaining this relationship is much more voluntary — it’s about whether they want to be involved with our patrons. While I understand that we must respect the dancers’ personal time, without some connection to donors, it will make it harder and harder for companies to meet their development goals. And if that happens, dancers will find themselves with more free time than they intended. I do not know, because of union rules as well as precedence, what the likelihood is of getting donor engagement to be a part of a dancer’s contract. But even as an unwritten understanding, it is a step in the right direction, and I feel the expectation must be expressed to them with the utmost importance.

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Dancers should not be faceless
Why should dancers be faceless?

Where does this mindset shift begin? In the training. If dancers grow up understanding that donor cultivation is part of their job, it will be feel less alien to them if and when they leap into the profession. Yet this topic is rarely, if ever, raised during pre-professional training. While I understand young children often take ballet for the enjoyment of it, when dancers start hitting 13 or 14, if they’re very good, they may begin to think about dance as a career. Why would you train a carpenter and not discuss all the tools at his disposal? I’m not suggesting dancers of 13 or 14 should be trotted out for cocktails with donors. But awareness of the business of the business, even in the simplest terms, must be viewed as part of an arts education.

In the Oklahoma City Ballet Summer Intensive, our artistic director, Robert Mills, took time out of the dancers’ usual training to discuss the business of ballet. He talked about the importance of fundraising, what it means to an organization. You could tell that many of these students had never heard any of that information before. When a dancer realizes that only 40 percent of their paycheck comes from ticket sales, it may (hopefully) change their perspective. I do hear arguments that “some dancers just aren’t good at that sort of thing.” But if dancers can be trained to do seemingly impossible feats with their bodies, surely they can be trained to speak to people and engage them about their art.

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Shane Jewell
Shane Jewell is the Executive Director of the Oklahoma City Ballet. Previous to this, he was the Executive Director for the OK MOZART International Music Festival. Before his time at OK Mozart, Jewell worked at Celebrity Attractions in Tulsa presenting National Touring Broadway shows to 8 markets in the Midwest. During his tenure there he handled several roles such as: Company Manager, Technical Director and Advertising Director. He also was the Company Manager and Stage Manager for the national touring musical, The Rock & The Rabbi. Jewell currently serves on the Education and Programming Committee for Oklahoma Contemporary and is a member of the Oklahoma Presenters Network.