The Sally Field Problematic: Preserving Entertainment, Artistic, and Cultural Value in the Dance Field, or You Love Me, You Really Love Me!

“Times are perennially hard for modern dancers,” wrote Guelda Voien in the New York Observer this past summer, “but company managers, dancers and grants groups said the current climate may be among the most difficult they’ve ever faced.” Here in Washington, D.C., arts organizations large and small have been impacted by the general economic recession. Part of our concern as a field, highlighted by Voien’s piece, is whether giving has declined (and will rebound), or whether it is in decline and we have yet to hit bottom. The key question in this moment is: who, or what, is to blame for these hard times?

Research in The Americans for the Arts (AFTA) State of the Arts (2009) report makes a case for our field’s troubles being about more than the economic recession. The numbers show that, “between 1998 and 2007, the percentage of foundation funding directed to the arts decreased from 14.8 to 10.6 percent. The corporate giving share to the arts decreased from 10.3 to 4.6 percent during the same period.” The arts are losing philanthropy market share, and while recent hardship may be entirely related to the economy, the AFTA report shows that as an industry our relative value is in question.

At the end of the Observer piece is a quote from New York-based choreographer Tatyana Tenenbaum remarking that dance, “is a sequestered high art. There is not much of a market for it.” While our challenges may be highlighted by the recent recession, the Americans for the Arts study shows that we have been in decline for some time. Maybe sequestration of our art is resulting in decreasing cultural value, contributing to the reduced philanthropic market share?

The question arises: what is intrinsically valuable in this second decade of the 21st century? There are huge differences between entertainment value, artistic value, and cultural value. Entertainment value is identified by popularity, or sales. Looking at the ratings of competitive dance shows on network television we can measure entertainment value. Or, similarly, a company that sells out City Center, Brooklyn Academy of Music, or the Joyce Theater in New York demonstrates solid entertainment value to the marketplace using metrics we can understand: tickets sold equal entertainment value.

Artistic value can really only be assessed over the long term. Success builds on success, and in our lifetimes, the artistic heft of artwork remains uncertain. J.S. Bach wasn’t even considered among the top-20 living composers during his lifetime (so to speak) while conversely, Justin Bieber is having a great year. I’d wager that in a hundred years though, no-one will know Bieber’s name, while Bach’s will live on.

Cultural value is connected to both entertainment and artistic value, but relates to the values we benefit from within our experience of the artwork. Embedded in our cultural valuation of art are complex societal ideals and norms. Artwork that is quickly recognized for its high cultural value fulfills needs that we didn’t even know we had. The emergence of modern dance, a heretofore unknown form, in the early 20th century is an example.

The AFTA data deal with all the arts – not just dance – and many of the problems faced by the dance field today are challenges shared by other fields. Like dance, jazz music is having a difficult decade, and, like dance, perhaps there is no single cause to blame. Writing in 2008 about the decline of jazz music, critic Marc Myers wrote, “Our quest for simplicity always demands a date and time for major historical turning points. The truth is that the reasons for most major events such as Rome’s fall or the Great Depression are a bunch of little factors that converge at roughly the same time and feed off each other.” Managers in the arts are struggling to balance audience building with the creation of valuable new repertory and the dwindling audience’s preference for things they already know. Simultaneously, in this down economy, foundations that already have less to give are prioritizing feeding people over providing arts opportunities.

Funding will rebound after this economic crisis, but as a percentage of philanthropic market share, it will continue to fall if the sector’s cultural value fails to rise.

I do believe that Tenenbaum was right to intuitively connect the sequestration of our art to the lack of market. And in my mind, the sequestration of the art form relates to a particular weakness in the field.

Every industry, from steel to cars to buggy whips, wants to preserve itself. Every industry is made of a complex of managers, workers, and their families, all of whom benefit meaningfully from employment by the industry. Industries in slow decline –steel or cars – have shown extraordinary resourcefulness in blaming others, and attacking competition. Hardship breeds insularity, and as working professionals, we are sensibly prioritizing preservation (in every sense), and in so doing are slowly disconnecting from the main which validates our worth. Our cultural value is in decline because we are increasingly sequestered within our own industry (by necessity.)

I’m not a guy who 20 years ago could have predicted the iPhone. I marvel at people like farsighted author Jules Verne, who envisioned massive cultural and technological trajectories before they were even really in motion. I can see the problem of declining cultural value, but I don’t have a solution. I do know that art and art forms are born in tiny little revolutions that occur in individual rooms — and individual minds — springing to collectives and communities. And that the somatic sensitivity and creative plasticity that keeps us in thrall within the dance field are not threatened at all. To put it more succinctly: Dance is not in decline; only the industry is struggling. Dance is not in decline; only the industry is struggling.

Some of us today look back on the jazz of the 1930s, or the classical music of the 18th century, and relish the bright lights of those days. Who are we to know if the artistic value of our product today will be valued in two hundred years? Is that question relevant to our industry, or to us as individuals? We will continue to sell tickets, and to the extent that we provide broad value to those not already engaged with our form, our cultural stock will rise, or fall.

Robert Bettmann is the artistic director of Bettmann Dances, founded in 2009. A reviewer for The Examiner described the company’s first show as “A jewel” and “an example of artistic craftsmanship.” Bettmann is also editor of the arts magazine Bourgeon, and the current board chair of the DC Advocates for the Arts.


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