Reforming the Rules of Engagement, Round Two

Reflections on Dance/USA’s Engaging Dance Audiences

By Suzanne Callahan

This moment of reformation [in the arts field] is not a threat … It’s an invitation for us to think more expansively …. Yes, we have been obsessed with the performance or the exhibit … [and] with contextualizing or introducing audiences to [them] or with talk-backs. But forward-thinking organizations are asking new questions.

Ben Cameron, program director for the arts, Doris Duke Charitable Foundation, Speech for Arts Fund, Atlanta, December 2012

Engaging Dance Audiences (EDA) is one of numerous funding initiatives launched in response to  great change within the arts field. As Cameron’s comment conveys, big questions continue to be posed about the arts field’s relationships with its audiences, and the relationship of audience engagement to mission. As Round Two of EDA begins, this article reports on the rationale for its design, the views of the grant selection panel, where we are in the development of a learning community for the Dance/USA membership, and how EDA strives to respond to some of the prominent trends in the dance field about its audiences and relationships to them.

Setting the Stage
With the support of the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation (DDCF), EDA was conceived in 2008 to significantly increase the dance field’s capacity to engage audiences by researching, implementing, and documenting effective and forward-thinking practices, and then sharing them with the field. In its second round, Dance/USA members are again benefiting through both direct funding and related professional development. Grants of $20,000-$40,000 have gone to 20 selected members to adapt and advance the ideas, research, models, and/or findings derived from the Round One projects to fit their own communities and context. Professional development is designed to reach far beyond grantees. Indeed, The highest goal of EDA is to effectively share what has been learned with Dance/USA members and others, for the benefit of the broader field. The grants are a means to that end. But the real result, if EDA does its job, is for the dance field to get better at engaging its audiences. the highest goal that EDA has set for itself is to effectively share what has been learned with Dance/USA members and others, for the benefit of the broader field. The grants are a means to that end. But the real result, if EDA does its job, is for the dance field to get better at engaging its audiences. Cheryl Ikemiya, senior program officer for the arts at DDCF, conveys the rationale for designing a second round that builds on Round One findings:

“There have been so many grant programs, and so many resources were put into them. But when the money went away, the ideas and learning went away. Duke needed a way to take ideas and share them with the field and make it more affordable for others. There are some things that you don’t really need much money to implement.”

The key questions, though, become: How can members adapt and advance preexisting ideas about audience engagement? And how can learning best be shared? I, with the staff of Dance/USA along with other consultants, continue to ponder these questions.

The Broader Context for EDA: Supply and Demand, Support and Access

It may be useful to consider the context in which EDA is operating by looking at the supply of, versus the demand for, dance artists and their work. During what was commonly known as the “dance boom” of the 1960s-‘80s, the number of U.S. dance organizations exploded, in large part, due to the existence of federal funding, coupled with the subsequent growth in the number of college dance departments. At the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA), a tiered system of federal funding began with individual artists, who could obtain fellowships and grow to receive dance company grants; with additional funding allocated for presenters and service organizations. This multi-faceted system of support allowed for widespread participation throughout the country.

In the national overview of a study on dance communities (by Sommer and Callahan) dance historian Sally Sommer observed the decades of the 1970s and 1980s as a time of growth and stabilization for the field, but, “The issue that emerged was how the NEA would be able to sustain the proliferation of dance it had initially encouraged?”(i) In 2003, in his foreword to Raising the Barre, which looks at the economic trends in nonprofit dance companies from the late 1980s to the late 1990s, NEA Director of Dance Douglas Sonntag aptly describes the imbalance in supply and demand:

The dance boom’s finale did not necessarily mean a decline in the formation of new companies. Instead the ‘end’ was the beginning of a period of increasing obstacles to the pursuit of a professional life in dance.(ii)

He lays out the assumptions that dance companies were set up to believe as they opened their doors, versus the real circumstances that they encounter:

Despite the short term of its actual existence, the “dance boom” era companies created the ideal that almost all subsequent artists would aspire to emulate. This model was based on the assumption that dance would remain a staple of arts presenter programming; that financial subsidy would continue to make national touring economically feasible; that Choreographers Fellowships would be available to fund the beginning explorations of emerging choreographers; and that a significant funds, both public and private, would encourage the establishment of nonprofit dance companies able to support dancers, chorographers, choreographers, administrators and technical personnel … [However] during the final decade of the last century there were serious challenges regarding the veracity of core assumptions on earned income, governmental support and charitable giving … dance companies of all genres face the reality of a ruthlessly short lifecycle … That trend is still operative.

During the culture wars in the 1990s, when the NEA’s funding dropped off and the agency was mandated to restructure, an assumption seemed to take root. It was believed that as organizations’ relationships to their audiences and community strengthened, individual donor campaigns could be beefed up, and private foundations would come forward, allowing these dance groups to amass (or cobble together) a diverse funding portfolio. Survival mentality prompted arts organizations to consider a range of alternatives to raise money. Part of that struggle led arts organizations to look to their relationships with their community — the audiences and other constituents they purported to serve. Survival mentality prompted arts organizations to consider a range of
alternatives to raise money. Part of that struggle led arts organizations to look to their relationships with their community — the audiences and other constituents they purported to serve.This was a double-edged sword: arts organizations were encouraged to take greater interest in their audiences, but they were expected to connect with all types of communities, become the panacea for societal problems, and measure their results.(iii) Over these same decades, colleges were churning out thousands of dance majors per year; since an MFA had become a teaching credential, even the market for graduate students grew. As the number of dance departments proliferated, so did the number of professorships, but those hired back into higher education are but a small percentage of the number graduating from dance departments.(iv) (A recent From the Green Room article by Sydney Skybetter offers empathy but also hope for students in this situation.)

Seismic Shifts to Online Culture
Then came another seismic change: the Internet. As people moved their communication from telephones, faxes, regular mail, and paper to dial-up, broadband, and now wireless service, communication with arts organizations is rarely further away than the palm of the hand. All of this access to CRM software, social media platforms, information, and invitations means that one can promote any performance or arts activity to anyone at any hour of the day. But what are the implications of all that online traffic for supply and demand?

Even within EDA, this rapid change has played out. Barely three years ago, during Round One, consultants at WolfBrown found that the 232 Dance/USA members and others that responded to their survey were “in a period of experimentation with new audience engagement practices … and appear to be in a phase of rapid development and adoption of activities and programs aimed to engage audiences.”(v) Additionally, a study conducted by my firm, Callahan Consulting for the Arts, of the 179 submissions to the Call for Project Ideas (the first phase of the application for project support in Round One) revealed the dance field’s practices, new thinking and plans in audience engagement. Nearly 90 percent incorporated technology into their future plans to inform, educate, cultivate, and involve audiences before, during, and after performances. Eighty-four percent spoke of audience participation, both online and in person …. Yet while members were making earnest attempts at integrating new technology with existing programs or systems, most dance organizations were admittedly struggling with how best to do it.(vi) (These are only two of a number of national studies that confirm and build on these early signs of change, but they are dance-specific.)(vii)

EDA Today: Solutions From Within
Which brings us to today: We continue to live in a time when the supply of professionally produced arts “product” outweighs the demand for it, leaving funders and other arts leaders with the dilemma of how to distribute their resources. In late 2010, Grantmakers in the Arts released a summary of its National Capitalization Project,(viii) referencing the dramatic growth in the number and size of arts organizations that resulted in an oversupply that “in many communities, outpaced the public demand, meaning that groups have not benefitted from an increase in public interest and attendance. Where individual institutions have grown in size without fully understanding the marketplace for the art, it has compounded the issue of oversupply.”

This finding is particularly challenging in an economic climate where “neither the public interest nor the financial resources” support these organizations. The GIA project offered the following advice:

Organizations facing such situations need to seriously consider their appropriate scale and scope … [as well as] their arts market and size themselves appropriately, an action the group agreed funders should encourage.(ix)

The arts field itself has offered up solutions; see Adam Huttler’s blog in Huffington Post as well as many others. Responses on the part of funders include DDCF’s newest program, the Artist Residency Initiative, which attempts to build demand for select art forms, including contemporary dance. Questions posed to launch this Initiative, as articulated in a working paper by consultant Alan Brown, may be relevant to EDA, include: “At its core, the Initiative raises significant questions about demand and how to create it. Who is responsible for building demand? Is it more a function of the marketplace or can it be cultivated? What is the role of artists in this work? How is preference discovered? What strategies might artists and arts groups use to generate higher levels of demand? On what timeline can one expect to see results?”(xii) Audience engagement is one of what Brown posits as four longer-term “strategy levels” to increase demand.(xiii) Cameron is leading off with even more big questions, as expressed in his recent speech: “What forward-thinking organizations are doing or trying to ask are … how do I find and offer value within this broader array of activity? … What if the future is to provide not only products to be consumed, but experiences that will be springboard to our audiences’ own creativity?” This hard work, according to Cameron, demands “leadership and planning, experimentation and patience,” and failure is to be expected as the field learns. The bottom line is, “It will require us to place the audience at the center of our mission — not the periphery, at the center … There is a profound difference between a mission statement of ‘to produce the great plays,’ and a mission statement of ‘to connect audiences to great plays.’”(xiv) It is that connection — between the dance field and its audiences — that is at the heart of EDA as Round Two grantees start their grant periods, and the formal sharing begins.

To continue reading about the implementation of these models, click here.

 i From A National Comparative Study of Dance Communities, a larger unpublished report commissioned by The Pew Charitable Trusts and written in 2000 by Sommer and Callahan.  An excerpt was printed, with permission, in Dance/USA’s report Dance in the San Francisco Bay Area: A Needs Assessment.
 ii Smith, Thomas M. Raising the Barre: the Geographic, Financial and Econimic Trends of Dance Companies. NEA Research Division Report #44, August 2003.
iii  See Introduction to Singing Our Praises: Case Studies in the Art of Evaluation, published by the Association of Performing Arts Presenters in 2005. Written by Suzanne Callahan.
 iv The 2011-2012 Dance Magazine College Guide lists contact information for 628 dance programs and departments, 132 of which are featured within the publication and assumed to include most of the predominant U.S. programs. The total number of majors enrolled in 122 of those 132 departments is 8,325 (10 did not report the data). The numbers of departments that exist within the other 496 programs is not available, nor is the number of dance majors. See pages 4-10 of the print publication.
 v WolfBrown. Survey of Current Audience Engagement Practices, 2009. A survey of Dance/USA members and a few others who were considering applying for EDA funding. The summary is available on the Dance/USA website here.
 vi Summary, Dance/USA’s Report on the Call For Ideas, by Callahan Consulting for the Arts, 2009
 vii See a partial list of such studies here. (staging.leadershipnouveau – website inactive – October 2021)
 viii In January of 2010, Grantmakers in the Arts (GIA) launched its National Capitalization Project. Formed in response to the observation that it has been the norm for the nonprofit arts sector to be poorly capitalized, the project convened representatives from 16 regional and national funders of the arts (some of whom had been in conversations about capitalization for nearly two years before convening), five subject experts and GIA staff in two intensive working sessions to learn together, and to begin a conversation about what funders might do individually and collectively to address this long-standing condition.
ix  Curtis, Elizabeth Cabral. National Capitalization Project 2010 Summary. A project of Grantmakers in the Arts. TDC, Boston, September 2010. See also subsequent articles on the GIA website.
 x Brown, Alan. Building Demand for the Performing Arts. A working paper for applicants to the Doris Duke Artist Residency Program. October, 2012. © WolfBrown.
 xi The other three are better sales and marketing to the best prospects; finding new audiences amongst inclined target populations; and building demand for the art form. (p3)
 xii Here Cameron is quoting Lisa Adler of Horizon Theatre, one of the many who has made this distinction.

Suzanne Callahan founded Callahan Consulting for the Arts in 1996, to help arts funders and organizations realize their vision through offering services in planning, fundraising, evaluation and research, and philanthropic counsel. She has run Engaging Dance Audiences since 2009. 


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