Editor’s note: From the Green Room continues its regular feature, Leadership Corner, disseminating the voices and experiences of leaders in the professional dance field across the United States. Comments or discussion can be posted on our Facebook page at https://www.facebook.com/DanceUSAorg.
Andrea Lodico Welshons is the executive director of KEIGWIN + COMPANY, having joined the company in 2008 as its first full-time administrative staff member. Since the start of her tenure, Welshons has coordinated the company’s first strategic planning process; managed sold-out, heralded seasons at The Joyce Theater; expanded KEIGWIN + COMPANY’s fundraising efforts; increased touring activities nationwide; and is currently overseeing the company’s 10th Anniversary Season, for which she secured major capacity-building support from the Rockefeller Brothers Fund. She has been featured on several panels to discuss online audience engagement, dance marketing, and branding. Welshons was first introduced to the world of dance administration in 2003 with an internship at the Paul Taylor Dance Company. She graduated Summa Cum Laude with a B.A. from Connecticut College in 2004, where she danced with choreographers including Dan Wagoner, David Dorfman, Jeremy Nelson, and Heidi Henderson. Prior to joining KEIGWIN + COMPANY, Welshons worked in development at New York City Center, the Paul Taylor Dance Company, and City Parks Foundation. She is a registered yoga teacher and was certified in 2014 at Mang’Oh Yoga Studio in New York City.
Dance/USA: As chair of Dance/USA’s Managers Council for companies with budgets of less than $749,000, you came into this position and literally grew as the company grew, so I’d like to start where you started. As KEIGWIN + COMPANY's first full-time manager, you walked into a job where you had to start fresh, if not from scratch. There was no one to train you. Where was the company when you started?
Andrea Lodico Welshons: When I first started in 2008, the company had just presented its first season at The Joyce Theater [in New York] where they premiered “Elements,” which was its first evening-length work. It was a big commission for Larry and the company, with support from a variety of presenters and funders, and it was getting a lot of visibility touring, with performances that summer at both American Dance Festival and Jacob’s Pillow. It was a really great time and, best of all, the company had received its first capacity-building grant to support the hiring of its first full-time administrative staff member. So when I came on board in the fall of 2008 as that first staff member, the company was coming off of a busy period of creative activity and growth. And so it was a really exciting time.
Coming aboard at that time, things were challenging financially across the dance community because of the economy and I saw how other companies were hurting. Because KEIGWIN + COMPANY was just at the start of its fundraising efforts, we were in a unique situation — whereas many of the well-established dance organizations and arts organizations were navigating holes in their contributed revenue lines, we were just trying to rev up and introduce ourselves [to funders], which in some ways may have been a bit easier of a position to be in.
D/USA: Do you think that being the new kid on the block made it easier to attract funders’ attention rather than being an established company?
ALW: Not so much easier, but I think it was more that we didn’t have to deal the loss of funders that many established companies were having to navigate, although we were facing many of the same issues — several arts grantmakers re-evaluating their grantmaking priorities and the downturn in fundraising during this time across the board. Since we were just trying to get our foot in the door, I think that the buzz and visibility of being the new kid on the block as we were first starting out may have assisted us in certain situations.
D/USA: Walking into this job, particularly when there was no one to train you, no one to say this is the way we’ve done things before, what were some of the first steps you took?
ALW: When I first started, KEIGWIN + COMPANY had a part-time executive director, who is on our board now. She had experience with arts administration and had been able to build up a certain amount of infrastructure to help support the company, but the depth of fundraising efforts weren’t quite there yet.
My background is in fundraising and I had five or six years of grant writing and a little bit of individual giving experience at that point, so when I first started, I focused my efforts on the areas where I had the most experience — particularly in outreach to funders and getting the ball rolling on contributed income. So I looked at where KEIGWIN + COMPANY was — we had an operating budget of about $200,000, we had a few dedicated individual supporters, but not much support, unfortunately, in the way of government and foundation funding since we had only just gotten our 501(c)3. Because my background was in grant writing and that was something I was comfortable with, I was able to grow that area right away. First up, I hit the ground running by getting our government grant applications in.
D/USA: How much time did you spend on the company’s day-to-day management, when you started in 2008 and how much time do you spend on that now?
ALW: When I first started it already felt like a true collaboration between myself and Larry, and Nicole Wolcott, the company’s associate artistic director at that time, who founded the company with Larry. Although I was focusing my efforts on fundraising and development, because of the nature of our small team, we were all working together on the day-to-day management. When I first began, they actually had just gotten an office for the first time. They went from meeting at each others' apartments to finally having a space. I think that was really important: as we were trying to build our infrastructure, further develop our board, and focus on growing the company. Having a place to meet, an office space, was a commitment to strengthening our infrastructure and helped as we transitioned from an emerging company and we worked to formalize our processes and communication with stakeholders, while solidifying our administrative structure. It felt like a natural trajectory — K+C had experienced tremendous artistic growth and opportunities during the early years and, in 2008, leveraged that visibility and that support to take vital steps in creating a strong organizational foundation — from securing its 501(c)3 status to hiring its first administrative staff member to operating out of an office. From that stable foundation, we felt better positioned to take the additional growth steps necessary in fundraising, communication, and financial management.
D/USA: Today, about seven years later, what does your pie chart of duties look like? You’ve got development, internal management, marketing and communications, booking. How do you divvy up your time in your day?
ALW: It’s a challenge. I’m the chair of Dance/USA’s Small Managers Council, which provides the opportunity to share experiences with other managers and executive directors, and it’s interesting to hear how other managers are navigating their time. We’re all in the same boat and it’s a constant struggle. But that’s the way it is. I’m still the only full-time staff member in the company almost seven years later, but we now have a part-time marketing associate, who manages all of our marketing efforts, including our social media, e-blasts, and graphic design, plus we have a business manager who manages our books and creates all our budgets. That administrative support is major, but I still wear a significant number of hats throughout my day.
I’m dealing with general management, but primarily my focus is on fundraising, working with our board of directors, working with our booking agents for touring, so, really, it’s a full day and the pie chart of duties shifts from day to day.
D/USA: Because the reality in the field today is the majority of companies have budgets of less than $500,000, I want to get a greater sense of how you spend your time to be most effective. KEIGWIN + COMPANY has grown and attained tremendous visibility in recent years — presence in social and other media as well as growth in funding. So, what’s the recipe?
ALW: I would say the great majority of my time is really spent on relationship building and that can range from a focus on our individual donor base, specifically our major donors. That can mean having coffee or breakfast with a couple of our board members. That can also mean having phone calls with presenters and contract negotiations. With all of these different hats that I wear, it’s about spending the time necessary to nurture and strengthen relationships. Whether that will result in new income through contributions or grant writing or through partnerships with educational institutions, it all takes time and personal attention. And then there are the relationships we build online through social media that are with our fans. Those are also important.
D/USA: What is your training background? Did you dance professionally?
ALW: No. I went to school for dance at Connecticut College and got my degree in American studies with a minor in dance. I was first introduced to dance administration through an internship with the Paul Taylor Dance Company the summer between my junior and senior years of college. I love dance and it was a passion of mine, obviously, but I knew I wasn’t going to pursue a performing career. So I was really interested in ways I could still be a part of the community and, through my internship at Paul Taylor [Dance Company], I felt like, wow, there’s a way I can do that. I felt like it was just such a natural match for my skill set and interests. It was a real stepping stone.
D/USA: What would you tell other students who are majoring, minoring, or studying dance and may be realizing that their career path is not on the stage or in the studio, what would you tell them?
ALW: I would say: “Do an internship.” I find, at least to my knowledge, arts administration is definitely not a significant component to a lot of dance degrees out there. So I think that to actually close the gap between arts administration and study of dance performance is to get real hands-on training through an internship.
D/USA: What about the business and fiscal side of the field: obtaining the 501(c)3, filing taxes, 990s, dealing with finances. How did you get up to speed on those areas?
ALW: When I came on board, the company had just finalized its tax-exempt status. So that process was already complete, but I know the company worked with an attorney through Volunteer Lawyers for the Arts, who played a significant role in helping us navigate that process.
We are also really lucky to work with a fantastic part-time business manager. She came to KEIGWIN + COMPANY in 2009, just a few months after I started, and she has been instrumental in helping build our organization. She brought with her a wealth of knowledge in terms of financial and strategic management that has really helped support my efforts.
D/USA: In the field, engagement has become more than a buzz word, it’s one of the most sought after aspects of the work many companies focus on outside the studio. Engaging with our constituents, supporters, donors, social media followers is a fact of life for our field. Do you emphasize engagement in your work?
ALW: Oh, my gosh, yes. And that goes back to what I said previously about relationship building. Just like we want to engage our donors in personal, targeted ways, we variously want to engage our audiences and help strengthen those relationships. So certainly it’s been a focus of KEIGWIN + COMPANY. It’s vital to our mission and I think that it’s really essential to the way Larry wants to reach his audience and fans. He really feels that dance is for everybody so engaging our audiences in a meaningful way absolutely gets to the core of what we do. We do this through our online audience engagement with our efforts in social media, as well as the creation and sharing of innovative video content. These are all ways we work to engage audiences in conversation and create pathways for meaningful interaction. Then there’s our “Bolero Project,” which is our community-based work where we work with 30 to 70 non-dancers in the creation of a dance piece over the course of a certain number of weeks in the community. We’re engaging audiences in the choreographic process, as well as inviting [participants] behind the scenes to get to know the company better and have more in-depth experiences with the art form. All of our engagement activities, including our online efforts, are really important to what we do, important to building our audience, and important in creating work that demonstrates that dance is for everyone.
D/USA: Should I assume that company dancers are intimately involved in aspects of running the engagement program? Do you have dancers in the office sometimes working on these engagement activities?
ALW: We do. I was on a panel for Dance/NYC a few years ago; I think it was called “The Dancer’s Voice,” and it focused on how the dancer can play a role in audience development and marketing and promotion. Most of our dancers are obviously adept at social media and they have their own following and their own [social] network, so their presence [in social media] is easily incorporated into our overall organizational social media efforts. It’s so important because featuring the dancers in all aspects of engagement allows audience members to make a deeper connection with the art form, and as we know, so often it comes down to [a viewer’s] ability to connect with the artist. What’s so wonderful with social media is that audiences are able to mine their personal connections with those interactions.
D/USA: You spoke about how collaborative your working relationship with Larry is. Tell me a bit about how you approach that collaboration.
ALW: Sure. It’s funny to describe [because] it feels so organic. I think it goes back to the way Larry approaches his work. Both in the studio and in the office, he works the same way — it’s a very collaborative process. I think what’s important to him in creating work in the studio is figuring out people’s strengths, showcasing them, and allowing people to really take a bit of ownership. He works similarly in the office. I don’t know if I ever have actually thought about how the collaboration works because it just is how our work gets done. For instance, our marketing associate may be working on an e-blast and she’s chatting about what kind of font she should use and we chip in ideas and discuss the best approach — whether it’s about the layout or font on an e-blast or about an approach to a funder. It’s not about any micromanaging. It’s something, for us, that just feels right and enables the best work to get done. We’re in a small, open office, so the physical space helps encourage a collaborative atmosphere.. It’s also very supportive and very nurturing.
D/USA: You’re not quite a soloist, you have a small team, but you are the only full-timer on staff. What advice would you give to others in your shoes, the soloists of the dance administration world to keep sane?
ALW: [chuckles] I would say ideally, work with people you love and respect and help create the kind of work space and environment where you want to work. The office is very collaborative and Larry is so skilled at creating that kind of atmosphere. We’re all very passionate about what we do, but it’s vital to have a sense of humor to understand what’s important. Obviously, there’s far more important work that’s going on in the world, but creating that environment where there’s a sense of play, that’s vital. The other thing I’ve discovered, especially with my time leading KEIGWIN + COMPANY, is the importance of finding connection and support with your colleagues in the field. So many of us are soloists. My relationships with other managers have been so important in helping me stay sane along the way: bouncing ideas off each other or simply having a drink with someone and understanding that the other person is going through similar challenges, that has been so important to helping me build the company at this stage of my life.
I was talking to an artistic director of a small company in Sarasota recently and she said she was thinking about going to the Dance/USA conference in Miami, but wasn’t sure if taking time out was worth it. I told her how beneficial the conference is, because so many of us are working on our own or with very small staffs. It’s so valuable to have that experience and opportunity to share with colleagues. There can be conversations going on in our Manager’s Council Google group, but the best way to get and share information is by building personal connections. I think it’s so valuable, especially for managers of small companies, to connect with each other. The work can feel like a heavy load, you need to have your colleagues to bounce ideas off of.
Lisa Traiger edits From the Green Room, Dance/USA’s online journal, and writes frequently on dance and the performing arts for a variety of publications, including Dance, Dance Teacher, and Washington Jewish Week.
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