Leadership Corner: Rosemary Johnson, Executive Director, Alabama Dance Council


Editor’s note: From the Green Room continues its 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 below or on our Facebook page. 

Finding the Creative Core in Administration

By Lisa Traiger

Rosemary Johnson is executive director of the Alabama Dance Council, a statewide dance service organization working in partnership with the Alabama State Council on the Arts.

Dr. Johnson has a 24-year history as a performing arts presenter – 10 years as a multidisciplinary presenter and 14 years as a dance presenter and producer of the Alabama Dance Festival. She initiated presenting nationally and internationally renowned dance companies at the festival, including Donald Byrd/The Group, Dayton Contemporary Dance Company, North Carolina Dance Theatre, Philadanco, Rennie Harris Puremovement, River North Chicago, Bridgman|Packer Dance, Complexions Contemporary Ballet, Battleworks Dance Company, Merce Cunningham Dance Company as part of the Legacy Tour, Ronald K. Brown/EVIDENCE, Brazz Dance Theatre, Kyle Abraham/Abraham.In.Motion, Koresh Dance Company, and Jessica Lang Dance. Johnson is currently serving as the lead consultant/facilitator for the South Arts’ Dance Touring Initiative, a three-year program offering professional development and block-booking opportunities to dance presenters in the Southeast United States.

As the past chair of the Service Organization Council for Dance/USA, she serves on the Dance/USA Board of Trustees. Johnson served as administrative consultant for the Alabama Ballet from May-September 2011 during the search for a new executive director, and provides administrative oversight for Southern Danceworks, Alabama’s oldest professional modern dance company, as managing director.

Johnson was a participant in the 2004 Leadership Forum at Jacob’s Pillow, is an active member of Dance/USA and the National Dance Education Organization, and regularly attends the National Performance Network’s Annual Meeting as a colleague. The recipient of the 2004 Artist Fellowship in Arts Administration from the Alabama State Council on the Arts, she has served on the NEA’s grant review panel for dance, and on grant panels for South Arts and the Alabama State Council on the Arts.

In addition to her arts administration experience, Dr. Johnson is a professional music educator and performer, with Bachelor of Music, Master of Music, and Doctor of Musical Arts degrees in piano performance. In April 2011, she was the pianist for the Alabama Ballet’s American Masterpieces Program reconstructing two Agnes de Mille ballets, Three Virgins and a Devil and The Other.

Dance/USA: Introduce us to Alabama Dance Council.

Rosemary Johnson: The Alabama Dance Council was founded in 1974 and is a statewide service organization for dance. We have a collaborative partnership with the Alabama State Council on the Arts. We are very fortunate to have the funding for my position, which has given us financial security over the past 16 or 17 years. I’m not raising money for salaries; I’m able to put my fundraising efforts into programming. I feel that partnership is a key element in the successes that we’ve had. The dance council is one of six statewide service organization partnerships supported through the state arts council and the only performing arts position.

D/USA: This is an unusual model from state arts councils, isn’t it?

RJ: Yes. That’s why I always take the opportunity to tell people how visionary it was to take a portion from the arts council budget, which comes from the state legislature, and the Education Trust Fund and allocate a percentage of that budget to support the state service organizations. Through our work, we’re able to spread those dollars further in helping our communities.

We are a hybrid organization: Alabama Dance Council is a service organization with a mission to promote and support dance in the state. Our constituents include private dance studios, public or private school dance programs, college and university dance programs, independent artists, dance nonprofit organizations and some for-profit organizations as well. We serve a wide range of constituents, so we wear a lot of hats. This is something we struggle with: How can we serve everyone and be most effective? That’s our mission, so that’s what we do.  

D/USA: Tell us about your career path and how you came to lead a dance organization.

RJ: When I came on board, I had been working as a presenter in a community college in Selma. My first career was in education. I developed a music program and built a music facility with a concert hall at Wallace Community College in Selma. I realized we should be presenting. That’s how I waltzed into my career as a presenter -- mostly chamber music and jazz and we did about three dance programs. All the events were residency-based: artists would come in for several days and work with the students and the community then perform.

That led me to where I am now in arts administration. I have always enjoyed administration, whether at the college-level where I served as humanities division chair or leading a statewide organization. I like serving in leadership positions. When it came time to retire from teaching, I thought I really would like to go into arts administration full time. I moved into the dance world and that’s been my life since 2002.

When I first became executive director of Alabama Dance Council in 2002, I found that the dance community was not necessarily connected, particularly in the south of the state, where they’re not in major metropolitan areas. It’s really easy for dance organizations and artists to feel isolated and to work in isolation. The council has helped bring everybody to the table to participate as a community in our Alabama Dance Festival. 

D/USA: You come from a music education background. Does that give you a different perspective or point of view when you’re in a room of dancers? Do you bring a different set of skills or a different way of approaching issues important to dancers?

RJ: In getting to know people in the dance field, it’s interesting how many people, whether they’re artistic directors or other administrators, have come from a music background. For me personally, what I love so much about dance is that it’s a visualization of the music -- music brought to life. Because of my knowledge of music, I can appreciate what a choreographer is doing in structuring the choreography. I always look for that relationship. I don’t know if it necessarily gives me special skills. Having been a performer, having been in the classroom, dealing the community outreach and the skills I’ve learned as an arts administrator, that gives me a perspective that new arts administrators who are coming out of a program of arts administration from a college or university, may not have. I do feel that my music experience adds depth and breadth to my appreciation of the work that dance artists do.

D/USA: Is the skill set essentially the same whether you’re running a music, theater or dance organization?  

RJ: I think so. Though I think there are challenges with dance that maybe some of the other disciplines don’t face. I think dance is the least visible of the art forms, particularly in the South. For example, there’s not a lot of exposure to dance here in Alabama and it’s really challenging to develop audiences for dance. 

D/USA: What  challenges do you help your constituents overcome?

RJ: I view it as two different challenges. My first job was just getting connected to the dance community in Alabama. The dance council and the organizations involved were very ballet-centric. I considered it important to diversify and look at who we were including. By opening up the annual festival beyond ballet, it gave me and the board an opportunity to expose students to other genres of dance and give them opportunities to study different techniques and styles that they don’t have in their home studios. Diversity has been a major emphasis as we expand who we serve. 

Trying to raise the visibility of dance has been the other challenge. I feel that we’ve done that. We brought dance companies here to the Alabama festival introducing companies to Birmingham audiences that they wouldn’t been able to see unless they traveled to New York, Chicago or elsewhere. We raised the visibility of dance in the state. We also brought new genres and styles to our dance audiences beyond story ballets. 

It’s a challenge to attract a general audience. Dance Across Birmingham is a day of free dance classes with artists from the local community followed by a showcase performance. It’s a very multicultural event. More than 400 people participate in the classes and 600 or 700 people show up for the performance, so it has been a successful event to raise awareness in the community. It takes place in January because nothing happens in Alabama until after football season is over. Local Alabama dancers and companies perform at the festival and we have a new works concert where choreographers can present pieces at a showcase performance. We now also serve Georgia, Tennessee, and Mississippi as well as Alabama with five performances total, serving about 3,000 people.

D/USA: What tools do you draw from to lead this varied and widespread constituency of diverse dancers, studios and companies? 

RJ: I think being a good facilitator is important and as is simply valuing and respecting all voices at the table. I look at my mission of serving all the dancers and dance organizations in Alabama. We’re not here just to serve a specific group or specific genre of dance. We are here and receive state funding, so we have to follow the guidelines of the state arts council and serve everyone. 

It’s easy to help the board and my constituents understand that every voice is important and every style of dance. Whether dance is your hobby, avocation or you’re a professional, we’re all involved in the joy of movement. Movement is for everyone and we keep that in the forefront of what we do, how we do it and why. And it’s also about simply being willing to listen to what people are saying. They want to be heard and valued for the work that they do. They’re passionate about their work and they appreciate the opportunity to show what they do to a larger audience. This is where I think the Alabama Dance Festival has really helped us as a small community, by putting dance groups on a stage for a professionally produced performance. One ballet folkloric group that performed this past season had never danced on a professional stage before, for example. They typically perform outdoors at festivals or community events. So that opportunity with a  professional tech crew was amazing for them.

D/USA: Can you tell us about Technology of Participation or the TOP method of facilitation and how that impacts your work as a leader?

RJ: I’ve taken two courses in this practice so far. It is a facilitation method developed by the Institute of Cultural Affairs, which focuses on making sure everyone in the room has their voices heard. At the heart of it is the wisdom of the group. It’s not about coming into a room and telling participants what they should be doing; it’s about leading the group to discover what they know inside but may have trouble expressing, or helping them reach a consensus if the people in the room have differing opinions. It’s a way to get different ideas out in the open in a way that is respectful to everyone and then allow the group to decide what the consensus is. I’ve taken two courses in this practice so far. It’s a way of building group consensus and having fruitful conversations. It’s about how to do strategic planning and action planning; there are a variety of ways you can use TOP to find consensus among a group of people or to help a group solve a problem.

D/USA: You spoke about the diversity of your constituency -- geographic, style, genre and more, so this sounds like a useful tool to help bring them together.

RJ: It has been. When I first came on board, we did a strategic plan for the Alabama Dance Council, its first. I worked with M.K. Wegmann, the retired CEO of National Performance Network, on a strategic planning process with my board. This was the method she used, and it’s been helpful to me. I’ve been working with SouthArts on a dance touring initiative using the method in some of our face-to-face meetings with presenters. It has been a great tool and I enjoy building consensus. 

D/USA: What advice can you give the next generation of arts leaders to add to their tool belts? What skills do they need to lead in the 21st century?

RJ: There’s a lot that you can learn in school, but that’s just the beginning. For me, my learning has been primarily on-the-job training. I would encourage young arts administrators to seek out new opportunities as much as they can and try to get a variety of experiences. Another thing I would encourage young administrators to do is avoid job hopping every year. Changing jobs too frequently doesn’t give you a chance to settle in, spread your wings and discover what you can do. I know money is the reason why younger arts workers switch. It’s hard for those young people who are interested in arts administration to stay in arts administration in this part of the country, because we see only entry-level positions and salaries. The lack of mid-management opportunities and salaries is an issue. A lot of young arts administrators have had to leave.

But I think being open to new opportunities and being open and willing to invest yourself into the job is important. Build your skills before you move on to your next job. And go to professional development sessions. Most of what I’ve learned was through conferences and special workshops. A lot of universities offer continuing education courses; it doesn’t have to be a formal degree program, but always seek out learning opportunities. 

D/USA: When you moved into the dance field, what surprised you?

RJ: I  find that dancers are very interesting people to work with. I have had many experiences working with different kinds of musicians, but I did find that dancers are a unique breed and they have a certain way of thinking about things and that was the biggest adjustment for me.

D/USA: Did that change the way you did some things? Noting how they think differently, say, from musicians?

RJ: I feel like I need to be more aware of where they’re coming from and trying to understand their motivations and their way of thinking and not just react, because they’re thinking isn’t like mine. Being thoughtful when there are difficult reactions and different interactions is also important

D/USA: What has been the hardest lesson you learned?

RJ: I think just to have confidence in my ability as a leader and in my approach or thought process or my ideas. You have to learn to respect yourself before others respect you. 

For me, too, it was recognizing that as an administrator there’s so much creativity in my own work. Artists always talk about creative abilities, but administration is an art, too, and I get a lot of satisfaction and inspiration out of my work and the creative thought I put into what I do. It can be just as creative as what a choreographer puts into her piece or a dancer’s work in developing their technique and their personal creative expression. We all have to use our creative selves in this field. The hardest thing for me was learning to appreciate my creative self and have confidence in what I could do. I value my training as an artist and musician. I believe that has helped me become the administrator I am. That would be another suggestion to young administrators: don’t neglect you own artmaking, regardless of the level. Just being creative in that way can enhance your creative ability as an administrator. I firmly believe that. 

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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