Taking Over the Family Business
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.
Malik Robinson is the executive director of Cleo Parker Robinson Dance (CPRD), a not-for-profit cultural arts institution based in Denver, Colo. An internationally recognized arts organization, CPRD has served as a leader in preserving the rich heritage of legendary American modern dance choreographers. The organization is also distinguished for its arts-in-education and arts advocacy work.
During his tenure with CPRD, Robinson led organizational efforts to host the Annual International Association of Blacks in Dance Conference in 1999, 2009, and 2016. He was responsible for securing award-winning international tours to Israel, Italy, and Egypt for the Cleo Parker Robinson Dance Ensemble (CPRDE). As the booking manager for CPRDE, Robinson successfully secured funding from national foundations for new-work creation and tour support. He also booked and managed national tours to an average of 15 cities annually.
Through his dedication to education and the arts, Robinson created the after-school program Aye (Yoruba for “life”), serving high-risk youth in northeast Denver. Through partnerships with diversionary programs and probation departments, the project served an average of 125 teens per year. In 2015, Robinson initiated efforts to forge the Bachelor in Dance program in partnership with Metropolitan State University of Denver. The dance major is the first offered by any institution of higher learning in Denver.
As the primary fund developer for CPRD, Robinson recently led the organization in a successful $1 million capacity-building campaign in addition to a $250,000 renovation project in the historic CPRD headquarters. He was also the CPRD lead in forming the partnership with the Denver Housing Authority in the acquisition of $20 million award from the Department of Housing and Urban Development. That grant supported the redevelopment of dilapidated housing that formerly surrounded the organization. Under his direction, CPRD has evolved into an anchor cultural institution and destination for dance in Denver with more than 25,000 visitors annually.
Dance/USA: You have a unique background in the dance field: You grew up in the family business, literally. You’ve never not known the company and you’ve never not known your mom, Cleo Parker Robinsonn, as a choreographer, arts leader and executive in the dance world.
Malik Robinson: That’s right. And my father, too. Although he was a high school math teacher for 30 years and he was also the business manager for the company. He did it as a volunteer. He had one full-time job, a part-time weekend job as an NCAA football official, and managed the company. So my entre was through my dad. While I was still in college, I started writing grants for the company. I found it an easy transition: I was used to writing term papers. But my intention then was to become a teacher and follow in my father’s footsteps. I started working for the organization in 1997, writing grants, and graduated from college in ’99. Using my background in education, I worked on launching an after school program where I grew up in northeast Denver, an area -- like many other cities – fraught with drugs, gangs, poverty and violence. I was happy to see how successful we were with kids from my neighborhood.
Then I left [the company]. I got my real estate license and was flipping houses.
What brought me back to the company full time was seeing all the effort and energy and passion my parents had invested in the African-American community in Denver with this company. I felt this real, visceral obligation to return, to move it forward.
During my initial time there, I was looking to make way for someone else to come in and take the helm. In 2006, with some successful proposals we had the best year in the organization’s history to date. Within a year the company was back in dire straits.
D/USA: What happened?
M.R.: The challenges we faced were never an issue of artistic quality. The company continued to receive international recognition and we went out on numerous tours with a robust body of artistic work. The challenge was one of capacity: We had three administrative staff handling simply a ton of work and we were not doing a great job communicating with our funders and our constituency. My intention was to rebuild a coalition of supporters through increased contact and communication that focused on keeping foundations and individual donors connected with our work.
By 2012-14, we had rebounded, though we were still working with a very small administrative staff. [Here, Robinson pauses and takes a deep breath.] It’s tough to share this. I missed a deadline for a major yearly grant. I failed to include one item in the proposal, which disqualified us from the grant. It was at that point that I realized we were facing a major capacity issue. Something had to change. We went into a phase of strategic planning with a goal of raising our budget to the $1 million mark in three years. We received a $250,000 grant and I hustled for the other three quarters of a million.
D/USA: Thank you for sharing what so many would consider a disaster and an embarrassment. For you it was a learning opportunity. Tell us about what you learned.
M.R.: By 2014, out of that strategic planning process, I became executive director. Initially I thought that if I put my head down, just by the merit of doing the work, the company would be successful. Then I started to think about all of the dance companies that are no longer in existence, and I realized I had to make sure I was out there telling our story. There are so many people in the field and in the community who only know one part of what Cleo Parker Robinson Dance is about. We have extraordinary educational programs, extraordinary choreography, international touring …. We began the work of sharing our stories about the impact of the organization. That required that I tap into other people besides Cleo and me to tell those stories.
D/USA: That’s a good place to ask about succession. As a single artist-driven company founded in 1970, it must be on your mind. In fact, Cleo danced her last public performance of Katherine Dunham’s “Barrelhouse Blues” in the fall of 2018, which was a longtime signature work. How are you and your parents planning for the company’s future?
M.R.: Structurally we have an associate artistic director and a rehearsal director now, which wasn’t the case in the company’s early years. We’ve always had a technical director and one of the former company members has been brought back onto the artistic team. Together that team is involved in planning and thinking about what the future should look like artistically. We want to continue to dignify and honor Cleo’s contribution and position and [with these new team members] it has allowed her to work outside of the company on commissioned works, including one recently with Colorado Ballet. That gives more responsibility to the associate artistic director and rest of the artistic team. And Cleo has been discovering new artistic outlets and opportunities.
If we’re serious about this organization living beyond the family – and we are – we have to trust these leadership roles to other people while we’re still around so the company is not left in the lurch.
D/USA: What advice would you give to someone who wants to pursue a career in art administration?
M.R.: Because there’s been a focus in recent years on diversity and equity, I’m seeing more programs, internships and fellowships offering a lot of entry points for young arts administrators. I’m also seeing more partnerships between arts organizations that are supporting staff and leadership development. Right here in Denver there’s a group of about 20 arts organizations that have come together to create an internship program. There are more and more programs like that around the country and [young arts administrators] should take advantage of them.
D/USA: As you’re beginning to think about moving forward and taking the helm of Dance/USA’s Board of Trustees, where do you see the field’s successes?
M.R.: What comes to mind is that where we’re most successful where we’re also most challenged. With activities and programs that are focusing on equity through organizations like IABD (International Association of Blacks in Dance) and others, there’s a growing awareness and recognition of organizations that may have been marginalized in the past. We’re now seeing an investment in these organizations’ infrastructures coming from the foundation level. That’s a real success story. Another example from right here in Denver is a $9 million fund that is meant to go to greater Denver area organizations of color over the next 12 years for programming and capacity building.
D/USA: And where is the field still challenged?
M.R.: It’s the same conversation. The challenge is that we’re just beginning to see the impacts of these equity grants and equity studies in the field. We’re still too early in the process to know where we will be. Therefore, we have to remain cognizant and continue to work on the demographics of arts organizations, because many have still not changed much. The equity gap is still huge and not all grantmakers are prioritizing support of arts organizations with equity in mind. We need to make sure we don’t take any backwards steps and keep moving forward.
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, Washington Jewish Week and DCDanceWatcher.
1st image: Courtesy of Malik Robinson
2nd and 3rd images: Cleo Parker Robinson Dance. Photo by Jerry Metellus
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The opinions and views expressed in this article are the author's and do not reflect the opinions and views of Dance/USA.