Leadership Corner: Denise Saunders Thompson, President and CEO, International Association of Blacks in Dance

Working for the Next Generation

By Lisa Traiger

Denise Saunders Thompson

Photo credit: David Harty

Denise Saunders Thompson, president and CEO of the International Association of Blacks in Dance (IABD), has extensive experience in non-profit and for-profit, established or start-up organizations. She has advised organizations on administrative, programmatic and fundraising issues including strategic plans, policy and procedures, communications programs, budgeting and contracts. In addition to serving as president and CEO of IABD, a non-profit service organization, Denise also helms D.d.Saunders & Associates, Inc., a comprehensive fine arts advisory firm offering artist management/representation, arts producing, consulting, and production services. She currently serves as an adjunct professorial lecturer for American University’s Graduate Arts Management Degree Program. In April 2015, Saunders Thompson completed 17 years of service at Howard University in the capacities of professor, theatre manager/producing artistic director for the Department of Theatre Arts and manager of Cramton Auditorium. 

Denise is co-founder of PlayRight Performing Arts Center, Inc., a non-profit arts organization in Atlanta, Georgia, and former business manager for The Malone Group, Inc., a non-profit arts organization in Washington, D.C. that co-produced Black Nativity at The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts for six years. She currently serves on the Board of Trustees for Dance/USA and Friends of Theatre and Dance at Howard University. She is also a member of Actors Equity Association (AEA) and Women of Color in the Arts (WOCA).

Freelancing in the Washington, D.C., metropolitan area and across the nation in production and arts management, Thompson has held positions at The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, Debbie Allen Dance Academy, Alliance Theatre Company, National Black Arts Festival, 1996 Olympic Arts Festival, 1996 Olympics, Lincoln Theatre, Several Dancers Core, the Atlanta Dance Initiative, Mark Taper Forum, the Shakespeare Theatre at the Folger, and Harrah’s Marina Hotel Casino among other numerous positions. In addition, she is a grant recipient of the National Endowment for the Arts, Smithsonian Institution National Museum of African Art, DC Commission on the Arts and Humanities, and the St. Paul Companies. Thompson holds an M.F.A. in Arts Producing and Management from the University of California, Los Angeles, and a B.F.A. in Theatre Arts Administration from Howard University.

Dance/USA: You have a family lineage of performers in your background.

Denise Saunders Thompson: Yes. My family on my mother’s side are performers. Before my mother was a music teacher in the Hartford (Conn.) public schools, she was actually a lounge singer. My grandmother was also a singer. So the performing arts, specifically music, were part of my lineage, my upbringing. I started dancing at a very young age and that’s what I love to do. When I matriculated into middle and high school, I discovered musical theater and, because I sang, I was able to put the singing and dancing together. There, at East Catholic High School in Manchester, Conn., I made the decision to really pursue performing.

D/USA: Relatively early you decided to pursue stage work.

D.S.T.: I knew I was going to an HBCU (Historically Black College or University). There was no other choice for me — my mom went to Howard University where she graduated from the music program. … I ended up going to Howard, where I was the very first musical theater major. After my first year, I began to learn about the business of the arts and I knew that I didn’t want to gig for the rest of my life. I wanted to have a different lifestyle and a steadier income.

D/USA: After graduating from the theater arts administration program, what was next?

D.S.T.: After Howard I went to UCLA and earned my master’s degree in arts producing and management. I thought at one point I was going to stay in L.A., but when the ground began to move — I was there during the Northridge quake — that made my decision very easy. I was in L.A. for two years. I did an internship at Mark Taper Forum, but after I received my master’s degree, I moved back to the East Coast.

The first place I landed was Atlanta, Georgia, in 1996 because the Olympics were coming and they were hiring. The Olympic Arts Festival was part of the Olympics. I worked as ticket manager at the Woodruff Arts Center — my very first job coming out of UCLA. Later I worked at Several Dancers Core as general manager and also at the Alliance Theatre Company as special events manager, working with Kenny Leon when he was artistic director there.

D/USA: Did you feel well-prepared to work in the arts with your educational background?

D.S.T.: I did because when I was at UCLA the producers’ program didn’t lock you down to one specific area of concentration. The degree covered theater, film, and television, which was pretty amazing. This particular program now has evolved into just film and television but … I know I came out with a really strong sense of arts administration. For my final thesis I had to create a full production, from start to finish with my classmates — hiring, writing the script, marketing, budgeting; it was the full scope of producing an event or a major production. I was able to take what I learned and put it right into action. My education gave me a really solid foundation.

D/USA: What challenges did you face as you progressed in your career and how did you deal with them?

D.S.T.: The biggest challenge was certainly what you hear a lot about now because women are more vocal. Being a woman in business, and particularly being a black woman, was challenging. For my first job at the Alliance Theatre Company as the special events manager, I had to prove my worth and a major part of that was raising part of my own salary. I don’t necessarily know if everyone, say a white male in the industry, would have had the same experience or have faced the same challenges that I did. In the South, Kenny Leon was certainly breaking barriers at the Alliance … I think there were maybe two or three black people working in the Alliance offices, that I can recall. That was in the mid-90s.

D/USA: Have you seen the field change and evolve or do you continue to see the same issues of lack of equity and inclusion?

D.S.T.: Thinking about where we are today, there’s definitely been some change.… That was more than 20 years ago…. There were just a few black women in [leadership positions in] the performing arts, particularly on the business side, who I had the opportunity to look up to. Those faces were not the faces that you would see on a daily basis running the largest arts institutions. I applied for positions; I got turned down, a lot. You know, getting hired by the Alliance Theatre Company and being told, “Yes, we’ll hire you, but we want you to raise part of your salary,” was difficult. I did that for three years then Howard University called and a former theater professor of mine, Al Freeman Jr., invited me to return to the university and run the program I graduated from.

I felt like I had a foundation and apparently my mentor felt like I had the skills to come back and bring the wealth of knowledge and information that I had gained to teach the students. At 27, I was the youngest teacher they had ever hired. I stayed there for 17, 18 years, but also kept my foot in the door of the real world. I created my own company and was doing management and production work on the side as an equity stage manager. I was very active in keeping my skills up to par and continuing my professional development while I was also able to teach it to students at the same time.

D/USA: Particularly in the past couple of years at IABD, you’ve had a bird’s eye view of the field. How would you describe the current state of the dance field?

D.S.T.: At IABD we are doing what we call race work. What I mean is that diversity, equity and inclusion are top of mind for everyone in this country and in other countries. There’s a global shift that’s happening. So the glass — I don’t know if it’s half full or half empty. Right now, it’s really mixed up. It’s mixed with progressive thinking, with old thinking, with bad thinking…. I’m hopeful because I’m an optimist in that people are really about the change that they speak of. In some areas of the field you do see movement, but I feel like there could be so much more. Even so, I have learned that even the start of a conversation is a starting point. It’s a point of entry to begin to change and think differently.

For the fact that people are having the conversation [on diversity, equity and inclusion], I give them credit. But I do want more. I want people to really evolve and think differently about the systemic issues and problems that we have in this society that keep people from realizing their full potential, that keep organizations from much needed resources, and that also keep us from speaking to one another and having conversations together. A divide still exists but I’m hoping in my son’s lifetime, there will be some real change. My son is a middle schooler. I’m working for him.

D/USA: Why did you decide to leave your tenured faculty position to take the helm of IABD?

D.S.T.: Most people don’t know this, but actually IABD came to me. Dr. Sherrill Berryman Johnson approached me about working with her on IABD when I came back to Howard in 1997 as an instructor. She had just taken on the chairmanship of the organization and asked if I would assist her with the administrative operations. I had first learned about IABD as a student. When I came back, I actually worked as a consultant, assisting Dr. Johnson, and later I was in the boardroom for many, many years — taking minutes and assisting her with running the organization as a volunteer. I built the first website for the organization, helped with the membership, helped when the 2003 Conference and Festival was produced jointly by Howard University and her company, Images of Cultural Artistry, all as a volunteer. In 2017, I was appointed president and CEO and was one of the first people to receive a paycheck from the organization.

D/USA: Can you discuss how you prepared an all-volunteer organization to transform into a national service organization with an annual budget of more than $600,000. What helped prepare IABD for this rapid growth?

D.S.T.: That’s a good question. We were ready. The board of directors and the people who have supported the organization and its Conference and Festival for so many years were ready. I was the one to say, “I am going to take the leap of faith and really push to make this happen.” The structure and infrastructure weren’t there, but there were models as to how it operates. These models were developed and created by the Board of Directors with the help of consultant Charmaine Jefferson and others. IABD is fortunate to have an extensive archive of which I am the caretaker. And in this rich and bountiful archive, I have been able to dive in and read the minutes of board meetings, reports, journals, articles, previous conference and festival events, and history of IABD. The blueprint was already there, the founding members of this organization left a very clear pathway for someone to follow and implement and that someone is now me. To say it’s been volunteer-led for 28, 30 years is really wonderful. I feel like I’m just the person who has the ability and resources to put what everybody talked about into practice.

D/USA: You taught college students for many years. Now you’re working with a young staff at IABD. What skills do you see that young arts administrators need for the field in the 21st century? Are there areas where they’re lacking or where they need more training or focus?

D.S.T.: It’s interesting you ask that. We have a program called the Learning Magnet, which is a professional development program I started a couple of years ago with funding from Doris Duke Charitable Foundation. The Learning Magnet is specifically targeted for our next generation leaders and it does absolutely help them with areas like financial management: like knowing that your body is your business. If a dancer is injured, they’re not working. But while they’re convalescing what other skill sets do they have that they can rely on to earn a living? This program helps our young people with that and helps them think about managing not only themselves, but their bodies and the business in a different way. It has modules on communications and marketing, and operations. Some are managing their own companies or doing project-based work, so we also address hiring people or contracting. We are providing them with the ability to have these types of experiences and information to move their businesses and their organizations along.

D/USA: You also encounter young artists who are burned out or frustrated by the gig economy and the uncertainty of auditions. What do you say to them?

D.S.T.: This will sound like a cliché, but first decide if this “life” is what you really want and desire. If this is what you are most passionate about and are willing to invest and make sacrifices, then STAY IN IT. This is a highly competitive field and you must be ready at all times which means that you are working on your craft, consistently and at all time. And an audition is not always on the marley floor. It’s also in the office, behind the scenes, and sometimes in being at the right place, at the right time. DON’T GIVE UP.

Most people do want to stay in the field if they’re artists. If you’re passionate about the art, I believe that if you have an opportunity to work in another area, you’re able to apply your love in a different way. That’s how I feel about arts administration. I feel like even though I wanted to perform, arts administration was really my calling. All my other experiences led me here. This is absolutely my calling. It’s in my blood. It’s in my essence. It’s who I am. I’m a straight up Virgo — detailed, organized, all that. I know myself, and, no, I couldn’t do the auditioning and all the gigging. That just wasn’t for me. But I have mad love for all of these young people who are out there, who make it, who have opportunities to be on stage. I want to support you. I want to make the decisions and I want to be in a position to help you further your dreams. That’s what really brings me joy.

Lisa Traiger

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.


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