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APAP 2014: Six Things the Performing Arts Should Be Talking About in 2014

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If you work in the performing arts, and this is the first time you've read one of my annual lists, here's a quick primer:

Every year around APAP, I select a number of topics that I feel the performing arts world should be discussing. I began this list because I was frequently disappointed by panel discussions missing the point on certain key topics or missing those key topics all together. So, consider this list an agenda for my fantasy arts conference, while I feel slightly ashamed that I have an agenda for a fantasy arts conference.

Last year's list upheld its track record for pinpoint prognostication, as the key topics all delivered in 2013. Some highlights:

#2 on the list was Oregon Ballet Theater and the new artistic director, which included suggestions of merging with another company and that the small company's classically focused rep was artistically "treading water" and therefore they should look to Miami City Ballet's hiring of Lourdes Lopez as inspiration for Christopher Stowell's replacement. After publication, it was quickly shared with me that a merger had been lightly discussed (although to be fair, that was kind of a "gimme"), but when they announced Lopez's number two at Morphoses, Kevin Irving as the new artistic director, it gave Oregon Ballet Theater something it didn't have two years ago: a path to the future.

In a world where audiences can access their choice of dance on demand, a $4 to $5 million classical ballet company is going to look weak compared to the global powerhouses, which is why I maintain a cautious outlook towards regional companies with traditional rep. But a $4 to $5 million contemporary company? Well, that pairs OBT's new artistic heft with relative financial strength, placing them in the same league as Hubbard Street and Cedar Lake, two of the finest contemporary companies in the world. The dance field should be excited to see how this company evolves over the coming years.

In topic #4,Purging the NEA Portfolio/Funder Driven Innovation, I suggested that the NEA approach their current portfolio with a hatchet, and make a firm decision to eliminate funding to 10 or 15 percent of its portfolio organizations. This would allow the NEA to provide more and greater opportunities to new organizations who may be better suited to succeed in today's climate.

Reinvigorating funding portfolios is happening around the world. In the UK, which is seemingly the largest exporter of culture to America (Downton Abbey, Sleep No More, War Horse), the Arts Council is about to embark on their second funding cycle where regularly funded organizations are at risk of losing their core support. The thought of eliminating long standing organizations is always a tough decision to make, but one that must begin to happen here.

Onto this year's list:

#1: Healthcare/The Affordable Care Act
Artist healthcare was #1 on the list last year, and remains this year. While I'm happy to see that Dance/USA is dedicating this year's Dance Forum at APAP to the topic, there is still a concern about whether or not small arts organizations are going to view the Affordable Care Act as something that has lifted a burden from them, or take the opportunity to learn about options outside the individual market and take pride in providing the best solutions possible for their artists.

Last year, I wrote that funders should play a role in the performing arts' self-regulation: "If an organization is not providing or making a reasonable contribution to health care coverage for its artists over the course of a proposed project, then that project should not be considered for support." I still believe this to be true, and would set an initial guideline of a contribution of $200 per month for part-time dancers (20 hours a week) and of course, full coverage for essentially full-time dancers.

#2: Speaking Out
It's odd to think that, in a field where passion and communication are the two most important core functions, that within field discussions, virtually no one is willing to speak their mind when vital industry initiatives take a wrong turn. At no time was this more evident than when the selected projects were announced for the second round of Engaging Dance Audiences.

When EDA was first announced, it was supposed to be a way for dance companies to react to "changes in audience behavior" and "catapult the dance field forward", and find new ways to develop audiences for dance. Ultimately, four years later, the project portfolio consists almost exclusively of variations on the tried and tired pre- and post-show talk. As a result, the field will have made virtually no progress on this very important front.

This is not the fault of any individual or organization. This is the fault of every person, myself included, that has watched this program run its course and who has bitten his or her tongue so as not to risk offending.

Engaging dance audiences needs to be the tip of the dance field's innovation spear, and many of us hope it will fulfill this mission by becoming Dance/USA's ongoing vehicle for risk taking, for looking at audiences around the world and asking "why isn't this person coming into the theater." But for EDA, or any industry-wide innovation initiative to be a success, there has a willingness to participate in open dialogue, where constructive criticism can be made and failure can be embraced, pursued and learned from. In 2014, let's open the discussion so that we can all move forward.

#3 The Trey McIntyre Project
The Trey McIntyre Project broke the mold. They moved to Boise. They engaged their community. In the five years between 2007 and 2011 (according to data available on Guidestar), they increased their grants and contributions from $121,000 to $1.4 million.

On Jan. 6th, a mere year and a half after they moved into a giant new space and stated "We think of ourselves as a national or international company" and only 12 hours after they were mentioned as one of the "great and better known American companies" in the Jacob's Pillow season announcement, a second press release went out from the Pillow announcing that these performances would be the company's last.

That the handling of perhaps the most important announcement in TMP's history was handled so sloppily by the company, indicates that TMP is not boldly moving into a new creative direction, as they are trying to spin. Instead, Nigel left the band in a lurch and now they're talking about doing a free-form jazz exploration in front of a festival crowd.

The Trey McIntyre Project's accomplishments over the last five years are virtually without equal among their performing arts peers. They succeeded where others failed, and at times made it look painfully easy. This is why after all the industry speak about why this move worked, and why it was such a success story, we need full disclosure as to why it didn't and why it wasn't, because the next great company will almost certainly build upon the foundation TMP laid.

#4 Algorithms as The New Gatekeeper
In our annual APAP contribution to DanceUSA's Inside the Green Room blog, we discuss (in fairly great detail), the importance of YouTube to the arts discovery process, and what arts organizations need to do to participate in that process. The broader point to be discussed is this: we have transitioned away from a paradigm where newspaper critics act as the gatekeeper between art and audiences to a new reality where algorithms perform that function. This is not to say that writers no longer serve a purpose -- they can be the major contribution to the dialogue, but the degree to which they and other groups are empowered to participate in that dialogue is determined not by the prestige of the publication or the eloquence of language, but by their skill in adapting that vocabulary to the rules established by lines of code.

#5 Stagehands
This is a topic that is hard to broach diplomatically, but fortunately the New York Times already opened the door. Within the non-profit performing arts in America, there is a critical mass of venues that have contracts with their stagehands that are so unforgiving and unreasonable, notably in their handling of media use, that they may threaten the viability of the live performing arts in America. When someone films a video blog in the lobby of a theater and is threatened with a mid-five figure charge to cover the stagehands' media fee, the situation is beyond reason.

This is not to paint the unions as the bad guys here, and hopefully, they will actively participate in finding a solution. The real burden lies with the non-profit arts organizations. Currently, they don't have a lot of leverage when acting independently -- they are typically short-term or secondary tenants of the theaters in which they perform. Therefore, it is their responsibility to organize, just as the Broadway producers have done, and push these issues on to the agenda.

When a big international company can reach hundreds of thousands of viewers in cinemas around the world for less than it costs their American counterparts to simply secure the stagehands' buyouts, it does not bode well for the future health of the domestic performing arts sector. The consequences for maintaining the status quo are simply too enormous to ignore.

#6: Dance New Amsterdam
The bankruptcy and eventual closing of Dance New Amsterdam may be the single biggest black eye on the non-profit arts sector from 2013, and will have implications for years to come. Yes, there were some horrendous decisions made by the earlier management in the move to the new space after 9/11, and then in dealing with the financial problems that later arose.

After the earlier leadership was replaced, the effort put in to right the ship by DNA's last Executive Director, Kate Peila, was nothing short of herculean. DNA kept pressing forward and by its end days had streamlined its operating model to where there was a clear path to operating sustainability. Unfortunately, in the eyes of those who were in the best position to come to the rescue, the emphasis on the impact of bad decisions made by a different team a decade ago outweighed the real potential of Peila's efforts to create a successful and vibrant hub for creativity and performance in lower Manhattan.

We know the loss of DNA will hurt the non-profit arts community in a variety of ways. We fear that the way in which it will hurt the most is for something we have not yet considered.

This blog post was submitted prior to the announcement that Gina Gibney would be acquiring the DNA space. Although it almost goes with out saying, this development is positively thrilling.