I have been depressed lately at the lack of spark and creativity I observe from many of our arts organizations. It seems that the leadership--in many cases people like me who have been in the field for twenty years or more--has gotten tired, conservative and frightened. We have become so scared that we won't balance our budgets that we forget that taking risk is a central requisite for arts making. We do not have to succeed every time. But if we never risk, we will never create the important, surprising projects that make people sit up and take notice of our work.
Just as I was feeling very pessimistic, I had a site visit to Dance NYC, a very small but remarkable service organization in New York City. Michelle Burkhart, the head of the organization has many potent ideas about ways to support the dance community.
One of her most interesting ventures is the Youth Advisory Committee. This is a group of young people, ages 18-30, who are all involved with the world of dance as dancers, administrators, choreographers or presenters. They help the organization mount special projects. For example, the group managed a town hall meeting to discuss ways the younger and older generations of dance lovers and dance professionals could collaborate in the future.
I had a chance to meet with most of the members of the group during my site visit. They are all smart, knowledgeable and dedicated to the dance field.
They asked me very smart and penetrating questions about a range of topics: ways presenters could engage more audience members of their generation, arts funding trends in Europe, trends that threaten the dance and larger arts world, etc.
We spent a great deal of time discussing the importance of mentors. I mentioned that I advise all of my arts management fellows at the Kennedy Center to look for jobs where they will have the benefit of a boss who is also a mentor. Like dance itself, which has survived because one generation of dancer/teachers mentors the next, arts management will only build as a field if one generation of managers provides the leadership for the next.
Arts managers tend to work in rather isolated circumstances. Those young managers working in large organizations typically focus on one small segment of the work of that organization without access to many others on staff. Those in very small organizations typically have access to very few people. It is hard under these circumstances to find the support, encouragement and information needed to build a satisfying career.
What Michelle has developed is a method that allows a group of young, smart, ambitious managers to learn from her and from each other. She is a perfect mentor: smart, focused, mature and experienced. And she has the generosity of spirit to make time for twenty twenty-year-olds who will one day lead our field.
These young mangers are not afraid of new ideas, new concepts and new projects. They take risks daily and seem energized by the possibilities of the future.
I left Dance NYC feeling much more optimistic about the future of dance.