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Choreographing the money dance.

The Dance Theatre of Harlem and the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater gear up for the performance of a lifetime --fund raising in a post -recession economy.

In 1990, at the height of its artistic powers, one of America's leading dance companies laid off its dancers and technical staff, closed the doors of its famous ballet school and canceled the remainder of its performance season. The dance world and the African-American community were stunned when Arthur Mitchell, artistic director of the world-renowned Dance Theatre of Harlem (DTH), announced that the company he had founded in a Harlem garage in 1968 was on the verge of bankruptcy.

DTH was projecting a $1.7 million deficit for its 1989-90 fiscal year when major engagements in Europe and California were unexpectedly canceled. A weakened economy meant fewer sponsors for engagements. Government and foundation grants were down and individual and corporate contributions were not what they had been during the boom times of the '70s and '80s. Without cash reserves (not unusual among arts organizations) and minus the expected revenue from ticket sales, the company could not meet its payroll.

Bailed out of immediate danger by emergency grants from American Express Travel Related Services Co., the Lila Wallace-Reader's Digest Fund, the Schubert Foundation and concerned citizens, DTH was on its toes again six months later. But, emergency grants were only a temporary solution to its financial problems. The near demise of the dance company that one critic called a "national treasure" sounded a warning for all performing arts companies throughout the country.

Although the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater has never had to cancel a season, it too faces fiscal problems. In 1988, the company was left nearly homeless when the 10-year lease expired on its Times Square studios, and the company could not pay the new rental fee. Scrambling to find affordable office and rehearsal space, the company signed a 15-year lease on two floors of a former warehouse in the Lincoln Center area on Manhattan's westside. The move, though costing $500,000 in renovations and moving expenses, reduced Ailey's rent by 14%.

In December 1989, soon after the move and just days before the opening of the company's annual month-long engagement at New York's City Center Theater, Alvin Ailey, the company's founder, artistic director and visionary, died. His death was a blow to the morale of a company that some reviewers said was floundering artistically. But, his successor, Judith Jamison, a former Ailey dancer for whom the dance master choreographed some of his greatest works, took up the mantle a year later by becoming the artistic director. Although the fiscal responsibility for the Dance Theater Foundation--Alvin Ailey's parent organization--is in the hands of executive director, Michael Kaiser, the two share the power of day-to-day management of the company. Jamison has imposed her own standards of excellence while remaining true to what she calls "the vision, the genius of Alvin Ailey."

Her task will not be easy, however; the challenges facing Ailey, like those confronting DTH are enormous. Most arts and nonprofit organizations are not run like businesses. Both organizations have amassed over the past 10 years a deficit of more than $1 million. Government funding--formerly a large portion of both company's funds--has evaporated, leaving gaps in operating income. Even the New York State Council on the Arts (NYSCA), a major source of government funding for both organizations, has suffered a severe drop in income, from an alltime high of $54.9 million to its current $28.2 million for fiscal year 1991-92. At the same time, competition for private-sector contributions has increased. The rapid growth of both companies during the '70s and '80s increased their fiscal and physical needs for funds and space. For both organizations, survival depends upon fiscal solvency, a diversified base of support, creative fund-raising techniques, improved management systems and long-range strategic planning.

Balancing The Balance Sheet

"The decision to cancel the rest of the '89-90 season was a painful one for Arthur Mitchell," says Anthony Turney, former executive director of DTH. "But he knew we had no choice. We agreed that the best course of action was to be completely honest about our financial situation. In times of crisis, honesty works for corporations and political figures; it should work for arts organizations, too," says Turney.

"Our problems had nothing to do with mismanagement," Mitchell maintains. "This was a series of events we had no control over. Our board of directors decided it was more responsible to cancel the season than to finish the year with a huge deficit."

Outside organizations, such as the National Arts Stabilization Fund (NASF)--a nonprofit educational and grant institution founded in 1983 to give technical assistance in the areas of financial management and long-range planning--agree. In fact, for most arts organizations the size of Ailey or DTH, the issue is not mismanagement, but not enough staff and management personnel to support the structure. In general, both companies are lean on staff, particularly in the finance, development and marketing department, the key areas responsible for fund-raising, securing engagements and ensuring the company's financial stability.

For Mitchell, the hardest part of the decision was telling his dancers about the 15-week layoff. "I consider them my family, and I felt like a father who couldn't support his children," he says.

For dancers like Karen Brown, the cancellation was a shock. "If Mr. Mitchell hadn't told us himself, we wouldn't have believed it," recalls Brown, a principal dancer who joined DTH 17 years ago. "A company like this touches so many lives, nurtures so many souls--it was just inconceivable for us to fold."

Press accounts of DTH's near demise unleashed a wave of support. Private donors contributed nearly $50,000, in amounts as small as one dollar, to save the company. A $1 million emergency grant from the Lila Wallace-Reader's Digest Fund provided immediate relief with the first $600,000 earmarked for its immediate debts, bank notes and other loan payments due at that time. Upon satisfying the terms of the first installment, the second installment of $400,000 was given for 1991 operating expenses including dancers' salaries.

The American Express Travel Related Services Co. pledged an unrestricted grant of $1 million to be given in annual installments of $250,000 over four years, in addition to another $250,000 in marketing support and other services. Three other organizations, The Shubert Foundation ($200,000), the New York State Council on the Arts ($50,000) and Chase Manhattan Bank ($50,000), awarded "challenge grants," which required the company to raise a sum equal to the amount donated. The National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) awarded a challenge grant of $400,000 in which DTH is required to raise $1.6 million in matching funds by September 1992, of which $90,000 must be used to reduce its mortgage with the balance used for a building-expansion project the company is undertaking in 1992. The actual grant, however, must be used to eliminate DTH's deficit, which the company projects will be done by the end of the grant term.

Likewise, Judith Jamison is also committed to strengthening the financial position of The Dance Theater Foundation--the name under which Ailey is funded. Together with Kaiser, she has launched a $1.5 million fund-raising campaign designed to make up for the deficits in government funding and erase some of the company's historic debt.

The Ailey operating budget for 1990-91 was $6.6 million. That figure grew by 9% to $7.3 million for the 1991-92 fiscal year, which began in July. Earned income from ticket sales and tuition fees accounts for 71% of the total budget--a higher-than-average ratio for arts organizations. The reason? The Ailey principal dance company spends most of its time on the road; less than four weeks annually is spent in its New York City headquarters. It is also much less expensive for a modern dance company to tour than a neoclassical ballet company such as DTH. And, because of its international stature, Ailey faces less competition from other modern dance companies when securing engagements.
 Alvin Ailey Dance
 Dance Theatre
Expenses Theater of Harlem
Salaries/benefits $3,590,256 $4,055,338
College work study/ 250,339
 tuition assistance
Office/studio/theater rental 602,724 208,470
Equipment/supplies/ 160,315 326,350
Travel 1,094,103 482,768
Property taxes/insurance 37,796 75,107
Communications/publicity 486,860 268,206
Sets/production 401,321 263,475
Miscellaneous 120,293 85,447
TOTAL EXPENSES $6,493,668 $6,015,500
TOTAL INCOME $6,646,982 $6,015,500
Surplus $ 153,314 $ 0
Sources: Alvin Ailey Dance Theater Foundation and Dance Theatre of Harlem, New Y
ork, N.Y., 1991.

"Our great strength," says Kaiser, "is that we tour as much as any dance company in the world. We tour Europe every year. And [Illegible Word] year, we will spend four weeks at the Olympics in Spain."

To stay within budget, Jamison has kept the company at 29 dancers, instead of the 35 she considers optimal. Dancers earn an average salary of $650 per week, plus benefits for the length of their contract.

At DTH, the average dancer's salary is $587 per week, plus benefits. The company employs 48 dancers. "A neoclassical dance company can't be any smaller than that, so we have to find other ways to tighten the budget," says Peter Hansen, DTH's director of marketing and development. Donations of printing, advertising and other in-kind services have helped the company to keep its annual operating budget at $6 million for the third consecutive year.

But dancers' salaries are not the only expenses. There are salaries and benefits for the other 100 plus staffers; payroll taxes and disability insurance to pay; office and studio rental fees; mortgages and property taxes; utility and telephone bills; travel and per diem expenses connected with performances; and production costs. All are costs that any business would encounter, in spite of each company's 501(c)(3) status as a nonprofit organization.

Forging New Partnerships

Both DTH and Ailey have embarked on strategic planning processes designed to balance artistic and financial goals. Their common objectives include reducing debt, building endowments, strengthening its boards of directors, and above all, attracting new sources of funding through partnership with corporate donors.

To achieve these goals, both Ailey and DTH have asked for help from NASF to put improved management and budgetary procedures into place. Two of 15 arts organizations in New York City to be nominated for financial and technical assistance, both company's structures--from financial management to long-range artistic and management structure--are being examined before NASF will commit any funds. It is, however, in the initial stages of evaluating each company's business procedures and meeting with their respective boards of trustees and staffs. NASF will make a report of its findings later, which will serve as the framework for developing a strategic plan for each organization.

A key to each company's strategic plan is diversifying its funding sources, and both have identified corporations as a major target. A case in point is the relationship between DTH and American Express. "We worked together to develop a program that supports DTH's values while providing visibility for American Express," says Edwin M. Cooperman, chairman and co-CEO of the company's travel subsidiary. Together, he and Mitchell have made fund-raising calls at other corporations. American Express has also advertised DTH performances through its "Gold Card Events" program, provided free tickets to needy students and exercised its clout with vendors, some of whom have donated services to DTH. The 1991 advance ticket sales brochure, for example, was donated by a printer, saving DTH about $15,000. Besides good will, American Express gains visibility with middle-class black audiences--an important market for its services.

A major corporate benefactor for Ailey and DTH is the Philip Morris Cos., which has funded both companies for over a decade. Recently Philip Morris underwrote the cost of a direct-mail advertising campaign for Ailey, providing $40,000 for the New York mailing alone. In return, Philip Morris employees were offered a free year's membership in the newly formed Friends of Alvin Ailey, which offers such benefits as priority seating and invitations to rehearsals. Philip Morris' support for DTH includes funding community outreach programs and new ballets.

"Most black and Hispanic arts organizations have had a much harder time raising funds than white organizations," says Ailey's Kaiser. DTH receives only 20% of its annual income from government sources, making it somewhat less vulnerable to cuts in government spending than Ailey, which receives 34%. (See chart "Sources Of Funding.") But both companies continue to depend on government-sponsored funding sources, such as the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) and NYSCA.

The New York State Council on the Arts has approved $152,350 in grants to Dance Theater Foundation for the 1991-92 fiscal year. The money is earmarked for commissions, program support and general operating expenses. For the same period, DTH received $132,000 for all of its programs, $70,000 of which was earmarked for general operations support. Both grants were down from last year--$174,900 for Ailey and $121,600 for DTH. Brenda Brown, a spokeswoman for the council, said additional funding could result from the $6 million restored to the council's own budget by the state legislature, but had not as of press time.

Outside the dance capital of New York City, performances by Ailey and DTH are often "presented" or sponsored by nonprofit organizations. These groups bring the dance companies into an area for a fee and agree to assume part of the cost of staging the production. Both Ailey and DTH generally book their own hotel, transportation and shipping, and cover their meal expenses on a domestic tour. But because of the high cost of international travel, these costs are usually incurred by the sponsor and prorated to the number of performances that will be given in a particular location.

In a tough economy, such groups are understandably cautious about sponsoring performances where ticket sales may not cover expenses. Ticket sales are an important source of revenue for any performing arts organization. But for most Americans, less discretionary income means fewer nights out. However, DTH's annual gala raised $300,000 for the company. Rather than curtail their seasons, both Ailey and DTH have started community outreach programs to augment their performance schedules.

Education: The Soul Of Dance Companies

"Dance companies, like corporations, must learn to package their services to meet specific market needs," Kaiser says. An example is the "mini-company" Ailey has established in Baltimore with a $125,000 grant from the Maryland Council on the Arts. The grant will help stabilize the company's finances, while supporting performances in Baltimore and Columbia (a suburb of Washington, D.C.), master classes, and a day camp for "at risk" children. "Inner-city kids sometimes feel that their body is the only asset they own," says Kaiser. "Our six-week program helps them to develop that asset through modern dance."

Ailey day camps also offer a wide range of non-dance activities, from sports to creative writing. A prototype camp operates in Kansas City, Mo., where Ailey has long had a presence. A second camp, co-sponsored by the Children's Aid Society, serves New York City.

Community outreach programs are at the heart of Arthur Mitchell's mission. "Too often, we in the black community focus on solving our children's problems, rather than preventing them by sponsoring organizations like Dance Theatre of Harlem," Mitchell says. "We look at the humanities as an 'extra,' rather than a way to give young people the discipline and self-esteem to face crises later in life."

Mitchell, the first black dancer to star with a major American ballet company (The New York City Ballet, where he was a protege of the noted choreographer George Ballanchine), has always been aware of the obstacles black dancers face. He founded DTH in Harlem where he grew up, partly to create opportunities for black dancers, but also to introduce young people to the joy and rigorous discipline of neoclassical dance. Some of his students have pursued dancing careers; many others have become attorneys, doctors and business executives.

DTH's outreach programs range from dance classes for preschoolers to evening sessions for adults. All are taught at the converted garage on West 152nd Street, which has been DTH's home since 1968. Now, that home is literally bursting at the seams. Professional dancers and students share the same locker rooms; studios double as academic classrooms with students sitting on the floor. Over 23 years, the company has grown from two dancers and 30 children to 50 principal and corps dancers and over 700 students.

"Fortunately, Arthur Mitchell had the foresight to purchase an adjoining lot and additional property in the neighborhood for back taxes," Hansen says. Later this year, the company plans to break ground to build an annex--the first step in an ambitious capital expansion program. Of the $4.8 million required, $3.6 million has already been committed to the project--including $3 million from the City of New York (untouched, so far, by the city's fiscal crisis). Another $600,000 will come from the Robert Wood Johnson Charitable Trust and the Gimbel Foundation.

The world-renowned DTH school is, according to Hansen, "the wellspring of the company." Students from 14 countries are currently enrolled and 80% receive some kind of financial aid. Ailey is similarly proud of its school, the American Dance Center, which teaches a variety of dance styles to 2,000 students from 68 countries. Approximately 50 students enrolled in the full-time professional program are on full scholarship; many others at all levels receive at least some financial aid. Recognizing its importance to the company's future, Kaiser plans to spotlight the school in future fund-raising efforts.

Developing New Audiences And Managers

While their schools nurture a future generation of dancers, both companies are also concerned with developing future audiences. Through its repertory company, Ailey brings the excitement of modern dance to small cities throughout the United States--particularly those with significant African-American populations. "We target a substantial portion of our advertising budget to black audiences," says Laura Beaumont, the company's marketing director. "We also try to get free placements on radio stations and television news programs that serve the black community."

DTH attracts largely black audiences to its annual performances in Washington, D.C., and the San Francisco Bay area. Future programs will target Hispanic audiences in southern California and Texas. Donna Walker Collins, the company's director of audience development, works with organizations that already have deep roots in the black community--churches, colleges, art galleries, single-parent groups--to attract audiences that can't be reached through traditional marketing and advertising.

Relationships with national black organizations, such as the Links Inc. and Jack and Jill of America, also help promote awareness of DTH. The Washington, D.C., chapter of Jack and Jill recently sponsored an after-school reception at Macy's, where area youngsters could meet the dancers and win tickets to DTH performances at the Kennedy Center. The event raised $2,300 for DTH the company.

"Supporting the arts is as important as anything else we do, particularly when the organization that needs our help is one of our own," says Dr. Lilia Abron, president of the Washington chapter and of PEER Consultants, P.C., her own environmental engineering firm. She is currently meeting with Kennedy Center officials to plan a larger Jack and Jill-sponsored event for next year.

Another goal for both companies is developing and recruiting more black managers. At DTH, 50% of the management and administrative staff is black; at Ailey the figure is 40%. Executive directors of both companies have traditionally been white men. The new executive director of DTH, Robert Taylor, is black.

"The dance world hasn't been aggressive enough in recruiting black MBAs or arts managers," admits Collins, a lawyer and former dancer, who is one of the few black women in top management at DTH or either company. "We need to present dance management as a viable career that lets you use your business skills while giving something back to the community. The salaries may not match Wall Street, but the personal fulfillment is enormous."

Kaiser, who is white, believes African-American dance companies should establish internships to attract talented black managers at higher-than-entry levels. "There's no reason why I should be black. But there's no reason why I shouldn't be, either," he says.

Managers at both organizations understand that meeting long-term goals increasingly demands reconciliation between the business and artistic. At DTH, a Senior Dance Committee composed of 20 dancers is learning what it takes to run a dance company by talking to experts in fund-raising, marketing and other disciplines.

As Alvin Ailey's protege, Judith Jamison says she developed a keen appreciation for what it takes to manage a dance company. "For years I listened as Alvin struggled with prospective donors on one telephone line and bill collectors on the other," she says. Today she insists that her dancers expose themselves to fiscal and fund-raising issues by attending board meetings and business lunches. With her encouragement, Kaiser has even traded his wingtips for ballet shoes, taking classes with the dancers and traveling with the company's road crew.

"I'm not a business person, but I do have my grandmother's common sense," Jamison says. "Whatever it takes to make this company grow and thrive, I'm going to do it. I have no qualms about going to any organization and saying, |This is what it's going to cost you, but this is what you're going to get. And it will absolutely change your life. Because that's what art is about.'"

Fund-raising also comes easily for Arthur Mitchell. "When you love something as much as I love Dance Theatre, it's hard not to sell all the time," he says.

But he admits that his company probably would not be able to survive another crisis like the one that brought it to the brink of disaster two seasons ago. "What we're going through is like the aftermath of a car crash," he says. "We need a lot of nurturing by all of our communities."


The structural organization of a dance company is not unlike that of any company or corporation. It takes a host of people to deliver the product or service. Although the formal management between Alvin Ailey Dance Theater and the Dance Theatre of Harlem (DTH) differs slightly, the basic structure is the same. Three core management areas are the artistic, administrative and a board of directors.

The artistic component is responsible for producing the performance. It is headed by the artistic director. At Ailey, this job belongs to Judith Jamison; Arthur Mitchell is artistic director at DTH. At both Ailey and DTH, the artistic director is not only responsible for the performing aspects, but shares administrative responsibilities with the executive director.

The executive director oversees the administrative departments. At Ailey, the executive director is Michael Kaiser. Robert Taylor is the new executive director at DTH.

The administrative or personnel departments are responsible for the day-to-day running of the facility. Other duties include booking engagements, coordinating travel arrangements, and drafting and keeping track of contracts and leases. At DTH, the director of administration, is Amy Wynn; at Ailey, director of personnel Kathleen Rose oversees these functions.

The marketing and development department devises and executes fund-raising, marketing and merchandising strategies for the company.

The production department is responsible for costumes, sets and scenery, lighting and stage management, music, production logistics and tour operations. The director of the school instructs students, trains professional dancers, manages the faculty and accompanists, and determines the curriculum. These two departments come under the joint supervision of the artistic and executive directors.

The highest power in either company is the board of directors, a group that sets policy and appoints the executive directors and operating officers. At both DTH and Ailey, the boards of directors handle the broad policy-making and financial well-being of their companies. The board of directors at DTH comprises 17 members, while Alvin Ailey has 28.
COPYRIGHT 1991 Earl G. Graves Publishing Co., Inc.
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Title Annotation:the Dance Theatre of Harlem and the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater
Author:Ross, Barbara
Publication:Black Enterprise
Date:Dec 1, 1991
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