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Fording forward.

Yesterday's scandal is today's history. And four decades will usually be just about sufficient to engender the transformation. There can be few events in dance about which this is more true than in the seemingly scandalous Ford Foundation master plan to fund ballet. Last month I sketched in the foundation's involvement with dance. Its entry into dance matters was not taken lightly, least of all by the foundation itself, and the administrator of its new arts program, started just forty years ago, W. McNeil Lowry. As soon as this funding policy was agreed on in principle, the foundation undertook a major inquiry into the "economic and social positions of the arts at this period in American history." It wanted to take the long view -- to help transform these performing arts and their acceptance in the United States. Did they achieve this, particularly the latter?

About twenty-four hours before I wrote this I had found myself transfixed, watching Congress on the ever-useful C-SPAN debate -- if such could be honored with the name debate -- whether or not to disband the National Endowment for the Arts. The general level of proudly yahoo ignorance was such that I wondered what men like Lowry and Lincoln Kirstein would have thought, and whether all their efforts had been worthwhile. Lowry himself always saw the problem of subsidy for the arts in America with exceptional clarity: "Nothing finally will be done for the arts in enlightened patronage until it is done for the art itself, and not simply that it is icing on the cake. If art is left to be icing on the cake, it will be treated by people in power and people with money as icing on the cake."

With this in mind, Lowry and his Ford Foundation colleagues warily approached their new assignment -- consulting, consulting, and consulting again, before making any crucial moves. Ballet Society, Inc. (which was, in effect, Kirstein's holding operation), loomed large among those consulted, and by November 1963 we find Kirstein, Lowry, his deputy Marcia Thompson, and Eugenia Ouroussow, then director of the School of American Ballet, in conference at the Ford Foundation with respect to implementing Ballet Society's "ten-year national program for the support of ballet, its education and production."

On December 16, Lowry publically drops his dance bombshell -- the Ford Foundation's $7,756,750 program "to strengthen professional ballet in the United States." To the surprise of everyone except Kirstein and his associates, all the money is earmarked for organizations organized or approved by Balanchine. The screams could be heard for miles. Some were screams of delight; some, louder and more violent, were screams of pain. What would be the result -- the long-term, here-and-now result -- of all that money, only two and a half percent of the total Ford Foundation budget but an awful lot of money to dancers from sea to shining sea?

I was living in my native London at the time, and although I had heard rumors -- Kirstein had briefed me earlier -- the first confirmation I had was a wildly excited telephone call from Lincoln himself, with a request that I publicize it instantly in The Times of London, of which I was then dance critic; he expected a great deal of opposition on his side of the Atlantic, and he wanted all the reputable support he could muster -- an oddly intermittent Anglosnob, Kirstein took The Times seriously.

In any event he thought, most mistakenly, it would be front-page news in London! I was delighted, congratulated him on Ford's insight and his and Balanchine's good fortune, and very gently suggested that he was perhaps being unnecessarily paranoid (although who ever knew Lincoln's "necessary" level of paranoia!); no one was going to object.

Within twenty-four hours I had changed my mind. I had had a frantic phone call from Craig Barton, then Martha Graham's manager and general factotum, describing how the Ford action had destroyed all that was great and American in American dance. I recall asking Francis Mason, then the U.S. cultural attache in London, and a doughty champion of both NYCB and Martha, how I should write it up for Dance and Dancers. Heeding Mason's advice, my confreres in London, Peter Williams and John Percival, and I reported the event in terms of restrained ecstacy.

The issue was that all the money -- and even spread over five years, it seemed, and those days was, a vast sum -- was allocated to Balanchine's company and school, and various other schools and companies established with the imprimatur of Balanchine. Not a brass farthing for American Ballet Theatre or, say, Ruth Page in Chicago. Not a passing thought for any dance other than that fancified, Europeanized classic ballet. Yes -- those that were in (and that being in the Kirstein-Lowry-Balanchine charmed and tightly closed circle) were exultant; those that weren't in were fit to spit, and did.

Now, forty years after Ford's Lowry first sat down to contemplate American dance, what is the reckoning at the end of the day? City Ballet and the School of American Ballet have certainly prospered, as have the Boston Ballet and the San Francisco Ballet. The Pennsylvania Ballet has had a more checkered career, and Frederic Franklin's National Ballet in Washington died an unlucky death, although, after a slow start, the Houston Ballet eventually prospered.

Even more significantly, what these grants did was to focus attention upon schools and teaching, and, most important of all, to offer a Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval, not least to that now much beleaguered NEA when President Lyndon Johnson brought it into being in 1965. Giving money to dance became intellectually and socially okay -- and dance across the board (and certainly not least ABT and the Graham company) all very soon found themselves ingesting a piece of the newly cooked cake, icing and all.

By refusing to offer scattershot funding -- with a little here, a little there and not much anywhere -- Lowry, encouraged (some would say masterminded) by Kirstein, took American dance, yes, all of American dance, across its final hurdle, where it could be regarded as the equal of the symphony, the opera or even the art gallery. And that was, finally, the real Ford legacy -- to make dance one of the prime American arts.

Of course, no one, after this had been achieved, could have foreseen the summer of 1997 when our sometimes oddly unrepresentative House of Representatives decided that all the arts, and their endowment, were little more than a political football. This is a pity, but the arts will survive. It is the worthy congressmen who will be judged by posterity, not the arts. They might not come out as well as the Ford Foundation.
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Title Annotation:Ford Foundation support of U.S. dance
Author:Barnes, Clive
Publication:Dance Magazine
Article Type:Column
Date:Sep 1, 1997
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