Clicking with the Arts « PREV | NEXT »: Alan Rich

April 24, 2010

Arts Management 101

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Help Desk/L.A. offers expertise in an area that most dance artists know is vital to their well-being, but which they would rather not have to think about: that is, how to market themselves, raise money, create a board of directors, and plan for short- and long-term growth. The project is directed by Felicia Rosenfeld of Pentacle, the 35-year-old, nonprofit arts services organization based in New York City. Patterned after a similar, now defunct program created by Pentacle co-director Ivan Sygoda, Help Desk came to Los Angeles almost by happenstance, when Rosenfeld relocated here in 2006. A lawyer, arts adminstrator and lifelong New Yorker, she spent more than a year talking with dancers, choreographers, academics and others to get the lay of the land. Pentacle, she noted, works from the "artists' point of view," directing services to help artists meet their own goals.

The program is just concluding its first year, and there is funding for a second year. The inaugural group included 10 individuals and small companies of markedly different styles and aesthetic development. Each was paired with an administrator mentor. Although the New York Help Desk was free for the artists, the Los Angeles dance artists all applied to participate, and they paid $600 for the program (which covered only a portion of the cost). Rosenfeld said having the artists pay for the mentoring showed they were "putting a value on the management side of their operation."

This is a condensed and edited version of our interview.

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You have mentioned the importance of fostering community among these artists, which was one of the goals of a showcase performance you had on Sunday. You also were interested in having the artists learn to "see each other's work," and to help the artists to see their dances through the eyes of audience members. Why is that important, and how can Help Desk/L.A. advance those ideas? 

An artist is informed and continues to be educated in his [or] her own work by seeing other dance works and participating as an audience member in his [or] her own community. It seems like in Los Angeles, dance artists do not often see their fellow Angelenos' work, nor do they go to see visiting choreographers' work as much as dance artists do in other cities. Not going to see each other's work promotes artistic and professional isolation. 

Connected with this premise is the goal of building and retaining audiences in a climate which is seeing decreasing dance audiences. To this end, Help Desk/L.A. spends some time working with participating artists to help them talk about their work, and ideally to be able to talk about their colleagues' work in an articulate, creative and clear fashion. Additionally, if artists want to nurture new dance-goers and supporters, having some insight into how a non-dancer views dance further enables artists to find ways to draw in the audience.

The idea is not necessarily to change one's art to fit the audience, but to be able to step outside the egocentric choreographic process and gain the audience's perspective so that the choreographer might better be able to articulate his [or] her message ... and engage the audience. It could mean a different program note or the way the artist writes his [or] her marketing materials or talks with a presenter about how best to position the performance. 

Help Desk/L.A. provides reimbursement to Help Desk/L.A. artists for tickets purchased to see each other's work, and urges participating artists to see their fellow Help Desk/L.A. artists' performances, but also to see work that comes to the area.  

Help Desk/L.A. worked with the artists this cycle to curate and produce the afternoon of dance that was presented at Highways on the 18th. The "external" goal of the performance was to give audiences a peek into the Los Angeles contemporary dance world, and also to give them some guidance for viewing the work. The "internal" goal of the performance process was to bring the group closer together, to get them to see each other's work, to be able to talk about their work and their colleagues' work beyond: "I liked . . ." and a pat description of the work, and for the artists to gain experience in curating, producing and presenting a shared program.

Help Desk/L.A. provides mainly administrative mentoring. But as I understood it, the program goals are broader than that, and there are no arbitrary limits on what the mentors might discuss with the artists. 

The mentors are not given a set curriculum or format to follow, nor are they micromanaged. Mentors ideally should get to know their artists' work and professional lives and be able to work with their artists to move artists forward in their infrastructure, managerial and strategic goals.

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You mentioned to me that this project was about supporting the work and not putting a value on each choreographer's artistry. (My paraphrase.) Can you please talk a little bit more about that?

The goal of Help Desk/L.A. is to support infrastructure, management, administration -- not to make artistic judgments. Help Desk/L.A. does not promote participating artists' work, it does not seek to find them work or to raise money for them or market them. There are many dance artists, companies, and choreographers in Los Angeles at all different levels and into all different forms of dance. Help Desk/L.A.'s hope is that Los Angeles dance makers and performance artists can find a home in Help Desk/L.A. for professional community: community that can respect each other's artistic differences and what participating artists bring to the table wearing their "business hats." Participating artists ideally will find a group of artists ... whom they can go to for ideas, resources, conversation and support.

There is a difference between liking an artist's work and buying a ticket to go see his [or] her work, and respecting that same artist's longevity in the field, or ability to continue, or that artist's playing a role in the dance community that has value. For example, traditional Russian ballet may not be my personal taste, but that doesn't mean I don't respect the Bolshoi Ballet and [wouldn't] be interested to sit at a table with the company manager and be associated with the Bolshoi on a professional level.

Is it not most important to give help, and thereby a leg up, to choreographers whose work is aesthetically the strongest?

Aesthetic judgments are very personal. If I were to work as a company manager or booking agent for an artist, absolutely I would have to believe in [the] work, [the] artistic vision. If I were a funder giving out grants, I would take aesthetics into consideration. If Help Desk/L.A. was a project to which artists applied to participate for free and possibly receive a re-grant or implementation funds, aesthetic judgments might be made. But again, Help Desk/L.A. was not set up to promote a certain aesthetic, and is a program for which artists pay a fee to participate. However, that does not mean that anyone who calls himself [or] herself a dance maker would be an appropriate participant in Help Desk/L.A. Participating artists must have some positive track record in the professional dance community, [be able to] articulate ... goals and expectations for participation in the program [and] demonstrate the desire to be a proactive member of a professional community.  

What is the most common administrative problem or dilemma that small dance groups face today?

Lack of support from individuals who are dedicated to arts administration and lack of funding to support the "behind the scenes" aspects of dance: infrastructure, "general operations," administrative support, etc. Also, I think there is an industry culture of not valuing or paying for managerial support. Except for very few instances, the days of the full-time company manager or executive director are gone, and for the majority of dance makers, those days never existed. The artistic director is usually the manager, booking agent, marketing specialist, chief fundraiser. The artistic director often doesn't pay him [or] herself, so why pay someone to help with all the "business aspects" of your profession? The desire, goal, passion is to create and perform work, and that is the focus of dance and that should be the focus of dance. The reality of supporting the creation of work is often viewed as an unwelcome intrusion. This mindset often gets in the way of an artist's ultimate success even if his [or] her work is absolutely wonderful.

As a transplanted New Yorker, what do you see as the biggest differences between the New York and Los Angeles dance communities?

I am still learning so much about the Los Angeles dance community. I have only lived here four years. There are the obvious ones: The New York concert dance community is bigger, better known, better funded, better attended [and] supported. Dancers go to New York to study and perform and work with contemporary concert dance choreographers. In New York, there are homes for dance: Dance Theater Workshop, The Joyce, etc., that audiences can look to with confidence that they will see work of a certain caliber.   

Los Angeles still has a reputation -- undeserved -- as being not a concert dance town. There is no dedicated, well-known ... home for Los Angeles contemporary dance, and that makes it hard for dance lovers who do not keep up with individual companies or choreographers to make choices or to know where to go to see good, interesting contemporary dance. I keep hearing that dancers only come to L.A. to do commercial work, and that there is no good modern dance in Los Angeles. I think those are hard stereotypes to get rid of. But, but, but, in New York there is almost an institutionalization of modern dance. You have to study with this person, you have to perform here, your goal is to have a season at The Joyce.

In Los Angeles there is interesting and good contemporary dance happening. Choreographers are coming to graduate schools here and staying to create work. There are many really wonderful mature dance makers who work here as full-time faculty members, which is different than New York. Unlike New York, there are no real institutions or hierarchies and so there is a lot more freedom in a way to try out new art forms but also to try out new ways of presenting dance, or seeing dance or funding dance, or managing dance. I find the possibilities for real change in the industrial culture of modern dance here in L.A. really exciting and inspiring. 

I'm curious about your perspective, as an arts administrator, on the great decrease in arts coverage in daily and weekly newspapers. What impact has this had on Pentacle clients? 

Wow. I am not sure I am qualified to answer this. It is truly disheartening because I do think not having reviews in traditional newspapers still has an impact on audiences, the presentation of dance and the funding of dance. Whether it really matters or not -- whatever "matters" means -- Pentacle artists still long for that New York Times or L.A. Times review. This was an issue that came up this year during Help Desk/L.A. and we devoted our March meeting to a discussion with Sasha Anawalt [the director of the USC Annenberg arts journalism programs and an ARTicles blogger] that was really wonderful.

There is coverage taking place in new places: blogs, Internet journals, etc., but readers don't go to those places and often don't even know how to access them, or even know about them. Hopefully as these new forms of journalism seep into the larger culture, these issues will abate some.


Flora Wiegmann.jpg

Choreographer Flora Wiegmann's "Nugget Rodeny." (Photo by Sara Wookey)

Top of page: Ana Maria Alvarez of Contra-Tiempo. (Photo by Tyronne Domingo)

Above right: Felicia Rosenfeld, program director of Help Desk/L.A.

Above left: Dancers C. Derrick Jones and Nehara Kalev of Catch Me Bird. (Photo by Eric Bandiero)

April 24, 2010 12:00 AM | | Comments (0)

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