|Is NEFA’s the main purpose to support arts performing arts?
It’s not exclusively performing arts. But the reason for the establishment of six regional funding organizations (established under the guidance of the NEA and including the Mid-Atlantic Arts Foundation, Arts Midwest, Mid-America Arts Alliance, , the New England Foundation for the Arts, the Southern Arts Federation, and the Western States Arts Federation) is because some agency needed to make it possible for performing artists, primarily, to go and perform from a state to state. A state wanted them to go to other states but they don’t want to write checks to other states. So the support that NEFA gives allows the states and NEA to support of exchange within the U.S. and between the U.S. and other places.
So given that mission and given the dangerous state of funding for dance in 1995 and around that time, we started the National Dance Project. That changed the profile of NEFA because the National Dance Project became – and still is – the primary program that supports the commissioning and touring of contemporary dance in the U.S. Historically, there had been regional and federal programs supporting dance touring. But many of the previously existing programs had not linked to the development of the work and distribution overtly. So the National Dance Project was influenced by what was going on before but it was built differently than the previous programs. And it became the centerpiece of what NEFA is doing.
Knowing that your personal interest and passion has been in dance, it is not strange at all that you started National Dance Project. But wasn’t there any discussion among your colleagues or board members concerning why the program had to be exclusively for dance?
Yes, there was (laughs). It was an issue but it was a moment in time when it seemed to be an alignment of my passion with what was needed, because New England has a strong dance-presenting community in such facilities as Flynn Center for the Performing Arts, Dartmouth College’s Hopkins Center for the Arts Wesleyan University's Center for the Arts, that is active nationally and depended on artists not just from the region but also from outside of the region. So this was part of their cultural economy – an ability for commissioning and presenting contemporary dance not just within the region but from around the world and around the country. The need was there.
The other thing about dance is that many of the choreographers who we care about don’t have fully developed institutions supporting them. Each of them are dependent, in part, on relationships with presenting organizations, to help them, not just be to share and show their work, but also make it. We want to make sure that complex relationship between the choreographer and the institutional partners is built up.
Then, what does dance need? Dance needs to be supported, in a multi-regional context, which to me is international context: the more interactions the better.
So we were able to make the case that in order to achieve the regional goal, we needed to create a national framework. It wasn’t the indigenous issue – not one of, “We just need a dance company from Vermont to go to Maine.” It was that we needed companies from California, New York and France and Japan to come to New England. In many ways it was what NEFA – in my mind – was built to do, but they had done such things in dance at that scale.
However, at the National Dance Project we have to show the substance of our results both quantitatively and qualitatively. There are many competitors seeking grants and support, and we also have the responsibility to explain the results to the givers of those grants and support. That is why we are extremely conscious of the need to be prepared to be able to explain results.
Talking about “supporting commissioning and touring,” National Performance Network (NPN) has been doing that for about two decades, though theirs is not dance-specific. How do you define the uniqueness of the National Dance Project? Is that the scale, or dance-specificity?
The National Dance Project could be designed in the way I designed it because NPN existed. In my mind, it was complementary. NPN was built in a network of small and medium size presenters and organizations in the U.S., helping them develop the project in the performing arts “within” each other, whereas the National Dance Project was not a network. In other words, it wasn’t a project we developed “for and between” the people at the table, it was a project where we developed one small table available for any presenters who had an interest in dance. Being focused on dance, the National Dance Project encourages presenters to support artists not just in presentation of their work but also in development of their work; and it is meant to encourage as many presenters as possible to keep supporting dance; and to help presenters with risk management because dance was scary for some presenters in terms of knowledge and economic reasons. Also, you need to make a case for dance and say, “Here is what’s happening.” So it was designed differently from NPN.
National Dance Project is overseen by 12 leading presenters across the country. They would look at the applications from artists in dance; and they are often in partnership with presenters. We support those presenters and we promote partnerships to the rest of the field. Through that effort, it might reach 100 or more presenters, and over years it might reach to 300 or more presenters. So it is different from NPN in this scale, and it is complementary. They both continue to be essential parts of the performing arts infrastructure in the U.S. Both also have a history of international relationships.
I think there are two kinds of presenters. One is those who always care about what is the best for the artists’ development of works, and presentation of their work. The other is those concerned more with providing "event" types of things to public, rather than being concerned with ways to support artists and their career.
Presenters who put work on the stage should have some concerns for how the work gets there. Then, unlike theater industry where most theater people own their buildings and do produce, making and showing in a same building is rare in dance. So you need these dance centers, where the presenters have are committed not just to the presentation of the work but also to the development of the work that precedes the event.
When I went to Jacob’s Pillow working as managing director with Liz Thompson and then by myself as I assumed her position of Executive Director, the primary resources at the Pillow were “presentational” and “educational.” Historically, that was what it has been, like festival and school. We shifted those resources. We made studios useful for three seasons and we added more housing that was artist-friendly, versus student-friendly so that development of the work in residencies became possible. And we built the Studio Theater, which was the development space. The missions do not have to be changed; they just have to be re-interpreted for the time in which you live.