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Artistic Leadership

This is an excerpt from Careers in Dance by Ali Duffy.

Serving a company as a leader is a massive responsibility—one that also comes with a multitude of benefits, including the ability to propel your artistry, develop and pursue an artistic vision, and support fellow artists in working toward a collective mission. Whether your goal is to fill an existing artistic or executive director role or to found your own company or organization, artistic leadership is a huge undertaking that demands rigorous preparation and consideration before pursuing it as a career. This need for considerable training often translates to artistic leaders that are already seasoned career professionals in dance. If this is a professional goal of yours, consider how your decisions in college and your early professional career could help bolster your odds of achieving director status. For example, because you will need experience in choreography, fundraising, marketing, community engagement, audience development, and grant writing, find ways in your early education to gain these skills and, at the same time, grow as an artist.

Founding a Nonprofit Organization

Starting your own dance company is a monumental undertaking; prepare for the process to take over your life for a little while. First steps may include identifying a market need and the company's mission, filing for incorporation and nonprofit 501(c)(3) tax-exempt status with the federal government (ideally, with the assistance of an attorney), raising seed money to fund the company's immediate needs, and gathering a team to help you get the company off the ground. These people can be assembled informally, or you may want to start a company with others who act as a collective, making decisions together.

Surveying your community for its dance company market is vital to future success. Unless your company offers something unique to a community or that community is underserved, it is unlikely that you will be successful if the market is already saturated. Therefore, ask yourself and those in your founding team how your company will meet a need in your community, what you hope to achieve in founding it, and how your company will distinguish itself from others. For example, you may be interested in creating a company invested in your city's unique historical and cultural elements, or a company that creates interdisciplinary or site-specific works, or a company that features emerging women artists.

In these introductory conversations and brainstorming sessions, take a hard look at the financial realities of founding a company. How will your productions, artists, and staff be funded? Some funding sources include grants, corporate sponsorships, individual donations, and ticket sales. Where will your company rehearse and perform? Are those spaces available and affordable? Do you know people in the community who could be hired for administrative tasks such as budgeting and fundraising? Is there an audience for your company and will you be able to grow your audience in this community? Create a budget and consider long-term strategies for reaching financial goals.

Once these questions are answered, establish the name of your company, develop its mission and vision statements, start a website and social media accounts, and propose a plan for raising seed money for the company's first season. Create a logo and make other branding decisions such as fonts, colors, ways of using language, and ways of presenting images that align with the company's mission. Reach out to people in your networks who could support your new endeavor. If you know studio owners, propose the possibility of donated or reduced-price rehearsal space. Ask lawyers and accountants to take you on as a pro bono client. Contact local and regional media outlets to make public announcements about your new company; they may want to produce newspaper or television stories about this new addition to the community arts scene. Disseminating information about your company to people in your community and in the dance field can help strengthen its initial impact.

It may seem impossible to raise seed money without having already established a reputation in a community, but there are ways to do this (Sims 2005). For instance, staging a small showing in a donated venue and charging admission is an effective strategy for initial fundraising and audience development. Hubbard Street Dance Chicago began by staging showings in nursing homes, and the Pennsylvania Ballet held its first performance at a private home (Sims 2005). Asking board members to speak at events about the mission and importance of your company with a request for donations is advised as well. Many people and corporations enjoy being a part of an exciting new company at the outset, so offering special recognition as a founding donor or opportunities for discounted season tickets could also boost seed contributions. Keep in mind that raising money is an ongoing and often arduous process that is part of the responsibilities of directing a company.

Once you raise enough to cover an entire year without having to add in ticket sales, the company is ready to launch. Producing your first show is exciting and can be overwhelming. Pace yourself, but also know that you only get one chance to make a good first impression, so make that first performance as strong and inviting as possible. Remember, while you are planning and fundraising, you should also be recruiting a company of dancers, technical crew, and venue partners and creating your first show. Founding a company is tireless and can feel daunting, but once you witness your creation onstage—your company thriving in a community—those feelings are subsumed by the adoration and respect you feel for the artists and the fulfillment of sharing your work with the public.

Working With a Board of Directors

If your company is a registered nonprofit organization, it is required to operate with a board of directors who assume the fiscal and legal responsibilities of the company. As a director, you and other staff members report to the board. The board, composed of volunteers recruited from within the community, is essentially the “boss” of the company because the board is legally liable for its decisions. To that end, it is advisable to recruit people from all walks of life to serve because a board with diverse expertise can better represent a community's needs to the company and can support its extended reach and ability to grow. Board members experienced in finance, law, real estate, business, and other nonprofit organizations are particularly beneficial. Many boards are made up of smaller committees in which every member has at least one assignment. Committees meet separately from the board and report to the full board at each meeting. Dance companies often establish committees for finance, fundraising, marketing, and event planning.

Founding board members can help craft the bylaws of the organization. These outline its purpose, structure, and operational procedures and policies. Bylaws should include procedural statements about how many board members are required, how often the board meets, board responsibilities, and how members rotate on and off the board. The board should also craft a series of formal documents that outline the responsibilities of various staff members (e.g., production manager, artistic and executive directors, dancers, and guest performers).

Dance company boards typically meet at least four times per year to discuss the current and future seasons of performances, events, and fundraising ideas. The artistic and executive directors and committee chairs give reports. Additionally, the board works to create and approve bylaws, mission and vision, budgets, grant submissions, and company structure, and it facilitates staff hiring processes. Board members can also act as volunteers for the company, taking on small assignments such as ushering at shows, staffing information tables at events, and reaching out to various corporations and individuals for contributions and sponsorships.

Board members are often responsible for much of a company's fundraising efforts, so they must be well trained and well versed in the mission and goals of the company so that they can speak confidently to others about it. Create an information packet for new board members that the board president uses in orientation sessions as new members rotate onto the board. Boards operate most effectively if they gather for an annual retreat in which they and the staff review and potentially revise the company's mission, structure, long-term goals, and operating policies and procedures.