Ahistorical (No! Historical!: Updated with comments)

Scroll down for illuminating comments (taking me to task, yes they do) by Bob Yesselman, former head of DanceNYC, and John
, marketing manager from 2004 to 2007 of Dance Theater Workshop (DTW), one of the debt-plagued organizations La Rocco discusses.]

Claudia La Rocco is probably the best dance journalist around. Working at the Associated Press since college, she knows how to investigate: to follow a hunch until she finds where the story lies. And her conclusions and evidence are rarely facile. Her article in the Sunday Times on the real-estate overreaching of small arts organizations is a rare exception.

While she makes clear that venerable dance institutions such as Dance Theater Workshop are in trouble, she doesn’t consider the kind of trouble they were in before they started building.

When the economy was booming, at the turn of this century, rents were going up 2000 percent. Of course dance organizations, from Mark Morris’s dance group to Dixon Place, wanted to secure their future. You can’t make dances without space to make them in. The fact that they chose to build bigger makes sense too: you don’t want to go to all the trouble of building and then have to do it again when you’ve grown a bit.

Small performing arts organizations have been caught between a rock and a hard place. It’s the place they always seem to be caught. When the economy is good and real estate is selling well, they’re at risk of being thrown out of their rented homes; when it’s bad, they’re at risk of losing their mortgages. The problem is the usual problem–the usual boring problem: The arts have to compete with all sorts of commercial interests, and though lately they’ve tried, they’re not equipped to do that (and shouldn’t be). Art is simply too time-intensive to compete.

It’s very possible La Rocco included historical info, and it was cut for space. Newspapers–or at least their dance coverage–suffer from space issues, too.

Here’s another blog post I found on the topic.

Here’s an article I wrote for the Village Voice in 2002 on the reasoning behind the DTW expansion, among other things.

Here’s an article I wrote on the real estate conundrum for Dance Magazine in 2000, at the height of the economic boom. (I couldn’t find a reprint that
didn’t interrupt the article with the sidebars. So if you’re wondering
what happened to the main story, it reappears later, after the reports
on Chicago and Colorado.) Here’s a brief follow-up article.

La Rocco’s may be right about people’s vaulting ambition. But what’s missing is sufficient background on what instigated their building and buying.

Comment from former DTW marketing manager John :

I couldn’t disagree with you more. The idea that the dance field has always just been caught between a rock and a hard place is terribly simplistic and rather demeaning. Are dance organizations so powerless that they are just destined to fail? La Rocco didn’t miss the story.

Rather then waste space highlighting, once again, the poverty of dance, La Rocco took a snapshot of several organizations who embraced capital campaigns. The goals of these campaigns were to guarantee spaces for artists to work and to provide consistent visibility for contemporary performance. But at what cost to an organization’s mission and the artists it serves? Isn’t it ironic that Ellie Covan, who for many years had performances in her living room every night, is now struggling to stay true to her organization’s mission. Covan always put artists first, then herself. And now, for various complicated reasons, she’s forced to put a piece of real estate first, followed by artists, and then by herself always last. It really saddens me.

The takeaway from this article centers on the challenges, particularly financial, that organizations face when they grow. Many organizations embraced the idea that Brenda Way states in your Dance Magazine article, that “a building stands as irrefutable testament to ephemeral acts, endowing the dancemaker with a legitimacy that her nomadic activity of touring and teaching away from home to earn her and her company’s keep constantly undermines.”

Alvin Ailey’s Joan Weill Center for Dance is the ideal example of real estate enhancing an organization’s mission. It seems to fulfill Way’s statement perfectly. But does this model apply successfully to other organizations, particularly contemporary dance organizations that embrace more fluid and flexible performances and artists? Isn’t this the tension that these organizations are struggling with? In order to survive and create work, many contemporary choreographers have embraced artistic flexibility in company size, budgets, collaborators or not, touring or not. What role do contemporary dance organizations play in service of these artists? How can they too embrace flexibility and change? And does the recent building boom ultimately compromise this ability and the organizations mission?

These are the challenges that the institutions are facing. They should be applauded, and deeply supported, for leading the charge, for not simply embracing the “kid-sister” mentality that surrounds dance. Buildings were built, perhaps mistakes were made, but the focus needs to be placed on the organization’s future. New models of working will need to be embraced in order to survive. Hopefully, they’ll design the institutional architecture that best fits their organization’s mission, rather then compromise their core in order to fit inside some building.

Apollinaire responds:
John, Thanks for your impassioned response.  I wasn’t thinking that La Rocco should simply blabber on about the poverty of dance. That was my perhaps overly general notion of the overarching problem. I was thinking she ought to consider WHY arts organizations took on such building campaigns–the particular problems that were facing them at the time, and in fact how smart their thinking was at the time–to take advantage of City loans, the high price of real estate for their own advantage.

About the story La Rocco did write, I didn’t see it primarily about capital campaigns, and I didn’t see it as applauding organizations for “leading the charge”–thank god; who needs that phony turn-everything-negative-into-a-positive arts organization talk? But I did think she had an ax to grind–was wagging her finger at the foolish hopes of these organizations on the way to offering the glimmer of a new, real-estate-free model.

While you say I’m condescending to these arts organizations, you go right ahead and condescend some more, with a set of rhetorical questions–couldn’t they think more flexibly, etc.–which, if they are not kid-sisters, they surely have thought of on their own.  “Flexibility” may indeed be what dance organizations need to embrace. But I’m not sure why anyone should be so happy about it. It’s perhaps the best solution where none is good. So why don’t we call it what it is–organized nomadism–and stop hiding behind a bureaucratic language in which no problem is too big, etc., etc., etc.?

All best, Apollinaire

Comment from former Dance/NYC head Bob Yesselman:

I couldn’t agree more with John concerning your conclusion concerning Claudia’s article.

Some history: Dance Theater Workshop (DTW) got into trouble long before the new building opened.  Financial controls on construction were weak; 9/11 caused months of delay increasing the interest payments.  An ambitious and expensive marketing plan to fill the increased seating didn’t work. They underwent a profound change of leadership that also resulted in extra costs as the new leadership  attempted to renegotiate their debt load. 

Dixon Place, as Claudia mentioned, got caught in the catch 22 of accepting city money and thus having to go through endless hoops and union labor in construction.  Kate Levin always warns of this and I often wondered what was the point then in accepting capital projects – if they became more expensive, making interest payments and construction loans more expensive. 

With all due respect, the DNA project was simply too big and too expensive with a huge amount of wasted space on both levels.  The plan for a streetfront cafe never seem to have happened.  

Thus, the rock and the hard place you talk about was the result of poor and unrealistic planning, city regulations concerning capital projects, and the current economic crisis causing their already-precarious condition to start toppling.  These were and are noble projects conceived to serve artists and announced to the world the important role dance plays in NYC. They are slowly and surely becoming our edifices.   I, too, am sick and tired of the “poor little us” syndrome and these superb institutions, I believe, will emerge whole and vibrant and spawn the infrastructure of the future.

Apollinaire responds:
Well, you know more about the post 9/11, post-David White era (with respect to DTW) than I do, Mr. Yesselman, so I’ll take your word for it. (I wish, though, that you and John didn’t have to begin with  “I couldn’t agree more” or “I couldn’t disagree more.” I’m sure you and he could!)

I think it would have been a very different article if La Rocco had really got into the catch-22, and the union taxes, etc. My big complaint with the piece is its apportioning of blame. Even you say that it wasn’t simply bad decisions, but also a downturn in the economy and this catch-22 with respect to City funding. Why didn’t the City get any of the blame in the piece, for offering “help” that isn’t, really? I mean, I could understand it with hedge fund managers, but why is the City dangling a carrot of funding that ends up putting organizations in such debt?

Now THAT would be a story–the City’s twisted romance with small arts organizations– though I suppose it wouldn’t appeal to yo
u b/c it falls into the “poor me” category? Artists should know better than to trust the City? (I wouldn’t know better.) The article was full of City people and grants people tut-tutting the organizations for bad decisions, without the counterbalancing explanation–beyond that of heads in the cloud hope–for why they might have made these lousy decisions. It just seemed fishy to me, and now you’ve made clear why!

Also, I’m not sure how you can say, first, that “the rock and the hard place you talk about was the result of poor and unrealistic planning, city regulations concerning capital projects, and the current economic crisis causing their already-precarious condition to start toppling,”  and then, a couple of sentences later, that these institutions who planned unrealistically and poorly “are slowly and surely becoming our edifices.   …. these superb institutions, I believe, will emerge whole and vibrant and spawn the infrastructure of the future.” Given they’re such poor planners, how is it that they’re going to emerge at all?

La Rocco doesn’t think they should–not as they have been, anyway. Here, from the article:

DTW for now remains committed to staying put. Should it? The struggles of many institutions raise questions about how well real estate serves organizations’ missions, especially given current dramatic shifts in technology and audience consumption habits.

“Two or three years ago, when we looked across our portfolio, maybe 75 percent of the facility-based arts organizations who own or who are very strongly identified with a location, were financially on the ropes,” Ms. Miller said. “That tells us we’ve got a whole sector which, possibly, has built itself up based on an institutional model that is flawed.”

So, according to La Rocco, the problem wasn’t just poor planning, it was faulty, anachronistic thinking–not fixable by working on the kind of “help” the City offers; faulty b/c small arts organizations shouldn’t be bothering with real estate anymore. This is why she doesn’t talk about what the City might do to actually be helpful. She’s not interested in incremental change, but in radical, infrastructural change. (What exactly–what will replace space in a space-based art such as dance–isn’t clear. Claudia! a follow-up article, please.)

So, it’s not that you’re saying toe-may-toe and she’s saying toe-mah-toe, it’s that you’re saying noble and worthwhile, and she’s saying wrongheaded and outmoded.

Thanks for writing,

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  1. says

    The history that LaRocco documents can be taken as what it is: investigative journalism. Those who don’t study the past are doomed to repeat it, they say, and the illumination that LaRocco provides will inform the next generation of arts administrators, city administrators, funders and founders. At the worst, it spotlights the difficulties of viable organizations managing the expansion of an arts business at a time of economic contraction. My impression is you’re trying to make something personal out of something that, well, isn’t.
    Apollinaire responds: Investigative journalists, like any other kind, interpret the facts they uncover, and shape them into a final piece. I don’t know if I would call that “personal,” but a person is doing it. It’s not history delivered straight from the mouth of truth. If only….
    Thanks for writing.

  2. Jeff Friedman says

    For the record, as one of the artists affiliated with Brenda Way in the 1980s while capital campaigns supported real estate growth for ODC in San Francisco, the company was extremely flexible. It was a collective developed in the 1970s, purpose-built to support multiple artistic visions and roles such as choreographer, performer, visual artist, etc. We toured, performed in home seasons, and sponsored other artists in a space owned by the company. The expanded facilities that exist now continue to support a superb dance company, but also a school, a medium-sized rental theater, a block box flexible theater space, a dance injury clinic, a visual arts exhibition space and soon-to-be multiple rental studios for Bay Area based performing artists that support several mentoring programs for emerging artists at different levels of expertise. The discussion on this blog is focused almost entirely on NYC situations. Might one learn from a successful model elsewhere? But let’s have due diligence on what actually happened. Feel free to consult, in print text, ODC: The First Thirty Years.
    [Apollinaire responds] Dear Jeff Friedman (whose dancing I remember with pleasure),
    Thank you for your letter. I think the reason the post was focused on New York was because La Rocco’s article was. John refers to Brenda Way because in my 2000 Dance Magazine article, I speak of the ODC building–all the activity there–as a powerful good. That article was focussed on SF and New York, with sidebars for elsewhere. So I don’t think anyone was knocking ODC, they were simply debating how useful the comparison was–and, it is true, people know best the buildings in their own city, the ones they live and work among.
    Thanks so much for writing.

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