A planned ending for Merce Cunningham Dance Co.

Merce Cunningham

In last week’s post on direct subsidies to artists, I expanded upon a premise from artist/economist Hans Abbing–that direct subsidies to artists may provide incentives to more people to become artists, thereby increasing competition, and making it more difficult for any to make a living–and suggested that the same may be true of arts organizations. I wrote, “We have incentivized the exponential growth of the arts and culture sector in the US and, despite significant resources (government and private) flowing into the sector on an annual basis, we now find that both artists and the large majority of organizations are poor. There’s a lesson there.”

What the lesson may be I’m not entirely sure, but the past couple of weeks I’ve been thinking about the problem of chronic undercapitalization and its effects on the sector in the context of the final performances of the Merce Cunningham Dance Company on New Year’s Eve. The planned closure (aka Living Legacy Plan) of this renowned company has been both refreshing and disconcerting to a field that has become accustomed to dance companies struggling to sustain themselves and preserve the legacies of their founders after death. Merce had witnessed the disappointing trajectories of more than a few companies; he understood what could happen to his own company over time if it tried to persevere without the infusion of new works and his presence.

In planning for its closure, Cunningham Dance Foundation raised funds to help support (among other things) a world tour, transitions for members of its company and staff, and filming/digitial recording of Merce and the company in rehearsal and performances. This past year we were badgered with claims that there are too many arts organizations and calls for the sector to ‘make it OK’ for arts organizations to close responsibly and with dignity. The Cunningham Dance Foundation’s decision and successful implementation of that decision could be seen as a model for how to realize a ‘successful’ closure. But the very planning of the closure seemed to be what was most disconcerting for some. Despite the emotional and financial toll they take on artists, administrators, and community members it seems we prefer our endings to be either a long and exhausting battle to the bitter end or a blindside collision we never saw coming.

To plan for them seems to be an acknowledgement that we recognize and accept that it’s the end of an era.

I adore the Merce Cunningham Dance Company. I truly regretted being unable to attend the Park Avenue Armory performances on New Year’s Eve and it makes me genuinely sad that there is no possibility of a performance by the company in my future. I am quite grateful that I lived in NYC at a time when Merce Cunningham was still alive and I saw his company perform many times; I will not soon forget those experiences. But if anything, the closing has made my experiences of him and the company all the more valuable. Of course, the effects of the closure are somewhat mitigated by the existence of an incredible archive (which many organizations do not have, btw, for many reasons). The MCDC archive is also all the more valuable (and may become all the more ‘alive’) now that the company is not performing.

In the end, it seems that Merce Cunningham made a decision that was both principled and pragmatic.

And perhaps that is one of the lessons in our miserably impoverished and wonderfully abundant sector. Perhaps now is the time for both principled action and clear-eyed pragmatism.

Does it seem likely that we can continue to generate interest and support for what we do, how we work, who we are? If not, can we adapt our organizational practices, structures, and purposes to ‘the times’ without crossing a moral line or violating core values (see Phills 2005, pp. 27-28)? If not, is it better to linger on and become a shadow of our former institutions, or is it better to plan for closure, document and celebrate accomplishments, and make room for something new to emerge ahead of us?

It’s a new era.

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J. A. Phills, Jr. (2005). Integrating Mission and Strategy for Nonprofit Organizations.

Photo by Floor [CC-BY-SA-2.0], via Wiki­me­dia Commons

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  1. Brett Ashley Crawford says

    I believe that the company took the most responsible and visionary action in the current environment. Yes, funds and audiences are limited, thus, by creating a planned closure Merce Cunningham actually supported a healthy eco-system, making way for NEW artists to engage current and future audiences and funders.

  2. says

    “I’m a practical man.”
    Merce Cunningham

    Thank you Diane!
    What a marvelous article.
    And thank you, too, for your own work at Mellon.
    So much of what was accomplished–including and for me especially “Mondays with Merce” and the “Mondays with Merce Film Library” involved that support. The webisode series will remain online via The Merce Cunningham Trust–an enduring resource and digital document.

    Yes a new era. As Merce said, “Something else.”

    With thanks for your flexibility, passion, and vision,

    Looking foward,

  3. says

    Years ago, in the early 1990s, I did a site visit for the NEA’s Challenge Grant Program to the Cunningham company. The grant application being evaluated was a strategic plan for Merce’s retirement. It’s interesting that the same company is able to end its operations in a similar, thoughtful way.

  4. Lynn Wichern says

    Thanks Diane. We’re truly pleased to be completing the plan on schedule and with the needed funds in place. Onward to the Trust and its care of Merce’s legacy.


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