By pairing four diverse groups of choreographers with thought leaders in the field, NCCAkron’s Creative Administration Research program aims to break arts administration out of boxes that fit fewer artists every year.
A double-edged sword in any industry, “best practices” are as frustrating to under-resourced and nonconforming dance entities as they might be useful to those who occupy the mainstream. Strategic planning that isn’t appropriately sized can monopolize staff time until it’s complete, to the detriment of good relationships with customers and partners. Keeping contributed and earned revenue in balance is a good idea—but nearly impossible when project grants and income alternate years. Consultants and funders tend to encourage organizational growth while dancers and choreographers seek artistic growth. Even before the pandemic, few dance companies could be considered conventional or sufficiently resourced, and norms fractured further with COVID’s impact, varying by location and dance discipline.
“Previously, when it came to administration, we would pivot away from what artists want. Instead, we would tell them ‘This is what you need,’” says Christy Bolingbroke, founding executive/artistic director of the National Center for Choreography at The University of Akron (NCCAkron). “That’s what ‘best practices’ have been. We’re trying to create an environment that says, ‘There isn’t one way of dancemaking, so there shouldn’t be just one approach to dance administration.’”
In 2018, Bolingbroke began prototyping the Center’s new Creative Administration Research program—an extension of her master’s thesis at Wesleyan University—with the aim of fostering such an environment. The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation provided $750,000 to move the idea forward last year, allowing the Center to hire an additional staff member. The program also leverages findings from a listening tour and feasibility study that made the case for establishing NCCAkron in 2015, which brought to light friction between support opportunities (typically formulaic) and choreographers’ processes (idiosyncratic, expansive and increasingly intersectional).
Ultimately engaging four groups of participants across a three-year period, the CAR program lets invited choreographers choose from a roster of thought partners, whose expertise ranges from public engagement to national touring to cultural and racial equity. The second cohort of five pairs began working in spring 2021, and while a third set begins this fall, NCCAkron readies an open application for artists interested in being part of the fourth and final cohort. Each pair has largely designed its own agenda and schedule of virtual meetings so far. Assuming later groups convene in person, mutual observation and studio practice may enter the picture.
NCCAkron engaged director and choreographer Raja Feather Kelly, of Brooklyn’s the feath3r theory, both for early prototyping and the first cohort, in which he was paired with San Francisco–based music composer and educator Byron Au Yong. “I’ve always tried to find different and new ways to do things,” Kelly says. “Christy and I have had a lot of conversations about the need to make your own model.” Au Yong was a valuable sounding board while Kelly “thought out loud” about the feath3r theory’s administrative habits, which Kelly says helped him sort priorities by the short- and long-term, better aligning daily to-dos with overarching goals.
“The word ‘sustainability’ started to feel like it was about keeping your head above water, when what I’m looking for is longevity,” says Kelly. “I was able to see my board of directors as more of a think tank, the way I see my artistic collaborators, which helps me find ways to approach fundraising without needing to become a businessman.”
In addition to exploring alternative models for arts administration, participating artists have used the CAR program to reassess other professional roles they play. “Namely, dance in higher education,” says Bolingbroke. “Does employment in academia enable or hinder their artistic vision?” While the consistent income and benefits available through teaching have historically been seductive, “even those who have successfully earned tenure in recent years question its efficacy,” she says. “Some artists have identified that academia is graduating more dancers and artists than there are opportunities onstage, but question who is cultivating arts administrators willing to explore and develop new ways of working.”
Because each pair chooses its own points of focus, participants aren’t subjected to group discussions about problems they’ve already solved or don’t have. Marketing and social media may be “second nature” to Kelly—who led campaigns for Kyle Abraham, Zoe Scofield, Reggie Wilson and others—while digital strategy is further from Bebe Miller’s comfort zone. Part of the second cohort, the choreographer and Bebe Miller Company founder chose Antuan Byers as her thought partner. In addition to being a creative entrepreneur and arts activist, Byers is the founder/CEO of Black Dance Change Makers and a former staffer at Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater.
“I knew that, as a 26-year-old, I wasn’t coming in to ‘tell’ Bebe anything,” Byers says. “But we have talked a lot about branding and marketing and how to use the e-books and archives that accompany her work.”
“Antuan’s work in social media and visibility jived well with one of our projects, called Vault, which has to do with artist-driven archives,” Miller says. “For people of my generation, archives mean holding onto everything forever, whether you look at the tapes or not. Antuan is somebody who could help us ‘vault’ that material outward with more immediacy.”
The question remains how findings from as many as 20 unique pairings might be disseminated to benefit the field more broadly, although NCCAkron will work with The University of Akron Press to publish findings from each cohort as well as from summits reconvening all 40-ish participants in 2022 and 2023. “We hope these case studies can be a textbook for students as well as professionals,” says Bolingbroke. “Not like ‘Forget everything you learned before and adopt these new ways of working,’ but more ‘Here’s something that did work, from which you might benefit and learn.’”
Adds Bolingbroke: “I think we’re toeing the line between how and when we’re a facilitator and host and point of access to resources, and how we might be a consultant, which is a role we haven’t seen ourselves in. We’re bringing this network together around the world-building that a lot of these artists are already doing and helping them invest in different ways forward for themselves and, in turn, for the communities they’re in.”
Formerly associate director of marketing and communication at Hubbard Street Dance Chicago and communications and engagement director at Arts Alliance Illinois, Zachary Whittenburg now serves as an advisor at Chicago’s High Concept Labs.