Mark Morris Dance Center Looks Up

The harsh reality of the real estate market in certain urban centers can limit the growth of dance schools at just the time when customer demand is at its highest. Here’s how one popular Brooklyn community dance center found a solution.

Mark Morris Dance Center in Brooklyn has expanded. Photo by Joleen Richards, courtesy of Mark Morris Dance Group

Mark Morris Dance Center is known as an innovative institution that offers classes in multiple styles of dance and for people with disabilities. But another way the Center has had to get creative is with its space.

When it opened in 2001, Mark Morris Dance Center was primarily a rehearsal space for the Mark Morris Dance Group. It’s now a thriving community gem that houses the company, a black-box theater, open classes, subsidized rental space,  a dance for Parkinson’s program and a neighborhood school that’s grown from 125 students to nearly 2,000.

The evolving and expanding identity of the Center has meant finding ways to make room for growth on a mostly fixed New York City lot. This meant navigating a complex real estate market in a competitive Brooklyn area sought after by many developers. The organization considered all options, which led to a surprising source of funding that helped make its latest expansion possible.

In September, Mark Morris Dance Center held a ribbon-cutting for The Judith R. and Alan H. Fishman Space, which added two new studios to the Center, for a total of nine studios, with one more expected in winter of 2020. The expansion is part of Mark Morris: Above and Beyond, a $25 million, multiyear plan that includes building out the space to its fullest capacity and other capital projects.

Nancy Umanoff, executive director of Mark Morris Dance Group, says that whenever more space was needed for new or different activities, it was a financial imperative to expand within the existing building.

“Some developers have approached us about sites a block away, but for us, it doesn’t make sense,” she says. “If it was across the street, we would need full staff, facilities and operations to man the space. It would be too great an expense.”

Paying existing staff and cleaning crews for more hours is more financially feasible than hiring a second set of staff. But Umanoff has had to get creative to find ways to build more studio space on the Center’s lot in downtown Brooklyn.

Looking at Every Inch of Available Space

When the Center opened, there were only studios on the third and fourth floors. A 2006 expansion turned part of the open lobby space into two studios. In 2009, a third studio was added in the lobby, as well as dressing rooms for students, and a wellness center and small studio were added to the mezzanine.

The needs of the organization didn’t stop growing in 2009, but the expansions seemed to fill out every inch of available space in the building.

There was one more direction to consider—up. Umanoff wanted to add more stories, but the Center’s vaulted roof meant construction would be a prohibitive interruption to activities and services.

But looking upward revealed another possibility—air rights. Since the Center was not going to add more floors, it sold the air rights to the developers of the lot next door, who have plans to build a hotel. The neighboring lot itself would not have been big enough to create new studios, but selling the air rights opened up new possibilities for the Dance Center.

“We got a huge influx of cash from selling the air rights,” Umanoff says. “It gave us security and flexibility to open The Fishman Space.”

Dance for PD takes place in the new space. Photo by Maria Portman, courtesy of Mark Morris Dance Group

Shortly after the sale, the City of New York put out a call for proposals for the adjacent lot on the other side of the Dance Center, with a requirement that developers have a cultural partner.

Frustrating Moments

Mark Morris Dance Group teamed up with two different developers, but neither bid was accepted. When the cultural partner of the winning bid, a planned residential tower, fell through at the last minute, most of the space went to The Center For Fiction, a nonprofit that supports writers and hosts public events in its bookstore. But MMDG was able to carve out a piece of the space that could connect to its existing building.

“It was an extremely frustrating situation,” says Umanoff. “The adjacent site was our only hope for expanding our Dance Center on site. So when the first cultural partner pulled out of the deal, it was as if we were given a second chance. We were excited and hopeful.”

The piece of the new site they did get turned out to be a perfect spot to connect to the existing space.

“Where there was a solid wall in the lobby, it now flows straight through to the new space,” Umanoff says. “It feels like the same building, and you can only access it through our space, but it’s actually in the crook of the other building.”

The new space cost $1.3 million to purchase, with another million in construction costs to connect it to the existing site.

How the Finances Work

With the air rights money, support from the Fishmans, New York State Council on the Arts, The Hearst Foundation and other private donors, the expansion made sense, even if the new space won’t be a big revenue generator.

Studio E is one of two new studios. Photo by Johan Henckens, courtesy of Mark Morris Dance Group

Umanoff explains that many decisions about how to use the space are based on the values of the organization.

“So much of what we program is mission-based more than financially driven,” she says. “We are fortunate that we have reserves and can do that. If I just looked at finances, we would do more of our parent-toddler classes that have great demand and can make money. Instead, we do more subsidized rentals and classes that are inclusive of students with disabilities.”

The school nets around $200,000 a year, according to Umanoff, a modest profit that is a small piece of the organization’s expenses. In addition to donations and grants, the Center depends on revenue from commercial rentals, such as “So You Think You Can Dance” auditions, renting out the black-box theater to other companies, and the company’s touring revenue.

It’s a unique funding model that the organization has put together, Umanoff says; unlike many models of company and affiliated school, revenue from the school does not subsidize the company, nor does an annual Nutcracker season.

“I wish we had that cash cow,” Umanoff says.

The Center is planning to add a 10th studio by enclosing the outdoor terrace on the fourth floor and creating a terrace above it on the fifth floor. At that point the space may finally be maxed out.

“We’ll have completed every square inch we can expand to after the terrace,” Umanoff says. “Unless additional space comes up, this is where we’re at.”

Avichai Scher, a former dancer and choreographer, is a freelance journalist who has written for The New York Times and NBC News.