How Boise Became Dancers’ Home Sweet Home

Trey McIntyre Project dancersa the Morrison Center
Dancers Ashely Werhun, John Michael Schert, and Chanel DaSilva field student questions.

When the internationally renowned contemporary dance company the Trey McIntyre Project (TMP) needed a permanent home in 2008, they chose Boise, Idaho, a place where they felt they could thrive artistically while building a new type of community-integrated organization. Many in the industry thought they were crazy. But the city of Boise has since become TMP’s greatest cheerleader and inspiration, leading to a 2010 New York Times headline, “Dancers Adopt a City and Vice-Versa”. Executive director and principal dancer John Michael Schert has led the charge in creating a company uniquely engrained in its community, with over 40 local partnerships and educational initiatives, inspiring Boise to declare the company its official Economic Development Cultural Ambassador.

In a recent conversation with John Michael, we discussed the creative thinking and hard work behind TMP’s big move and recent innovations. Most young companies seek to emulate what’s proven successful elsewhere, but a clearly defined value system has led John Michael and artistic director Trey McIntyre to forge something almost entirely new. They’re constantly asking the hard questions about purpose and place that usually only come up in times of crisis at larger institutions. The result is a nimble, forward-looking organization. TMP is generating revenue in unique ways (drinks named after dancers at a local bar, an arts and healthcare initiative at the St. Luke’s Children’s Hospital) and actively re-defining the role of the arts in Boise, all the while maintaining the grueling schedule of an in-demand touring company. It’s ambitious work by any standards, and here’s what John Michael had to say about it.

Brian: Backing up to 2008, I’m curious about the circumstances surrounding The Trey McIntyre Project’s decision to transition from a summer touring company to a year-round touring company with a resident component. What was the tipping point, and what made settling a smart move?

John Michael: The impetus was, okay, we want to make this something we’re really delving into, and not just recreate what we’ve done in the summer.  We wanted to take it further: What can a dance company accomplish? What can creative, innovative leadership accomplish? There were many unknowns: Where would we live? What would our other sources of income be because touring wasn’t sufficient? It was more about really feeling rewarded for the rich process that had developed in the summers, and wanting to take that further.

Brian: What were you looking for in a city when deciding on a place to settle? Were you only looking at middle America, or did you consider bigger coastal cities? Were you crunching numbers or was it a more holistic process about what felt right?

John Michael: We decided not to consider New York from the beginning because we just felt like it’s a community that’s incredibly well served for dance and art. And, there is something very American about Trey’s aesthetic and about the values behind the company: earnest, imaginative, entrepreneurial, innovative, transformative, captivating, human, personal.

We didn’t want to be someplace where there were already too many set parameters and paradigms about how value was defined. And so, we asked ourselves the question of, why are we launching? The question that really came back was, to make an impact on the community in which we live and the greater nation and really create new models and systems and do it in an innovative and entrepreneurial way.

It became apparent to us that Boise was a community that was really ripe ground for this sort of creative leadership to step in. It’s the Pacific Northwest so it has a Western feel. And it’s not bogged down like other regions in the US are with their own history. In some ways, it’s a blank slate. And if you are in the business of creating, you want a community that is very excited about about change, about possibility.

Brian: How involved were the principal dancers in this decision, and how did you get buy in from the company’s staff at the time?

Trey McIntyre
Trey McIntyre, artistic director. Credit: Daniel Rosenthal.

John Michael: In terms of the dancers, we knew many of them weren’t going to be able to join us as we went to the full time phase because they weren’t in a position in their lives to be in a full-time touring company. Only three dancers including myself made that transition, so the rest of the dancers were brand new to TMP.

With staff, we knew there wouldn’t be as many resources locally, so we took all of the production staff when we moved to Boise. But a lot of the administrative staff we hired locally. Part of that was, Trey’s choreographed for pretty much every ballet company in America and I’ve danced with American Ballet Theater, Alonzo King, Cedar Lake, and other places, so we’ve seen a lot of how these organizations function from an administrative level and a leadership level. There’s a lot of good but also a lot of dysfunction. We wanted to create our own systems. We wanted people that were going to be entrepreneurial in their thinking. So we were excited to hire people who had zero arts experience, because we wanted different minds. We wanted an approach that came from the business world, that came from the marketing world, or came from, you know, different professions and not necessarily just from non-profit arts management.

Brian: You’ve been in Boise now for 4 years. Was there a honeymoon period? TMP achieved quite a bit of fame early on. How has your strategy for engaging Boise evolved since the early days?

John Michael: I wouldn’t really say there was a honeymoon period for TMP in Boise. Even with all that has been written about our accomplishments, every single moment was hard fought and hard won. We’re having to educate a community on what it is to participate in a leading world class arts organization. It means, on a philanthropic level, if Trey and I have dinner with a potential patron in New York, that donor knows they’re going to leave that dinner having written a substantial contribution. If you’re going to get access to Trey and I for a dinner, you’re going to write a 5 figure check. That culture didn’t yet exist here in Boise. So, you’re having to humbly educate, and that is a really slow process.

Of all of the things that have been written, like the New York Times pieces about all of the perks that have been showered on the company, the one thing they didn’t really touch on was the fact that we didn’t just show up and everyone was like “Here! Here is free this and free that!” Every single one of those relationships was carefully stewarded and cultivated over a period of time. And there’s also a very thought out quid-pro-quo for each of those relationships.  The one that really catches people’s imaginations on the national stage at conferences and panels is that our local bar has named a cocktail after each dancer. People seem to think that is pretty incredible. There were probably about 30 to 40 hours spent in meetings setting that up, discussing how it would be handled, how the money would flow. It’s a lot of work.

There was a lot of fear from the local arts organizations that we were going to come and steal their resources. They were looking at it from a viewpoint of scarcity, which happens a lot in the arts in America. So, we had to do a lot of relationship management in the very beginning with other arts organizations and patrons. We did not approach a single major patron in this community that supports other organizations the first two years we were here. We did not approach any of the tried and true families that have supported the arts in this community for decades. We created new sources of income: new projects, new patrons, new relationships with certain businesses, like our artist in residence program at St. Luke’s Children’s Hospital, where we go bedside to bedside. We’re paid to do that. We’ve monetized, and said this is the value of it. St. Luke’s didn’t have an arts and healthcare program, it wasn’t like we were taking that from someone else, we created it.

John Michael Schert
John Michael Schert, photographed in the foothills of Boise, Idaho. Credit: David Harry Stewart.

From a funding standpoint, from a business relationship, community relationship standpoint, there are a few things that really stand out in my mind as significant steps. One was when the city of Boise named us as there Economic Development Cultural Ambassador. And again, that resulted after hundreds of hours of meetings and documents and discussions. So it’s an honor, we’re really thrilled and proud to serve in that capacity, but what it says about the city of Boise is even greater than what it says about us.

Another significant step was our lobbying for the Morrison Center Endowment Foundation to change its distribution practices. Instead of an annual lump sum going straight to the Morrison Center, a piece of that funding is now going to user groups such as TMP to help increase usage of the Center. This is similar to the Economic Development Cultural Ambassadorship. We received grant money, but, what was not publicized was that four other arts organizations in the community got the exact same amount of money. In both cases the bigger contribution is that we’ve created a new source of funding that has benefited the greater arts community and not just the Trey McIntyre Project.

Brian: This fits nicely into the national conversation going on about placemaking in the arts and the desire for arts organizations to address the real needs of the communities they exist in. With this in mind, what sort of advice do you have for other organizations that want to reinvest in their communities but maybe feel stuck or at a loss as to how to proceed? What can organizations that don’t have the option of starting completely fresh learn from the TMP example?

John Michael: Have you read Ken Foster’s manifesto he wrote a couple of years ago? Ken Foster is the head of the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts in San Francisco. Ken said something in the document, which is that in arts organizations, the administrative side has to act like artists and the artistic side has to act like administrators. And that was a huge component of how we built Trey McIntyre Project. Each one of our dancers also has an administrative duty outside of their dancing that is their job. Everyone is playing a role.

Trey McIntyre Project dancers
The Trey McIntyre Project dancers join a local parade in Boise. Courtesy of the NEA.

One thing that Ken really put out there that I very much agree with is that, we cannot be encumbered by the structures of our institutional thinking. And there’s such a difference in sustainability and institutional survival. We become very entrenched in, “Well, we have to do this because of this, we have to grow this way because of this, we have to keep doing this because we sell season passes which makes it possible to have that income.” So, with a lot of those things we end up being in a position where you’re getting further and further from the art and the art making. You get further and further away from why you exist. Why are you creating art? Why does it matter to you? Why does it matter to your community? As artistic organizations, we are, or should be, the most creative people on the face of the planet. So why can we not create our own paradigms? Why should we not be creating our own business models?

If concepts like creative placemaking are really going to take root, it can’t just be the organizations like us that are defining it. If it is going to really happen, established organizations have to change, and changing is incredibly difficult. In order for change to happen, people have to have loss. And, most people are very resistant to loss, because it hurts, and it’s sad, and it’s hard to explain. But…sometimes you have to put fire to the woods to promote healthy future growth. That has to happen in the arts. And that’s anathema to how many organizations function because they’re so used to grabbing every opportunity and every penny they can, they can’t imagine burning down what they spent decades establishing.

Brian: With change in mind, what do you see for the future of TMP?

John Michael: Next season will be our fifth year, our 2012-13 season. It’s going to be the epitome of everything we’ve been. We’re going to be touring, a week at Segerstrom in Orange County, a week at the LA Music Center, a week at the Harris Theater in Chicago, you know, returning to many major venues around the world that we’ve toured to, participating in art on a broad, big scale. Trey’s name and notoriety in the dance world are at an all-time high, and dance companies around the world are performing his ballets. It’s all very well and good. We’ve reached the pinnacle of what we feel this version or model of a company will achieve. So now, it’s time for us to say, what else can we be? Because we know that if we continue on this path right now, just reproducing the things that have been successful for us, we will stop being creative. We will stop being artistic. And that will manifest itself in the dancers or Trey, they’ll be less committed. We might start to lose people who are here because they want to be a part of that creativity. So, you have to say, what else are we capable of? What more can be achieved? And usually, to make space for that, you have to let other things go.

This interview has been condensed and edited. Brian is an ArtsFwd Blogging Fellow.

Brian Hinrichs grew up playing the cello and began transitioning to the administrative side of arts organizations in college. He is interested in innovation through programming and technology, and believes strongly in the power of connecting audiences to the process of creating new works. Brian is currently an MBA candidate at the Bolz Center for Arts Administration in Madison, WI, where he works as a graduate project assistant for the Pro Arte Quartet and is researching the impact of composer-in-residence programs at American symphony orchestras. Previously, he was the director of marketing and community engagement at Madison Opera. As a Fulbright Fellow to Thailand in 2007-08, Brian explored the emerging classical music scene in Bangkok with an eye for organizations and composers fusing traditions. A 2007 graduate of Colgate University, he is originally from Bay Shore, NY. Follow @classicalive