Audiences & Technology Series: NY Live Arts is born from two legacies

Bill T. Jones begins his company’s inaugural NY Live Arts season

NY Live Arts is out to prove the old adage “all ships rise” by merging the prowess of two major legacies of the dance sector.

We spoke with JJ Lind at New York Live Arts about the challenges of the merger, what it means for the field, and the programming that’s emerged.

This is one of a series of conversations with leaders from eight organizations convening in December 2011 around the topic of Audience Engagement and Technology.

Piama Habibullah (ArtsFwd): What is New York Live Arts?

JJ Lind (Director of Strategic Innovation): After two years of a long process of which EmcArts was an important part , the Bill T. Jones / Arnie Zane Company (The Company) and Dance Theater Workshop (DTW) merged in February 2011, under the name New York Live Arts (NYLA).We are in the strategic planning process to look at existing programming and new opportunities in terms of education and engagement as part of our project, Building a New Home for Dance in NYC.

PH: What does this merger represent in the larger context of the dance industry?

JJL: The uniqueness of our structure is something that is different than what others in the field are doing. It’s something that happens in France somewhat – but really in this country we haven’t really been able to locate any other model that combines a presenter and a single artist driven company.

NYLA Curated Artist Ivy Baldwin (photo by Steven Schreiber)

What is interesting for us about it is that these are flipsides of the same coin. We spent our entire existence dealing with presenters but really not understanding necessarily the motivations behind them and their ways of doing business. The reverse was also true – even though presenters spend a lot of time dealing with artists and are somewhat aware of their needs, there’s a disconnect in terms of the ways the knowledge is shared because they are competing. What we’ve been able to do is cut through that. And figure out what the best practices are for both sides of the coin.

The way that we’re thinking about it is “All ships rise.” We’re looking at opportunities where conventional wisdom has often prevented collaboration in a way that could be mutually beneficial to both presenter and the presented artists.

PH: What are some of the challenges you are still facing?

JJL: Despite excitement over the merger, clearly when two staffs come together, there are differences in culture and expectations of what the organization is going to be doing. In the beginning, it caused some miscommunication that over time through generous dialogue and leadership has really helped us move beyond and come together as a staff.

Another challenge is that it was an expensive project in terms of dissolution of the bond debt, the actual transitions costs themselves, and the goal is to recapitalize the institution. In terms of fundraising, moving into it was very daunting. We’re all feeling pretty good now that it is moving forward.

PH: What is some of the new programing that has emerged from the merger?

JJL: When putting together the programmatic framework for the new institution we wanted to capitalize on those core competencies and create programming that stayed true to the legacies of both organizations.

Fresh Tracks Residency (photo by Michael de Palma)

What we recognized as DTW’s core competencies was identifying and nurturing the next generation of choreographic talent, commissioned through the Fresh Tracks Residency Program and the Studio Series. In addition to that, we’ve created a new artist’s residency program which is unique in that it offers one artist annually a two year commission and residency with full salary, benefits, and performance fee.

A new associate artist program emerged, built upon DTW’s already existing fiscal sponsorship program. We’re offering something we’re calling Live Guides which are electronic clickable information packets around the various departments of the organization, helping them out with introductory information on fundraising and grant writing, marketing and public relations. We’re also giving artists a free hour of consultation with the staff member in the department of their choice.

PH: What’s next?

JJL: One of the big goals is recapitalization of the institution. Part of it is for renovations and part is for building operating reserves. We are hoping to, in the long term, create a capitalization plan over 5 years. We are also planning on renovations in the upstairs theater and lobby and an ongoing strategic plan for programming.

We’re also thinking about how to get people engaged with a low impact first experience and then give them an opportunity for more immersive involvement. We’ve been able to do that pretty elegantly with offerings for artists and we’re really hoping to bring the same sort of rigor to engaging our audiences and educating younger folks.

PH: What are you excited to learn about during the Continuing Innovation convening?

 JJL: One of the more exciting things about the convening’s structure is the opportunity for peer-to-peer exchange and learning from one another because the organizations are relatively dissimilar. In dance often, you end up talking to yourself and sharing info with others within your field. We talk so much here about music models and their applications to dance – to be able to hear NPR’s perspective on that and bring in outsiders from other fields would be very informative for us.

Piama Habibullah is the former Online Producer + Communications Manager at EmcArts.