One Year Later: New York Live Arts

Above, an Audio Postcard about the starting conditions for the project. 

New York Live Arts was formed in 2011 from the coming together of the Bill T. Jones/Arne Zane Dance Company and Dance Theatre Workshop, a bold merger that rocked the contemporary performing arts world.

When we spoke last year the merger was still fresh and the two organizations were still learning about how to work together as one. At that time New York Live Arts Artistic Director Carla Peterson and Producing Director Bob Bursey explained that the organization’s goal was to create a premiere choreography center that houses a major artist and to create an organizational structure that is the equivalent in daring to what the boldest contemporary artists present on their stage.

Through deepening their support for mid-career artists and humanities programming, as well as completing logistical aspects of the merger, New York Live Arts is well on its way to achieving that goal.

The Innovation

New York Live Arts’ new signature program is an ambitious residency and commissioning award that serves to support mid-career artists. It annually offers an artist a salary, rehearsal space, research resources, a budget to create and produce a new work, and the opportunity for additional support to tour the work for two years.

Executive Director Jean Davidson explained that Live Arts’ increased support for mid-career artists responds to a need she sees field-wide in dance, “I don’t think the single-choreographer 501(c)(3) model works anymore. I don’t see it as sustainable. The external environment has changed drastically since the inception of this business model in the 1960’s for dance.”

Progress to Date

Since receiving The Rockefeller Foundation’s NYC Cultural Innovation Fund award New York Live Arts has taken major strides towards strengthening their core programs and developing their new organizational culture by:

  • Completing the logistical elements of the merger: It took over a year to complete the legal requirements, create a multi-year operating financial pro forma, and to merge the staff, culture, and IT needs of the two organizations. New York Live Arts has increased staff capacity to serve new programs, is completing a studio renovation to accommodate larger dance companies, and ended the year with a budget surplus.
  • Focusing on providing support to mid-career artists: Their new signature program, the Resident Commissioned Artist program launched in 2011 with Yasuko Yokoshi as its first resident. The program offers a salary, health benefits, two years of residency time, administrative and production support and a commission of a new work to premiere at New York Live Arts.

“Mergers are not a solution that make sense for most organizations.” Davidson acknowledged, “Unless there are completely duplicative services at merger, the assumption that there are a lot of economic efficiencies in a merger is simply not true.  In our case, it was the complimentary missions of the organizations that made the merger compelling. It was mission driven. It’s been amazing to have such support from the artistic and funding communities.”

Key Lessons

Since receiving the Rockefeller CIF grant New York Live Arts has learned two major lessons that will enable them to move forward as a new organization:

  • Build trust with the artists and staff you work with when exploring new models: They brought a high level of financial and administrative support to the Resident Commissioning Program, which at first the artists did not trust. New York Live Arts had to build trust so artists, “Believe we are really going to follow through on the things we say we are going to do,” according to Davidson.
  • Support individual artists with institutional resources as a model for nurturing innovation in the field: Davidson explained that the philosophy behind New York Live Arts’ support for mid-career artists grew out of the idea to, “Take the expertise the organization has of producing work by Bill T. Jones and apply the whole administrative structure to another artist.”

Biggest Challenge

New York Live Arts has succeeded in bringing an innovative new model for producing, presenting and supporting performance artists. The challenges they face as an organization are the same challenges faced by the field as a whole: there is little major funding available for individual artists to create significant commissions; government funding for arts organizations has significantly decreased; real estate in major cities is very expensive; and artists’ expectations have changed and many expect and need to make a middle class living as a working artist.

Next Steps

The lessons and challenges that New York Live Arts has worked through in the past year will inform what is next. They are working to broaden their cultural footprint as an organization by launching more programming focused on exploring the intersections of the work it presents on stage with other lines of inquiry and activism, such as the sciences, the humanities, politics and social justice – an idea championed by Bill T. Jones. Davidson explained, “We are working to be more appealing to a more broad and diverse audience and connecting back to the work that’s on our stage.”

Davidson explained they will build their residency program through offering both financial resources and skill building to artists, “In the future we will more actively engage our artists in the fundraising process and it will help them build their skill set if they choose to take the company model on later.”  They are also honing their fiscal sponsorship program, which provides artists at any stage of their career with an alternative to the 501(c)(3) company model.

Interview conducted by Karina Mangu-Ward.  Post written by Eleanor Whitney with Karina Mangu-Ward.  

Eleanor Whitney is a writer, educator, arts administrator and musician raised in Maine and living in Brooklyn, New York. Currently, she is the Program Officer for External Affairs and Fiscal Sponsorship at the New York Foundation for the Arts. Karina Mangu-Ward is the Director of Innovation at EmcArts.