Anna Jurkovska/shutterstock
Anna Jurkovska/shutterstock

As the founding director of the Dance Education Laboratory and executive director of the New York City-based Harkness Foundation for Dance, Joan Finkelstein is uniquely positioned to gauge the state of a sector buckling under the strain of the ongoing pandemic.

The foundation’s grantees include large organizations like the Brooklyn Academy of Music and the Joyce Theater, plus over 100 small dance troupes based in New York City. At the same time, Finkelstein told me that the crisis has forced her team to make some difficult trade-offs. “I will say that small funders—and Harkness is one—have constrained resources and sharply increased need.”

Harkness and its peers, according to Finkelstein, “may not be able to take on new grantees, since you also want to make sure that grantees that have been with you for the long haul are getting what they need.” She adds that this “balancing act is something we are facing all the time.”

Finkelstein said it will take more than funders’ adept balancing to guide dance organizations through the uncertain year ahead. Funders and organizations must recommit to continued flexibility, experimentation and the clear-eyed realization that things may get worse before they get better.

“My hunch is that funders want to see a proposal where the artist is being realistic,” Finkelstein said. “Don’t tell me you’re going to do your project live at the Joyce in January 2021. What’s your plan B?”

Supporting the NYC Dance Ecosystem

Dance patron Rebekah West Harkness (1915-1982) founded the Rebekah Harkness Foundation in 1958 to fund projects in the performing arts. In the 1970s, the foundation was renamed the Harkness Ballet Foundation, Inc. The foundation was reconstituted in 1985 with the mission of nurturing the field of dance as broadly as possible. It was merged with the William Hale Harkness Foundation in 1996 to become today’s Harkness Foundation for Dance.

The foundation has supported over 560 organizations since its inception, and provides four major areas of support: dance creation, presentation, education, and medicine/other services. It has committed multi-year funding totaling $1 million each to the BAM, the Joyce Theater, New York City Center, the 92nd Street Y/Harkness Dance Center, and the NYU Langone Medical Center/Hospital for Joint Diseases, home of the Harkness Center for Dance Injuries.

The foundation also provides program grants in the form of general operating support and project grants. These grants range from $1,000 to $10,000 a year. The foundation awarded $929,365 in grants to 120 organizations in 2018, according to its Form 990. Harkness also provides an unrestricted $5,000 Harkness Promise Award, developed in partnership with Dance Magazine, which supports emerging artists in their first decade of professional work.

Two Influential Dance Leaders

Finkelstein became the Harkness Foundation’s executive director in 2014. She had previously performed in dance companies on Broadway, choreographed for ballet and modern companies, and served as director of dance for the New York City Department of Education from 2004 to 2014. It was in this role that Finkelstein spearheaded the “Blueprint for Teaching and Learning in Dance,” which provided guidelines for dance instruction across city schools, aligning the arts and Common Core.

Jody Gottfried Arnhold, who chairs the Harkness Foundation’s board, also had a hand in crafting that document, which has since served as a roadmap for her plan to place a certified dance teacher in every New York City public school. Last year, Arnhold and her husband John announced a $5 million gift to the 92nd Street Y’s Harkness Dance Center to expand Buttenweiser Hall and create a new flexible-use space.

The 92nd Street Y is also home to the Dance Education Laboratory, which Arnhold founded in 1995 with Finkelstein as its founding director. The DEL offers a variety of dance education courses, including weekend workshops, intensives, and a summer institute for educators and artists interested in developing as dance educators.

Uncertainty Ahead

Finklestein told me that the pre-pandemic state of dance philanthropy was quite varied. Funders focused on priorities like capacity building, general operating support, and programming, while providing relatively less direct support for individual artists.

“When the pandemic hit, we did what most of our sister foundations did,” Finkelstein said, which was “to look with alarm at the shuttering activities, shutdown of touring and performance and residency opportunities, and the disappearance of the usual modes of supplementary income for dancers, like teaching or waiting tables.”

Finkelstein credited the philanthropic community for embracing general operating support and “coming together in an unprecedentedly collaborative way” to create large-scale relief funds. Harkness contributed to Dance NYC’s relief fund, which focused on the field’s most vulnerable constituencies—unemployed independent artists and small companies whose budgets fell below the eligibility thresholds of other relief funds. Other contributors to the fund include the Ford Foundation, the New York Community Trust, the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation, and the Jerome Robbins Foundation.

Dance NYC launched the fund in late March, rolled out its first round of grants on June 10, and its second round on September 17. It was around that time that Dr. Anthony Fauci said it would be at least another year before people could safely sit in a theater without a mask.

Even if Fauci is correct, dance organizations still may not be completely out of the woods come late 2021. In my recent chat with Maurine Knighton, director of the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation’s arts program, she said that there will be a significant gap between the time when public health guidelines allow audiences to assemble again and when audiences actually feel comfortable attending a performance. “That creates a further potential peril for artists and organizations,” she said.

Finkelstein echoed this sentiment. “Even if you have 25% capacity in a theater,” she said, “how does that make financial sense?”

“We Have to Find Ways Around This”

This problem surfaces a question few funders have been openly asking: What should arts funders be doing for the next 12 months beyond providing ongoing emergency support? And what are dance companies supposed to be doing?

Funders’ primary goal should be to ensure that the field emerges from the pandemic “quasi-intact,” Finkelstein said. To do so, they need to keep dancers working. “We have to find ways around this. Everybody can’t be treading water for the next one or two years.”

To that end, Finkelstein told me she was intrigued by the emergence of “pod-based residencies.” Here’s how they work: A company of 10 dancers gets tested for COVID and quarantines for two weeks in New York City. They then travel to a rural area, set up shop in a shared living space, and work for two or three weeks. (This pod-based residency reminded me of the National Basketball Association’s playoff “bubble,” in which teams competed in a controlled environment with no access to the outside world.)

In the absence of such opportunities, dance organizations may find it more advantageous “to be frank and realistic about what your long-term goals and short-term plans [are] for dealing with several scenarios of constraints,” Finkelstein said. “Now may be the time to look internally at your organization and talk about capacity building and streamlining how your organization is going to work when the pandemic ends.”

For instance, organizations should ramp up efforts to better monetize virtual programming. Finkelstein is cautiously optimistic on this front. While participants won’t pay as much for a virtual class as an analog one, a virtual platform enables companies to reach hundreds of students at once. “The learning curve for virtual content has been steep but quick,” she said, “and organizations will retain these skills when the pandemic ends.”

Until then, “this coming year, through the summer of 2021, is going to be very challenging,” Finkelstein said. “How do you survive? What will you look like after you survive? How can we use these newfound platforms to augment an organization’s reach?”

How Will Philanthropy Change?

Of course, the other big question—one we’ve written about extensively over the last six months—is how philanthropy will look by the fall of 2021.

Finkelstein said that arts funders should continue to think about its adherence to the 5% payout. “Maybe self-perpetuation isn’t the highest priority,” Finkelstein said. “The highest priority is to have a field once we emerge from this.”

She said that her colleagues told her they have been revisiting complicated proposal requirements and are “reconsidering whether they’re necessary beyond the pandemic.” At the very least, she believes that funders’ embrace of general operating support will remain in place once the crisis recedes. Other funders will continue to provide equally important support, Finkelstein said, citing Howard Gilman Foundation’s “tremendous” focus on capacity building to make organizations more streamlined and efficient.

Finkelstein’s realism about the tough road ahead has guided the Harkness Foundation’s grantmaking. “If some of our grantees are asking for support for specific programs, we’ll support them,” she said. “But if the coronavirus and new regulations make it so we can’t move forward with those programs, we can convert the funding to general operating support.”

In the meantime, Finkelstein told me that Dance Magazine will announce the winner of the 2020 Harkness Promise Award in the coming weeks.

Speaking of no-strings-attached funding, a few days before I spoke with Finkelstein, the DDCF announced the winners of its 2020 Doris Duke Awards in the fields of contemporary dance, jazz and theater. Grantees will receive an astonishing $275,000—$250,000 of which is completely unrestricted.

Finkelstein brought up the news during the call and marveled at the scope of Duke’s commitment. “This is the kind of flexibility that artists need,” she said.

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