All across arts philanthropy, funders are grappling with addressing deeply rooted inequities. This is not news to Elizabeth “Liza” Yntema, whose nonprofit, Dance Data Project (DDP), highlights persistent gender and funding inequalities in the dance space, and ballet in particular.

In May 2018, the American Ballet Theatre (ABT) announced the launch of its ABT Women’s Movement, a multi-year initiative supporting the creation of new works by female choreographers. Yntema, along with the Virginia B. Toulmin Foundation and Rockefeller Brothers Fund, was an initial principal sponsor for this initiative and continues to support its development.

Yntema is also an underwriter of Boston Ballet’s ChoreograpHER, where she serves as lead sponsor, and Pacific Northwest Ballet’s girls choreographic initiative, New Voices. In addition, she has underwritten ballets for Sacramento and Pacific Northwest Ballets, Chicago’s Joffrey Ballet and Hubbard Street Dance Company, and Philadelphia’s BalletX. Along with her husband Mark Ferguson, Yntema supports other arts and youth services organizations, with a focus on the Chicago area. 

Her expansive footprint gives her a unique perspective into a dance sector where women are underrepresented and paid less than their male counterparts. “I’m not Melinda Gates,” she told me. “I have much less money. I have to be careful and count every penny. I analyze and see why the industry is like this, and I ask, ‘can it change?’ and ‘can I make a difference?’”

Yntema believes that a key to progress is for donors to push harder for change. If donors decide to make funding contingent on an organization’s commitment to equity across key operational and administrative areas like staffing, production and HR, then philanthropy can close the gap. “These problems can be turned around,” Yntema said. “We can do better.”

On the other hand, if donors choose to keep writing checks to longtime grantees that haven’t made equity a priority, then we’ll likely be having this same conversation five years from now.

“What You Have is an Oligopoly”

Yntema’s grandmother was a suffragette and early advocate for environmental causes. Her mother worked in publishing. “I have a lot to live up to,” she told me. Yntema danced from the age of three to 13 before becoming a corporate attorney and a lobbyist. She also worked as the director of governmental affairs of the Chicagoland Chamber of Commerce, opened an art gallery, and raised three children.

An avid ballet-goer, she eventually focused on helping female dance professionals achieve leadership and pay parity after noticing a dearth of new female choreographic works. In 2015, she founded DDP as a database to raise awareness related to gender equality, primarily in areas of leadership and choreographic opportunities. Three years later, Yntema launched DDP as a 501(c)(3) nonprofit.

The project, according to its mission statement, “promotes equity in all aspects of classical ballet by providing a metrics-based analysis through our database while showcasing women-led companies, festivals, competitions, venues, special programs and initiatives.” Click here for the DDP’s 2019 research schedule.

“What was clear to me is that there were calls for change, but no real numbers,” Yntema told me. “That allowed those in power to say there isn’t a problem and continue to support the status quo.” Yntema reeled off data points indicting the status quo:

  • Of the top 10 salaries for artistic directors, only one was earned by a woman, and it was a little over one-third of that paid to the highest-paid man.

  • In the top 10 ballet companies, seven have resident choreographers—“the best job in the business”—and none of them are women.

  • For both the 2018-2019 and 2019-2020 seasons, less than 20 percent of works will be choreographed by women.

  • According to DDP’s 2019 sample, the top 10 ballet companies had 61 percent of the total financial resources of the top 50 companies. Likewise, the top 25 companies possessed 82 percent of the available resources.

“What you have is an oligopoly,” Yntema concluded, “a few massive companies who have an outsized influence, and only one of the 10 is run by a woman. All the while, smaller ballets doing fabulous work (and more likely choreographed by women) are languishing in obscurity.”

Complicating Factors

Inequities in the dance field mirror larger trends across the arts sector. Funders continue to support entrenched and well-funded organizations, particularly those rooted in or greatly influenced by the European classical form, at the expense of smaller and more diverse alternatives.

“A lot of the best work is not being seen,” Yntema said, citing BalletX as just one example of an innovative company flying criminally under the radar. “There’s a massive disconnect between the best work and funders and audiences.”

The perilous state of U.S. journalism magnifies this disconnect. Struggling local news outlets cut coverage to smaller regional troupes doing excellent work. Big-city critics review the usual suspects while their editors lack the budget to fly them to Omaha or Salt Lake City.

“And even if there was funding, they’d be more inclined to fly to London,” Yntema said, summarizing some of the key takeaways from a 2015 Atlantic piece exploring the “Death of the American Dance Critic.”

“So much of the very good work is being done by small companies that don’t get reviewed,” she said. “No one knows they exist!” And while funders have attempted to plug this gap by bankrolling performing arts criticism, it’s a drop in the ocean in a journalism space that has endured its worst job losses in a decade.

Given this context, Yntema sees the DDP as a tool to catalyze a conversation about inequities across the sector. “We don’t opine on the culture in general; rather, we provide the numbers, call attention to the gap between critical coverage and critic interest in small companies, and promote companies that are supporting women.”

“Keep Asking Uncomfortable Questions”

While the DDP’s research offerings and metrics provide a baseline to help donors gauge an organization’s commitment to equity, numbers alone aren’t enough. A funder may donate to a “female-led production,” but there’ss no guarantee that support will accrue to female artists. “Instead, she is frequently given the leftovers of casting, rehearsal time, costumes, pay, venue and touring,” Yntema wrote in a 2019 blog post.

Yntema echoes the opinions of other arts equity advocates, like Helicon co-Director Alexis Frasz, who recently told me that while funding is critical, “the system will not improve without deliberate, concerted, and sustained effort” that transcends conventional check-writing.

For Yntema, the solution is advocating for political and economic pressure through an informed donor base to change an organization’s “cultural DNA.” To that end, last year, the DDP established #ASKB4UGIVE to promote board, foundation and donor education and responsibility among the public. The platform includes an extensive list of questions every donor should ask an organization’s leadership—dance or otherwise—before cutting a check. Here are a few examples:

  • What is the gender and racial diversity of the c-suite positions beyond the traditionally female roles like director of development or community relations/engagement?

  • Will the organization commit to pay equity and transparency in order to ensure equal pay for women with the same job as men?

  • If there is a program dedicated to developing more women and minority artists in-house, how is success measured?

Yntema notes that organizations should also ask themselves these questions if they plan on soliciting funding from equity-minded funders. The exercise may lead to some awkward and unflattering moments, but that’s precisely the point. “Whether an individual donor or a program officer, it’s critical to think through donations/grants and keep asking uncomfortable questions.”

Toward More Effective Programming

Funder interest in equity also extends to the programming space. The Hewlett and MacArthur Foundations recently revamped their performing arts grantmaking strategies after acknowledging that their previous efforts unintentionally exacerbated funding and racial inequities. How can ballet companies appeal to funders pivoting to more inclusive grantmaking? Yntema cited two areas for opportunity.

First, at a more philosophical level, companies need to drag this “strange art form” into the 21st century. People are intimidated by ballet’s lack of openness and modernity. “It’s OK for folks to laugh and have fun,” she said. Women directors are particularly well-suited to guide a transition to a more “collaborative and joyful” model.

Performing arts funders are amenable to this way of thinking. The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation and Theatre Forward have supported efforts to democratize the fields of opera and theater, respectively.

Companies are also are missing out on valuable partnership opportunities with churches, fire departments and hospitals. “Those collaborations can maximize resources and also serve as an introduction that builds long-term relationships,” Yntema said. Coincidentally enough, A Blade of Grass and Animating Democracy recently published the the Municipal Artist Partnership Guide to help artists forge sustainable creative partnerships with alternative funding sources.

So funders—and remember, Yntema is also a donor—need to break old habits and support organizations that “create value in new ways instead of siloing themselves with the narrow mandate to ‘create great art.’”

Yntema pointed to the work of the New York-based Ballet Hispanico, which has incorporated “deep community engagement on every level, from its mission statement to how the company is redesigning its campus” to accelerate dancers’ mental and physical development. Similarly, check out our take on Margaret and Michael Valentine’s $10 million gift to help the Cincinnati Ballet meet surging demand for engagement offerings like Ballet Moves, which offers classes for students with Down syndrome, cerebral palsy and autism.

Areas for Improvement

Yntema told me that companies need to do more to protect young and vulnerable dancers. Companies, in their drive to increase “profitable pre-professional programming, often fail to put into place safety protocols for (mostly female) teenage dancers, alone in a new city, not speaking English as a first language.”

On-boarding manuals and training should include a 24-hour hotline, city orientation including public transportation and education about ride-hailing services, as well as psychological counseling and frequent “check-ins,” if not an established mentor program. Funders should ensure these mechanisms are in place before reaching for the checkbook.

Looking ahead, Yntema is focused on closing the leadership and pay gap across the ballet sector. Currently, only one of the largest 10 companies has a female artistic director, while companies pay women $.62 for every dollar paid to male artistic director counterparts.

Yntema believes funders can close the gap by 2021. To do so, however, they’ll need to change the way they do business: “If major foundations actually committed to deploying the information collected in their grant application process and made very clear to ballet companies, dance festivals, competitions and scholars programs that no further funds would be forthcoming without specific goals and measurable progress toward hiring women for leadership positions on the artistic side, as well as targets for commissioning women choreographers, set, costume, lighting designers, and composers, we would see rapid change for the better.”

Yntema is clear-eyed enough to acknowledge that this may be too big an ask. “It is obvious that individual donors and foundation officers simply give reflexively to their ‘friends’ on staff,” she told me, “abrogating their responsibility to affirmatively use their power to create openings for women in an industry that runs on female money and labor, but doesn’t reward it.”

Yntema isn’t entirely pessimistic, however. She told me that the field has made progress in cultivating female choreographers and applauded the Virginia B. Toulmin Foundation’s work on the equity front. Larger demographic trends are especially promising. Women make up approximately 70 percent of the donor base in ballet and the audience. “They are the economic drivers of ballet in every factor,” she said. If organizations can wake this sleeping giant, change can come quicker than expected.

Whether it’s through the Dance Data Project or focusing on women’s growing financial power in her speaking engagements and writing, Yntema’s overriding goal “is to empower women to help other each other by offering tools and confidence to use philanthropy to create the change we need.”

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