I wound up writing something about this for the Society of Dance History Scholars in 2005, commenting on the Kinetz article -- if this feels too long just skip to the end...
Dance in the Ownership Society
August is traditionally the “silly season” in journalism, so originally Erika Kinetz’ essay for the New York Times (“How Much is that Dancer in the Window,” 15 August 2004) seemed like just another cheerful “behind the scenes” look at the business of dance, appearing at a time of year where there aren’t as many actual performances to comment on. But it sparked a modest hubbub on the Internet, and the subsequent discussions illustrate something about the state of arts support, and our expectations of artistic freedom, at the beginning of the 21st century.
Kinetz describes the rise of direct support for dancers in ballet companies, either through an endowed position, or more frequently, and more disconcertingly, as auction items at fundraising events. As she points out, direct patronage is nothing new -- the members of the Jockey Club were patrons of the ballet just as the Imperial family in Russia and Diaghilev’s wealthy donors were. But during the intervening years some of the mechanics of arts support have changed, and in this newer context, the relationship between donor and artist appears in a different light.
One of the many intriguing side effects of the creation of arts agencies on national, state and municipal levels in the 1960’s was a shift in the public perception of the arts as a public possession. With tax money going to arts institutions, they became more visibly attached to the communities that “paid the bill.” They were included in the civic census of community attributes, and occasionally subject to some of the same budgetary reviews and oversight that other projects endured. The significant growth in officially tax exempt (501 © 3) organizations has lead to a similar growth in the number of board members involved in their administration. Their relationship to these groups is not just monetary, it’s fiduciary as well -- they are legally responsible, on some level, for the actions of the company.
This is not to say that all arts groups enjoy government support, or that all private donors have gone the way of 78 rpm recordings. But increasingly, especially in groups that have been founded in the last 25 years, the expectation of the public is that a company named after a city receives some kind of official support. This can appear as outright grants, user tax exemptions or some kind of break on their facilities rental, but it’s an unusual group that doesn’t get some kind of “donation” from the public through an arts agency. This creates a sense of public ownership that is sometimes at odds with the other kinds of fundraising that arts groups frequently do.
One example comes from Seattle, my home town, and the recent remodel of our opera house. Originally built in the 1920’s, it was in desperate need of seismic reinforcing, as well as a laundry list of amenities for performers and audience members. The financing for these improvements was, like many recent construction projects, a combination of public money from bonds, proceeds from grant applications, and direct donations, solicited by the organizations who were to use the building. Several local corporations and leading families took advantage of what have become known as “naming opportunities” to have their name attached to certain parts of the project. The hall itself was renamed after Marion Oliver McCaw, whose children run a successful cell phone business. Inside the building, the main auditorium, the smaller lecture hall, three lobbies and the box office are all named after major donors, as are the garden and the plaza outside. An impressive number of individual seats in the auditoria are also dedicated to donors, on a much smaller scale. There was a significant amount of public “tax” dollars invested in the work, but there is comparatively little recognition for that built into the structure itself. And yet, when there was a shortfall in the financing, there was a great deal of controversy about who should cover the deficit -- whose responsibility it actually was. The municipal partners wanted the ballet and opera companies to go back to their donors, but the general sentiment seemed to be that it was still a public building, despite all the individual names on it, and that the public should shoulder at least a part of the additional debt. (This particular difficulty has yet to be fully resolved.)
So when the New York Times runs a photo collage of Pacific Northwest Ballet’s Patricia Barker in full arabesque, with a price tag marked $100,000 dangling from her pointe shoe, this image of an artist for sale comes into play with a convoluted set of norms for arts funding. On one level, auctioning off dancer support is just another example of fiscal transparency -- along the same lines as the person who buys the “100% subscription,” where the true cost of presenting a season is reflected in their subscription ticket price. They are being asked to support the actual cost of doing business. In the past, donors have purchased access to artists and the process of creating artwork (like Diaghilev’s procession of potential donors) -- isn’t an auction like this just another version of “buying your way backstage?” In their desire to find another catchy way to present the financial needs of the organization, fundraisers ask their potential donors to “buy” pointe shoes and tutus. Offering dancers in the same fashion could be perceived as a difference in degree, not in kind.
And yet, the idea of putting a person on an auction block has other, far less benign, associations. The organizations that Kinetz discusses in her essay all go to some trouble to disassociate any sense of “ownership” with these programs, but those questions certainly came up in the public discussions following the Times’ publication of her article. Even some people who had a strong pragmatic take on the practice, framing it as just another way to keep dance companies alive, admitted that it had uncomfortable connections. For many others the allusions were much more grotesque.
Though we’ve all heard the description far too many times, dance is indeed an ephemeral art form, here just a minute ago but gone right now. And in the current “ownership society,” if we can’t hold on to the dance, apparently we want to grab onto the dancer.