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January 30, 2015

Philly dance community reacts to major funding crisis

Sudden Dance/UP defunding delivers big blow to dance

Live Arts Dance
Lois Welk Thom Carroll/for PhillyVoice

Dance/UP Executive Director Lois Welk at the service organization's 1427 Spruce St. office.

“This is not about saving Dance/UP, or keeping Lois Welk in Philadelphia.”

This is the statement that Dance/UP Executive Director Lois Welk emphatically throws out as a preface to a Dec. 10 dance community meeting at University City’s Philadanco

Welk has organized a series of three meetings to, in a metaphorical sense, strip the car for spare parts. About a month prior, Dance/UP, a nonprofit operating under the national nonprofit umbrella of Dance/USA and the sole service organization for all of Philly’s dance world, lost not a quarter, or a third, or half, but all of its funding from the William Penn Foundation, which had funded it in three-year cycles since 2006 and accounted for about 80 percent of its total revenue (and would have accounted for 75 percent in the upcoming cycle). 

In response, about 20-plus members of the dance community have gathered for this particular meeting to determine which of the organization’s programs are capable of (and worth) being saved. 

“This is so sad,” I hear one woman lingering in the back whisper. 

As she says this, the collection of Philly dancers, choreographers and company owners before her is prioritizing which programs they value most by placing different colored dots on poster sheets – yellow means “low priority,” blue means “medium priority,” and green means “If I could only save one.” Their values as dancers are essentially reduced to a handful of stickers.

“It feels like picking at a corpse,” Ken Metzner, executive director of Kun-Yang Lin Dance Company, tells me at a later community meeting, as a group of Philly’s most promising dancers scatters to press their thumbs to paper.

After dotting the poster sheets, they scurry to their seats for a discussion about the programs and why some might be more valuable than others. But the room is surprisingly quiet, not particularly engaged with the topic of only saving a few of the programs -- everyone side-eyes each other with looks of … Is this really happening? It’s not until weeks later that I understand why: No one wants to talk about which programs to save, because they want to save them all.

Here’s the long and short of it: Welk – by all means a visionary of a woman who knows her audience -- is leading the dialogue with a disclaimer that the discussion is not about defibrillating Dance/UP or keeping her brand of leadership in Philadelphia, but the collective response behind every silent voice box in the room is this: Why not?

The Trickle-Down Effect

First things first: Dance/UP is not, itself, a producer of dance.

This is important to understand upfront, because it’s not as though a few artists at a particular company are being displaced – instead, in a theoretical sense, every dance artist in the city is. As a service organization, Dance/UP's mission is to provide the entirety of the Philadelphia dance community with a safe space, consultation resources and an array of programs that serve as scaffolding for dance companies low on deep-pocketed connections in the funding world. Among its practical services: A lending library of books on dance; private consultations (and grant reviews) with Welk herself; a (neutral) meeting space at the nonprofit’s 1427 Spruce St. location; an e-newsletter with job and grant listings; a movable, low-rent floor for all dancers’ use; and programs like New Stages for Dance, which underwrites venue costs for small companies (a big deal when the median dance budget is, according to Philadelphia Cultural Alliance’s 2014 Portfolio survey, $43,000 to produce and display work), and Dance in Public Places, which has put together two major free public dance performances in spaces like The Gallery

The Delicate Hour
"The Delicate Hour," by Molly Shanahan and Mad Shak, is performed at Temple University's Mitten Hall on Friday, Jan. 23. Temple students are among those who may see an impact as a result of the funding refusal. / Thom Carroll, staff photographer for PhillyVoice

It’s both a road sign for lost dancers and the road itself.

“It’s like the free clinic,” Welk told “Even if you never used it. It’s almost like, ‘I never got sick, but I was really glad it was there.’” 

And much like a free clinic, it’s sometimes difficult for service organizations like Dance/UP to quantify what’s being accomplished, and even harder for funders to ascertain its actual needs through metrics. Money pours into it, but not necessarily out.

So, what happens when the free clinic – a lifeline in some communities -- shuts down? 

“How are you to make good art when you’re always taking care of everything but making art, you know?” Lela Aisha Jones, a local dancer and owner of FlyGround Dance Company, told after a community meeting. She lamented that she’ll no longer have a go-to resource for business advice and, in particular, networking in a city culture that can sometimes feel very stratified. “If you don’t know the right people, you’re not on ‘the list.’ Lois made sure people were on that list.”

“A lot of people, they feel fragmented here,” Joan Myers Brown, founder of Philadanco and recent winner of The White House’s National Medal of Arts, told “But I think Lois has erased some of those areas of discomfort. … My company is 45 years old, so I’ve seen it all, and [Dance/UP] brought people together for the first time ever.”

The impression left on many in the community: The foundation – for all its good intentions -- just doesn’t grasp the wide-reaching work the organization did. And, understandably, a sudden defunding of any variety can tug (yank, really) at emotions and lead to both skepticism and outrage in a community.

“When you look at something that’s of value to the whole community, it’s not like it’s just another dance company," says Joan Myers Brown, founder of Philadanco. "If we don’t fund Joe Blow’s dancers, the only person who will miss it is Joe Blow and his dancers. But if you fund someone who’s funding 14 Joe Blows, then 14 Joe Blows feel it.”

“I feel like the people who made the decision didn’t have the right information,” a miffed Leah Stein, who owns Leah Stein Dance Company, told after a community meeting. “I feel like if they had the right impression of the organization and the significance of it, they wouldn’t have made the choice they did. … It’s insulting. But at least we’re all very resilient – we’re used to this. And there’s all kinds of ways to read into this that could be true, but I don’t know what the truth is.”

And that’s just it: What is the truth? The trouble is, it’s difficult to pinpoint an absolute right or wrong in this scenario; the case the William Penn Foundation would make (the foundation would not release an official comment beyond its press statements) is that it can only fund so many cultural organizations – especially when it claims to deal with as many as 600.

Here is part of the foundation’s Nov. 19 statement about the decision:

“…the foundation continues to seek ways to maximize the impact of its grantmaking while also working to ensure that its grants do not represent the majority of any one organization's budget. For many years, Dance USA/Philadelphia has served the local dance sector with intelligence and great energy, and we were proud to be able to support its work. Dance USA/Philadelphia's closing is an unfortunate illustration of the challenges the sector continues to face, and highlights the need to find solutions for a more-sustainable arts community."

The foundation’s case is, on the surface, hard to argue with – If you can’t keep yourself solvent, you probably shouldn’t be trusted with sums of money that measure in the hundreds of thousands -- $280,000 per year in general operating support, in this case. The foundation emphasizes its grant support of 79 dance organizations totaling $22 million since 2000, but it’s hard not to notice the rather expansive 14-year stretch that covers (it says nothing about the foundation's current funding habits). And what appears to not be taken into account, in the case of Dance/UP, is extended impact – everything the earned revenue numbers don’t show.

The Delicate Hour
"The Delicate Hour," by Molly Shanahan and Mad Shak, is performed at Temple University's Mitten Hall on Friday, Jan. 23. / Thom Carroll, staff photographer for PhillyVoice

“What they’ve said is, ‘We have so many organizations to fund, blah, blah, blah,‘ -- that’s what everyone says,” Myers Brown adds. “But when you look at something that’s of value to the whole community, it’s not like it’s just another dance company. If we don’t fund Joe Blow’s dancers, the only person who will miss it is Joe Blow and his dancers. But if you fund someone who’s funding 14 Joe Blows, then 14 Joe Blows feel it.”

Take away programs like New Stages for Dance, or eliminate creative resources, and suddenly, dance companies themselves need to find more funding – and if they need more funding, whom else do they go to, if not the William Penn Foundation or individual donors? (Making matters worse, Pew Charitable Trusts has reshaped to focus more on cross-disciplinary work in recent years.)

And here’s the ultimate catch: Dance/UP actually did have a plan for the sustainability the William Penn Foundation sought, Welk says, which was even on the table. But, like the Carpathia before it, it was a savior that came too late. 

Fairy Godmother of Dance

On a coffee table at Dance/UP’s office space is a stack of business cards that read as follows: “Lois Welk – Fairy Godmother of Philadelphia Dance.” On the back is a poem.

“That’s not my actual business card!” she says when I ask her about it. “My staff made them for a party. They call it a prayer card – they’re praying for the dance community. … The poem [on the back], they read it as a joke to me – they did this whole thing where they read a funny poem about saying prayers for them to guide me through the valley of darkness to the foundation’s support.” 

She continues to giggle and explains it as getting “Punk’d,” but what’s lost on her is just how essential she is to everyone in the dance community – the “Fairy Godmother” label might’ve been less tongue-in-cheek than she realizes.

“Lois Welk is a treasure to the dance community,” Metzner says to me, before I ever bring her up. “She’s someone whose experience ranges from performing artist, to creator, to presenter, to grant panelist, to advocate – her experience is unmatched in the contemporary dance field, nationally and internationally. Just to have her in Philadelphia has been an incredible gift to the community.”

And that’s the sort of description I hear over and over again as I chat up dancers in the Philadelphia community – people who toss out words like “visionary,” “mentor,” “innovator,” practically everything but Overseer of the Heavens. 

Her background: Founder of the American Dance Asylum (where she produced shows for 25 years), former director of 171 Cedar Arts Center in Corning, New York (where she earned a Governor’s Arts Award) and artistic director for The Yard Inc., an artists' colony in Martha’s Vineyard. She also is a member of more boards than are worth counting off. She is, as one consultant of hers put it to me, a woman who “announces herself,” rather than asks for something. 

I meet her mythic self, dressed in a teal blouse, black pants, thick spectacles, white pearl earrings and ever-wide eyes at the Dance/UP office one mid-December afternoon. (We sit together on a blue sofa in the common area – she gave up her office in May 2014 to save money.) Immediately, I can’t help but notice some quirks: She’s the type to stare off when she speaks, always careful of what she’s saying. She also waves a blue pen around in her hand with an air of “I mean business” when she really wants to hit home a point and, when discussing items of particular interest, springs to life with a herculean energy that leads you to believe she could lift a boulder with her pinky if she really tried. I start to understand the hype.

Still, for all her seriousness, status and clout in Philadelphia dance, she’s more Ms. Frizzle than Anna Wintour. She’s the gal who, when she comes up with an idea, makes the effort to call up her cohorts and the Magic School Bus and navigate through the depths with an open mind. Myers Brown describes her to me as “a thinking woman,” but she’s also quite the doer. 

Sitting on the couch together, she explains to me – in a tone of great disappointment – the failed business model she’d devised and brought to the William Penn Foundation, clearly aware that she needed to demonstrate more effort in the realm of sustainability than just giving up her office.

So, she submitted a letter of intent and a proposal to the William Penn Foundation alongside her request for operating support – part of a process for what’s called “transformational funding,” or funding that dramatically overhauls a nonprofit organization’s source of earned revenue. 

Here was her pitch: She worked with Jeanne Ruddy, owner of the Performance Garage dance artist venue in the Spring Garden neighborhood, to develop a lodge for dancers, artists and everyone behind the scenes. Dance/UP would have renovated two floors that are currently unused to create six units – one apartment, four single rooms and a common space with a kitchen. 

“I even went to an international conference of innkeepers to research this,” she says – blue pen slashing the air. 

“I was optimistic that this was going to be a fabulous [business] model,” Welk says. “We put a lot of resources into this plan.”

Welk says she’d had architects complete mock-ups and was prepared to create a separate nonprofit group to manage the space; by Year Three, she says, the “money would be flowing,” and by Year Six, the lodging would be able to sustain the organization. She also would have moved her Spruce Street office to the second floor of the Garage to save rent. On the business end of things, her nose hit the books from the get-go: According to her market research conducted alongside the Greater Philadelphia Film Office, she says, at least 20,000 film crewpersons are placed in hotel rooms each year – “And they’re not all superstars able to stay at the Ritz-Carlton,” she adds. 

Thus, when the William Penn Foundation invited her for a full $2.1 million proposal for the project early in 2014, she was hopeful, but also a little confounded. 

“I called our LOI [Letter of Intent] officer and said, ‘I’m a little confused. We’re putting in a general operating proposal at the same time we’re putting in a transformational proposal – should I write the general operating proposal assuming we’re opening a mini-hotel in two years?’” Welk says. “And they said yes! They said to assume success of the transformational proposal.”

Then the William Penn Foundation phoned her in March 2014 to inform her that the conditions of the proposal had changed, and she would only be eligible for $1.7 million – over a three-year period. The money, she says, was needed upfront, leaving her with a $400,000 hole that she couldn’t fill; she had to pull the proposal.

“I was optimistic that this was going to be a fabulous [business] model,” she says. “We put a lot of resources into this plan.”

After that, she said she was aware of – prepared for, even – the possibility that the foundation might cut more of Dance/UP’s support than she preferred. She submitted her full proposal to the foundation budgeted with an expectation of a 20 percent cut in operating funding. What she got instead was a complete denial of funds altogether, with no transition support – or at least not until after Welk put in a beg-or-starve request that was approved on Dec. 12. (At $89,000, it totals enough funds to keep the staff paid through March.)

Everything went into “suspended animation” when she got the phone call that Dance/UP would not be funded, she says – there was no scrambling, but a sense that there was nothing left to be done. She gets a little teary when talking about the closure of the organization.

“’It gave us hope,’ is what someone said to me at one of the meetings,” she says, voice going quiet, and her wide eyes suddenly narrowing. “There’s an invisible value to it, and that does seem to be a feeling of hope.”