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Are Choreographers Evolving Beyond the 501(c)(3)?

Over the past several months I’ve been engaged in a strategic planning process with Dancers’ Group, a service organization for dance in the San Francisco Bay Area. Through a series of stakeholder consultations with dancers, choreographers, executive/artistic directors, and funders, we learned a wealth of information about the local dance community. One common observation resonated with me more than others; succinctly put by one of the interviewees, “The dance company model is dead.” I heard similar intimations last year in another study of the stylistic landscape of the dance presenting field. The crux of the matter is that fewer dance artists are growing through the “system,” choosing to make work without a nonprofit legal structure. Many see this as a means for greater agency over their art — deciding on a project-to-project basis how, where, and with whom they want to create dance. While this approach to artist development is nothing new, this growing trend leads me to believe that many choreographers no longer see the nonprofit legal structure as optimal. If this is true, what does it portend for the dance field, as well as for the nonprofit arts and cultural sector?

I can’t help but also ponder the implications for funders. Although unincorporated artists have ways to bypass the nonprofit “system” by way of a fiscal sponsor — effectively allowing them to apply for grants as if they were a 501(c)(3) — the funds they seek are still geared towards incorporated entities. How might funders and individual donors adapt to this changing landscape? Perhaps with smaller ‘micro grants’ with a quick turnaround? Could funders take further advantage of crowdfunding platforms to leverage support from a wider base of individual donors? And then there are the intermediaries — organizations that receive monies from funders to re-grant. These organizations often have their ears to the ground, and are key in supporting choreographers that operate outside of the nonprofit legal structure. How could their roles be strengthened? If choreographers are moving towards less infrastructure and more flexibility, it seems to me that institutional funders as well as private donors should begin to think about how to emulate this shift, mirroring the very nature of contemporary dance: ephemeral, adaptable, and experimental.

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