Feature: Stuck in the Middle

A Story About 14 Mid-Career Independent Dance Artists in Toronto By Shannon Litzenberger

In December 2009, a group of eight mid-career independent dance creators came together to discuss the challenges they were facing as artists living and working in Toronto and to explore new ways of working collaboratively. In April 2010, their exchanges were formally organized as the Alliance of Independent Mid-Career Dance Creators [Toronto] or AIM-CDC, led by dance artists Kate Alton, Susie Burpee, Tanya Crowder, Allison Cummings, Susanna Hood, Sasha Ivanochko, Meagan O’Shea and Heidi Strauss.

Through strategic partnerships with key arts organizations in the Toronto dance sector, they commissioned a case study to examine, in detail, the common challenges, needs and opportunities they and their peers were encountering in the advancement of their artistic careers.

The findings of the report, Stuck in the Middle: A Story About 14 Mid-Career Independent Dance Artists in Toronto, were presented at the national conference of the Canadian Dance Assembly in September 2010 and resonated profoundly with artists across the country, at varying career stages. Many delegates expressed that the working reality of the independent creator had never been documented in such a way and that the findings point to the need for a change in the way that artists, and the systems that support them, are functioning.

The research was conducted via lengthy questionnaires with fourteen indie creators. The survey examined the financial situation and business structure of participants, as well as issues related to the creation, production and presentation of their work. The report revealed that:

•The average Toronto-based, mid-career independent contemporary dance creator is 39, has worked professionally for 18 years, and earns $18, 130 - 78% of which is earned from dance-related sources.

•80% of artists function on a project-basis with a typical budget of about $27,400 per cycle of activity. Half operate as charities, the other half as sole proprietors.

•In their last cycle of activity, 14 artists engaged a total of 194 individuals and paid out over $357,000 in salaries and wages.

•Artists volunteer time in virtually every aspect of their business. For every paid hour, an additional 36 minutes of volunteer time is required to realize a cycle of activity. This does not include time volunteered by board members.

•Artists spend less than 50% of their time on artistic activity.

•Nearly 60% of business revenues come from government sources.

•Artists want and need two key things: more opportunities to promote and disseminate their work, including connecting more with presenters and new markets and an appropriate resourcing strategy and administrative support structure to facilitate a range of activities that support their artistic mandates.

•Despite an ever-evolving working environment, artists are replicating an existing business model that isn’t effectively supporting their artistic careers.

Throughout the survey, artists identified repeatedly the need for more opportunities to promote and disseminate their work, including connecting more with presenters and new markets. One respondent remarked:

“Both having more local opportunities to present work in a forum that draws a national and international buying audience as well as having some expert, experienced and committed help in selling the work would be helpful …”

Perhaps even more fundamental, respondents articulated a pressing need to build an appropriate resourcing strategy and administrative support structure to facilitate a range of activities that support their artistic mandates. Study participants said:

“I have larger and larger doubts about whether the small company structure really benefits us, or if it is just a whole extra work load. Boards, though helpful in many ways, need managing, recruiting, catalyzing, upkeep and education.”

“In the current funding climate, as artists, we are really only able to access enough money for one creation at a time, and it takes a long time to secure all the funds needed to go from [research and development] to production.”

“It often feels like we are looking within the community for money. It would be ideal to have a forum where we could build relationships with philanthropic-minded individuals.”

By all accounts, artists appear to be stuck in a situation where the very model they are working inside is preventing their advancement. This model reflects a typical non-profit social enterprise, regardless of the artist’s registered (or non-registered) business structure, where revenues are derived from a combination of public, private and earned sources. According to this model, artists have done everything “right” over and over, and this has led them toward an unsustainable working situation characterized by low wages, isolation, significant personal sacrifice and minimal opportunities to advance.

The struggle to sustain basic business functions such as fundraising, promotion, distribution and market development, poses a major barrier to these artists’ growth. Without adequate, external, specialized administrative support to devise and implement an appropriate resourcing and public engagement strategy, administrative efforts are limited to the artist’s knowledge and available time, and not effective enough to create a sustainable construct in which they can succeed.

After nearly twenty years in the field, credible mid-career artists who regularly receive public funding are identifying considerable limitations to their own progress. The public funder can’t keep pace to play the role it did two or three decades ago and it’s inevitable that the pace of growth in the sector will continue to outpace the growth of available resources from government.

The report makes four key recommendations about how independent dance creators can work together to move forward.

1.Form partnerships with the business and academic sectors to explore more viable business structures and financing models focussed on supporting the artist’s core activities.

2.Explore collaborative working models and opportunities that move the artist away from the independent working environment and toward a more supportive, collaborative environment, reducing the feeling of isolation and burden associated with individually facilitating all aspects of an arts business.

3.Spearhead a sector-wide effort to develop a Toronto dance scene, creating partnerships across all levels of infrastructure and career stages to promote and raise the profile of dance in Toronto. These efforts should be grounded in a spirit of solidarity, focussed on raising the profile of the whole, rather than the individual.

4.Open a dialogue with public funders, private sector supporters, and presenters, about how values can more closely align to better facilitate a fluid and viable working model and environment that supports the creation, production and promotion of new dance work, reflective of a contemporary context.

As Albert Einstein so wisely said, “The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result”. AIM-CDC’s collaboration to formally document the working lives of the mid-career indie dance creator is already a step toward the change they want and need to see. Collaboration is key and, together, change is possible.

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