Stuck in the Middle

Prepared for the Alliance of Mid-Career Dance Creators by Shannon Litzenberger, this report provides an examination of the challenges, needs and opportunities of Toronto-based mid-career contemporary dance creators. Based on an in-depth survey of 14 dancer-choreographers, the report notes that the mid-career dancers are on average 39 years old, with 18 years of professional dance experience and an average annual income of about $18,000.

While about three-quarters of their incomes come from dance-related activities, the dance artists volunteer a substantial portion of their own time. The artists spend less than half of their time on their artistic activities, focussing instead on administrative and community-related concerns.

Most of the artists operate on a project (or cycle) basis, engaging many other collaborators to create and produce their works: 194 individuals were paid a total of more than $350,000 in salaries and wages during the artists’ most recent project cycles. Most of the artists are relatively well-known in Toronto and much less known outside of the city.

The dancers rely strongly on government funding sources, which represent 59% of project revenues. Many cited major challenges in fundraising from private-sector sources, including “a lack of fundraising experience, a lack of scope and scale to offer real incentives for donors or sponsors and a disconnect between potential individual or communities of supporters”.

Other challenges include connecting with dance presenters and developing audiences. Consistent with the findings of the recent Hill Strategies report Patterns in Performing Arts Spending in Canada in 2008, the report indicates that the dancers’ target audiences “most often were art?going audiences from communities across a variety of disciplines like contemporary music, theatre and visual arts”.

The dance artists expressed two key needs regarding the next steps in their careers:

  1. To “expand their markets and find more presentation opportunities for their work”. Artists pointed to the need to “develop new and emerging markets for contemporary dance”.
  2. To “find and develop the appropriate administrative or organizational infrastructure to facilitate their artistic activity”. In fact, all of the surveyed artists indicated “that their current administrative capacity needs to increase in order to support their artistic activities.”

The report concludes that the dance “artists appear to be stuck in a situation where the very model they are working inside is preventing their advancement”. Following the tenets of a non-profit social enterprise model, “artists have done everything ‘right’ over and over, and this has led them toward a perfectly unsustainable working model characterized by low wages, isolation, significant personal sacrifice and minimal opportunities to advance”.

The report provides four key recommendations:

  1. Working with business experts “to explore more viable business structures focused on supporting the artist’s core activities.”
  2. Exploring collaborative working models, possibly including shared artistic and administrative activities.
  3. Developing the Toronto dance scene by building “partnerships across all levels of infrastructure and career stages to promote and raise the profile of dance in Toronto.”
  4. Opening “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”.

AIM-CDC is a collaboration of 8 independent dance creators in Toronto (Kate Alton, Susie Burpee, Tanya Crowder, Allison Cummings, Susanna Hood, Sasha Ivanochko, Meagan O’Shea and Heidi Strauss) who came together to share stories and exchange ideas on how to improve their working lives. Its members began an informal exchange in December 2009 and formally organized the Alliance in April of 2010. This commissioned report is a first effort to work collectively to achieve common goals.

Through a strategic partnership with Canada’s National Ballet School, Canadian Children’s Dance Theatre, Dance Ontario and the Dancer Transition Resource Centre, AIM-CDC commissioned this case study to examine, in detail, the common challenges, needs and opportunities they and their peers were (and are) encountering in the advancement of their artistic careers.

Here’s a feature article on the report via The Dance Current.