Moving Dance Forward

Twenty Years of Grantmaking for a Changing Landscape

Cathy Edwards

As a new administration enters our nation’s White House, it is timely to reflect on the way that private philanthropy and public foundations joined forces to step into the gap when federal funding for the arts was dramatically reduced in the early 1990s.

In 1996, the New England Foundation for the Arts (NEFA) responded to the demise of the Dance on Tour program of the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) by designing a grantmaking program to invest in dance artists to create and tour new work. The NEA provided critical start-up support to launch this new initiative, the National Dance Project (NDP), which has now been making grants and providing support to the dance sector for twenty years. In that time, NDP has made $33 million dollars in grants to support 344 unique artists’ work with 787 cultural organizations across all fifty states and Washington, D.C., reaching over 2.7 million audience members.

National Dance Project grant recipient Aparna Ramaswamy, Wesleyan University. Photo by Ed Rudman.

National Dance Project grant recipient Aparna Ramaswamy, Wesleyan University. Photo by Ed Rudman.

Why did NEFA and our partners and investors at foundations, such as the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation and the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation, step into this particular gap when the NEA was forced to retreat? Dance artists had historically been forming into dance companies with a lead artistic voice at the helm, attaining nonprofit status, and relying on earned income from touring as an engine to create new work and sustain operational costs. To ensure the security of the dance sector, initiatives to invest in the cycle of creation and touring were essential. For those who believe that dance occupies a unique and powerful place in our cultural landscape, it was a critical moment for philanthropic action.

Building a new funding stream for dance in the mid-1990s provided an opportunity to acknowledge a shift in the landscape. Dance artists were beginning to work as individuals, with a choreographic practice that was project based, and a business model that did not necessarily involve organizing themselves into a 501(c)(3) organization and sustaining a company. NDP organized itself to make grants to individual choreographers working in a project-based manner, who received their funds under the auspices of a fiscal sponsor, as well as to organizations and dance companies.

To assess the impact of twenty years of philanthropy in the dance sector, NEFA commissioned Metris Arts Consulting to evaluate trends in NDP grantmaking data. We also asked Metris to ask the dance field about current needs related to creation and presentation of dance. Our goals were to learn about the strategies of our grantmaking in dance that had the most impact for our constituents, and separately to assess the current needs of the field so we could identify gaps for ourselves and for other stakeholders. Metris accomplished these objectives through surveys (534 dance makers and 250 dance presenters participated), interviews, focus groups, a literature review, an inventory of existing NDP data sources, and secondary quantitative sources. In this article, we share findings from the Metris report, Moving Dance Forward: NEFA’s National Dance Project at 20 and Critical Field Trends, related to twenty years of grantmaking in the dance sector and current needs of dance makers and organizations that present dance in communities.

Holistic Support Is Critical

In the dance ecosystem, the holistic model that NDP has employed of providing grant dollars to both artists and to presenters, with an eye to engaging audiences and communities, is viewed as critically important to sustaining the field. It will be no surprise to learn that today’s dance makers and presenters operate in a climate of resource scarcity and rising costs, documented in the Moving Dance Forward study.

Cambodian Stories by Eiko & Koma. Photo by Marc Ray.

Cambodian Stories by Eiko & Koma. Photo by Marc Ray.

We learned that receiving a grant of creation funds enables artists to undertake more ambitious projects. A less-anticipated finding is that artists credit the addition of funding for tour support as contributing both to the evolution of their work and to their professional development by enabling them to learn new producing skills and build their relationships, network, and capacity. Artists who received grant support for the end-stage production residencies (in addition to their creation and touring support) and who participated in the Regional Dance Development Initiative experienced particularly high professional development and networking benefits.

We also learned how grants to dance presenters incentivize presentation of dance, even though they cover only a portion of costs (in the case of an NDP grant, averaging 25 percent). For example, over a third of presenter survey respondents indicated that they present less or no dance in years when they do not receive an NDP grant. Grantmaking to subsidize dance presentations is especially critical to colleges, rural presenters, newer dance presenters, and those with smaller budgets.

Grants also play a critical role in allowing presenters to take risks: high majorities of presenter survey respondents said presentation grants enabled them to work with new artists, present artists with more complex projects, and take artistic risks. This was an exciting finding that indicated that curators and programmers are eager to be innovative in their work and that grants serve as a catalyst and as risk capital for them to try something new.

Is Touring Relevant?

Twenty years of consistent grantmaking through a single initiative is a remarkable achievement, but the environment has changed in those two decades, and a critical question for us was, is touring still a relevant goal for dance makers? We found strong evidence that dance makers and presenters perceive touring to have declined, but our data show that within the universe of NDP grantmaking, touring has remained consistent over time. For instance, both the median and average number of NDP-supported engagements per tour are six, when looking at five-year periods across NDP’s twenty years. This suggests grantmaking is a high-impact bulwark against decline in touring.

Do dance makers want to tour? And why? Findings from our research indicate that in 2016, 73 percent of survey respondents tour their work, and of those that don’t, 83 percent would like to. One key change in the environment since the launch of NDP is that touring as an economic motivator may be growing obsolete. Although dance touring may have once been a source of sustaining revenue, for both presenters and dance makers, costs are now the top barrier for each to do their work.

The top motivators for dance makers to tour are to reach new and wider audiences and to increase their visibility. And the top motivators for presenters to present dance on tour are intrinsic — because it is tied to their mission, because individual curators are committed to the art form of dance, and because dance connects audiences to diverse cultures and art forms.

Audience testimonials and the sheer numbers of individuals reached during twenty years of grantmaking for dance presentations across America illuminate how providing philanthropic support for dance benefits audiences and communities. Evidence reveals that grantmaking expands access to the arts by reaching youth, audiences of color, and rural and transgender audiences. Research data credit grants with enabling presenters to deepen relationships with existing audiences, attract new audiences, and diversify their audiences. This is of special importance because the field faces challenges with audience diversity in terms of education levels, income, and race, although non-ballet dance attendance rates increased somewhat from 2008 to 2012, and rates of attendance by audiences of color increased for dance from 2002 to 2012.

Diversity and Equity: Geography, Race, and Aesthetics

From its inception NDP strived to celebrate the strength and diversity of dance in America by supporting a wide range of dance projects and artists with regard to aesthetics, career stage, gender, race, ethnicity, disability, and geography. How many artists have received grants, and what are their characteristics?

NEFA has awarded grants to 344 unique dance artists, of whom 296 have received core production and touring awards, from twenty-four states and the District of Columbia. The vast majority of grants are made to those living in nonrural areas, and strikingly, grants awarded to New England, southern, and mid-American artists make up only 5.5 percent of all awards, so there are needs and gaps to address in those regions of the country when it comes to supporting dance makers to achieve visibility in a national context.

Available data reveal that grantmaking through NDP has consistently supported artists of color. We have individual data on the race/ethnicity of 53 percent of our grantees, and of those grantees, half are artists of color and Native American artists. The five dance artists/companies who have had the most NDP-supported touring engagements are all dance companies headed by artists of color.

Does grantmaking through NDP provide onetime support or sustaining support? Metris research into NDP data revealed that 65 percent of NDP artist grantees have received one award over the twenty years of grantmaking, 35 percent have received multiple awards, and a subset of twenty artists have received five or more awards. These data demonstrate that NDP provides some artists with a sustained source of funding but that there continue to be opportunities for artists to “enter” the national touring context in dance and that grantmaking is an important gateway opportunity for artists. Of the twenty artists who have received five or more awards, over 50 percent are artists of color, and one is a mixed-ability dance company.

The data show that 30.3 percent of all choreographers in the workforce are people of color or Native American, a higher percentage than for all artistic occupations combined. While we celebrate the diversity of the individuals who work as choreographers, and NDP’s sustained robust support for artists of color, we conducted focus groups specifically related to issues of diversity and inclusion in dance, and our focus groups spoke to systemic inequities that affect support systems for ALAANA (African, Latino/a, Asian, Arab, and Native American) artists working in the dance field. In particular, focus group participants challenged us and other grantmakers to ensure that participants on grantmaking panels possess more cultural fluency and intentionally include people of color and panelists who understand different cultural contexts. Focus group participants also encouraged grantmaking support that honors authentic and sincere community engagement, recognizes that it is often artists of color whose work requires the additional time and investment in community practice, and takes into account systemic inequities when it comes to access to resources, both racial and geographic.

Who and Where Are the Cultural Organizations That Present Dance?

Metris research revealed a robust and large cohort of organizations that present dance in the United States. NDP has made grants to subsidize the costs of dance presentation to 787 different presenters in all fifty states and the District of Columbia. Research findings reveal that grant support plays especially important roles in seeding presenters new to dance, and provides sustaining support for a core of committed dance presenters. Grouped by “type” of presenter, grant support has gone to over thirty kinds of presenters, from colleges and universities, to festivals, to museums, to parks and rec departments.

NDP has supported presenters in all fifty states and the District of Columbia. California (12.2 percent) and New York (9.9 percent) top the list as the states claiming the most grants — unsurprisingly given the reputations cities within these states have as dance hubs and population centers. California and New York are followed by Pennsylvania (6.8 percent), Massachusetts (5.7 percent), and Florida (4.8 percent). In all five-year periods of NDP grantmaking, California presenters were associated with more NDP grants than presenters in any other state except for 2011–15, when New York presenters received slightly more.

Of special interest in today’s climate is that the number of organizations located in rural areas who receive grant support to present dance is slowly climbing. The five-year period 2001–05 saw the lowest percentage of NDP grants to rural presenters (5.6 percent), followed by a steady increase in the five-year periods since (7.3 percent in 2006–10, 8.4 percent in 2011–15, and 10.4 percent in 2016).

The Moving Dance Forward research revealed that participation in NDP’s holistic processes heightens artists and presenters’ connections, knowledge, confidence, and standing. Seventy percent of presenters surveyed said NDP support improved their standing and reputation, and 61 percent said it helped them make the case to present dance to boards and/or funders. These findings were especially intriguing, indicating that curators and programmers give credit for being part of a national grantmaking initiative and that caring for the dance ecosystem writ large adds value to their own practice and professional credibility.

Looking Forward: Community Engagement and Structures for Sustaining Practice

Deep community engagement is a shared interest of both dance makers and dance presenters. Pairing tours with deep engagement is the top-ranked model that dance-maker survey respondents plan to use in the next five to ten years to meet their touring goals. Presenters agree: 73 percent believe it is very important to include community engagement and educational offerings alongside dance presentations. Dance makers also envision that future touring practice will include presentations in unconventional dance venues, and peer-to-peer touring opportunities.

To support the creation of dance work, survey data suggest project-based models are used most extensively by dance makers, not 501(c)(3) company models. The second most highly used model is equal collaborations with cocreators. However, fundraising through grants is still the form of support dance makers rely on most heavily, pointing to the importance of fiscal sponsors to the dance sector. The second most important resource for dance makers is in-kind support, speaking both to donations of space for creation, and to donations of time from collaborators. Fundraising from individuals is the third most relied-upon source of support, but through traditional means of cultivation, as crowd funding ranks lowest of all means to support the development of new work. In dance, a strong bench of fiscal sponsor organizations appears to be critical to the success of the field.


Core values of supporting diverse artistic voices, engaging deeply with community, and innovation and risk taking in practice are closely associated with dance making and dance presenting, and Moving Dance Forward research suggests that both artists and presenters seek tools to adapt dance touring models accordingly, to share knowledge, and to deepen relationships and partnerships that support the dance ecology as a whole.

The Moving Dance Forward report reveals a number of critical areas for those funders interested in supporting the evolving needs of the dance sector. How can we better support dance makers and communities affected by systemic inequities, from race to geography? How can we create funding structures that will support holistic professional development in addition to providing a financial investment? What opportunities do we have to reinforce especially vulnerable dance presenters, including those in rural areas and of small budget sizes? And how can our grantmaking models make room to award grants to collaboratives and artists organizing themselves outside of the 501(c)(3) system?

For NEFA’s National Dance Project, the findings of this study will inform our strategies for the coming five years. Among our key areas of work will be to offer additional support to presenters working in rural areas and geographies that are less served by dance, where grantmaking support has a critical impact in enabling the presentation of dance. We are also developing a new fund to support community engagement practice for those artists whose work engages community deeply while on tour, and who require additional resources to underwrite their time and practice. And we will provide additional professional development support to first-time grantees, to ensure that the opportunity to receive a national grant on the scale of an NDP grant is a catalyst for learning and opportunities that will serve artists for the long-term, even after the multiyear cycle of their NDP project is complete.


The report Moving Dance Forward: NEFA’s National Dance Project at 20 and Critical Field Trends, by Metris Arts Consulting (Anne Gadwa Nicodemus and Rachel Engh), is available at