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Flash Report, 1-8: Presenters Prepare and Propose
Arts Presenters, Day Two

By Darrah Carr
Copyright 2001 Darrah Carr

With the holiday shoppers just recently dispersed and the festive decorations still sprinkled around midtown Manhattan stores, I couldn't help but liken the annual Association of Arts Presenters conference (held this year from January 6 to 9 at the Hilton New York & Towers) to one large shopping expedition. It must be exciting to be a presenter with a sizable budget -- like having a gift certificate to a huge entertainment store. Walking through the aisles of the exhibition halls at the Hilton, one is surrounded by helpful, articulate agents, who, like knowledgeable salespeople, are pitching the best and brightest artists on their rosters. I was pleased to be window shopping -- browsing at various booths, listening to a bunch of music showcases, and attending several panel discussions -- for the variety and quality of the artists being showcased is truly impressive.

The shopping analogy is not meant to imply that the job of a presenter is somehow frivolous, but to highlight the business exchanges inherent in the weekend's activities. This is the business side of the arts, and a very serious business it is, the Arts Presenters conference being one of the largest and most crucial events of the year. After yesterday, I have more appreciation than ever for the multi-dimensionality of a presenter's role. I had naively thought that the Arts Presenters conference was primarily a showcasing opportunity. While there are of course a multitude of showcases spread throughout the city, the conference's headquarters at the Hilton are abuzz with panels and focus groups where presenters, managers, and artists are tackling issues such as marketing, fundraising, arts in education, and audience development.

The first workshop I attended was entitled, "Cultural Marketing: How to Turn a Corporation into a Sponsor," and was led by Alice Sachs Zimet of Arts and Business Partnerships, who pioneered the practice of cultural marketing during her twenty years at Chase Manhattan Bank. Zimet's goal was twofold: to suggest ways for presenters to approach corporations more effectively, and to encourage corporations to use the arts as a marketing tool, without compromising the integrity of the art work. Her presentation was extremely dense, but very engaging (particularly when she tossed gold wrapped chocolate coins at audience members who answered funding questions correctly).

Zimet began with a variety of interesting, if sobering, financial statistics. Last year, the total of U.S. arts giving amounted to $14.5 billion -- which is the same amount that the government of France alone gave its artists, Zimet said. Public funding in the United States, on the other hand, amounted to merely $520 million. Individual donors comprised 73% of the total, or $10.6 billion. Foundations and corporations were equal contributors -- each at 13% of the total, or $1.7 billion. Interestingly enough, roughly 60% of individuals who gave earn less than $50, 000, while approximately the same percentage of corporations that gave are companies with budgets between $1 million and $5 million. Point being, one need not target giant corporations like Microsoft, or have access to extremely wealthy individuals. In fact, it is often more effective to approach smaller companies when requesting sponsorship or funding. Many small donations can add up to a large slice of one's required budget. Zimet gave an example of a statement stuffer printed by Chase for a well-known modern dance company that generated a total of $25,000 solely from gifts ranging between $10 and $20.

Zimet encouraged presenters to approach corporations from a position of strength, keeping in mind that arts groups offer many assets attractive to corporations, including: access to audience mailing lists and press agents; a means of increasing the corporation's visibility and improving its community image by having the company logo printed on programs, advertisements, and tickets; and benefits for the corporation's employees, such as discounted tickets and volunteer opportunities. Most important, however, arts groups can offer exclusive hospitality, or "what money can't buy." By becoming a sponsor, a corporation can invite its employees, clients, and prospects to premieres, dinners on stage, backstage tours, and open rehearsals. Zimet reminded presenters not to underestimate the power a performing artist can wield, nor the appeal of exclusivity.

The next panel I attended was quite the opposite of exclusive, focusing instead on cross-cultural exchange and inclusivity. "East of Eden: Developing a Touring Project for New Performance from Eastern Europe" featured dance presenters from Eastern/Central Europe and their American counterparts from New York.

Laurie Uprichard from Danspace Project at St. Mark's Church and David White and Cathy Edwards from Dance Theater Workshop discussed the history of their dialogue with this region, noting their original presentation of "East of Eden" as a three-week festival in New York City in 1998, which introduced the work of seven companies including Sasha Pepelyaev's Kinetic Theater (Russia), Iztok Kovac's En-Knap (Slovenia), and Yvette Bozsik (Hungary).

David White explained that the burgeoning contemporary dance scene in Eastern/Central Europe is roughly ten years old, and was pioneered by individual artists, working largely in isolation, without funding or presenters, and who are now only in their mid-thirties. Thanks to these energetic new voices, "this slice of geography has really come alive," White said. Indeed, as Priit Raud of 2.tants in Estonia pointed out, the last time he curated a festival of Russian and Baltic contemporary artists, he presented 26 companies in three days! Such festivals have sprung up throughout the region. The other panelists described similar work and progress that has been made in Slovakia, the Czech Republic, Croatia, and Poland.

In light of the exciting developments in Eastern/Central Europe, the original presenters of "East of Eden" are planning on repeating and expanding the festival in 2003. Hopefully, additional American presenters will come on board, to assist in curatorial decisions and to present the festival in locations outside of New York City, in this way further spreading and supporting the work of Eastern/Central European dance companies.

The third and final panel I attended was an extremely provocative discussion/description of the development of a new multi-media dance theater collaboration entitled "Brown Butterfly." The work is inspired by the life of Muhammad Ali and examines the tremendous impact he has had on societal perceptions of race, identity, and religion. The concept was originated by composer/trombonist Craig Harris, who has since teamed up with choreographer/director Marlies Yearby, who created the dances for "Rent," and visual technician Jonas Goldstein. Lead commissioner of "Brown Butterfly" is Aaron Davis Hall, lead by Brad Learmonth and Patricia Cruz, and the project director is Laura Colby of Elsie Management. The project is seeking additional partners. One of the most appealing aspects of the work to a potential presenter is that it seeks to engage many different kinds of audience members within a given community. As Cruz explained, the project has "multiple points of entry -- whether you are interested in music, dance, visual technology, boxing, politics, religion, or sociology, it is all woven into this piece."

After a day filled with reading printed material about artists and watching showcases where they performed, but didn't speak, it was wonderful to listen to Harris and Yearby describe their motivations for the work and their creative process. Harris played several minutes of silent footage from Ali's 1964 World Heavyweight championship victory in Miami and then asked us, "Could you hear that?" He went on to explain that he'll spend hours watching footage without sound, because he finds the sound for a compositional score within the motion that he sees. It has therefore always been a passion of his to write music for movement. The starting point for Yearby was to locate her earliest recollection of Muhammad Ali and then "go up inside those memories for a while." She then went and took boxing classes herself, in order to better understand the boxer's dance that will become this dance. "Brown Butterfly" promises to be an extremely compelling performance and I look forward to seeing it when it premieres in 2002.

 

Darrah Carr is the artistic director of Darrah Carr Dance, which performs February 22-25 at Joyce SoHo.

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