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Virtual Visionaries Week 3: Running an Arts Organization

About the Authors

From Evanston, Illinois, Julie Nakagawa was a featured dancer with Christopher D’Amboise’s Off Center Ballet, Cleveland Ballet, and Twyla Tharp Dance. Returning to Chicago upon her retirement from dancing, her interest in the development of dancers and related artistic collaborators manifested in leadership roles with Lou Conte Dance Studio; Hubbard Street 2; and DanceWorks Chicago, an artistic incubator focused on the holistic development of young creatives, of which she is Co- founder and Artistic Director. Julie contributes to the dance commUNITY as a teacher, a mentor, and champion of arts and artists.

Kari Landry is a Backun Artist and Clarinetist and Marketing & Development Manager for the Akropolis Reed Quintet, with whom she has won seven national chamber music prizes including a Fischoff Gold Medal, released three studio albums, and has received numerous grants including three consecutive Art Works grants from the National Endowment for the Arts. Kari manages Akropolis’ marketing, branding, social media, digital media, and web design. She teaches entrepreneurship at the University of Michigan, was a former Kennedy Center and University Musical Society intern, and won an EMMY for her work on A Space for Music, a Seat for Everyone.

Matt Landry is Saxophonist and Executive Director of the Akropolis Reed Quintet, with whom he has won seven national chamber music prizes including a Fischoff Gold Medal, released three studio albums, and has received numerous grants including three consecutive Art Works grants from the National Endowment for the Arts. He manages Akropolis’ finances, project development, fundraising, and strategic development. He was selected by the Michigan Council for Arts and Cultural Affairs as a 2018-19 Rising Leader. He teaches entrepreneurship at Michigan State University and has previously worked at the Detroit Regional Chamber of Commerce.

From Julie Nakagawa

Running. Interesting word selection. Definitely lots of running involved! And plate-spinning! DanceWorks Chicago’s tag line is always moving

DanceWorks Chicago (DWC) is committed to building a foundation for early career artists by providing a laboratory from which dancers and choreographers propel themselves and the art form to a new level of artistry through training, collaboration, mentorship, and performance.

While DWC may look and operate like a traditional dance company with classes, rehearsals, performances, and touring, people are our “product” rather than performances. DWC invests in relationships rather than transactions, focusing on dancers who join the family rather than dances which join the repertoire. A creative incubator, DWC fosters a diverse next generation of movers and makers, empowering young artists to cultivate their unique voices through skill acquisition and development, collaborations and relationship-building with a global perspective, intense and intentional mentorship, and performances. DWC considers the “WE” as much as the “ME” in our work to build commUNITY. There is a lot of nuance in the work of art, and crafting our message continues to be a work-in-progress.

DanceWorks Chicago celebrated its 13th birthday at the end of May. Yes, we’re a teenager! One important lesson learned growing up revolves around hanging out with the cool kids.There have been opportunities for which DWC has not been considered because some do not see us as part of the “in crowd”. There has been disappointment in that scenario, not so much the feeling of missing out, but in the realization that name-recognition is a thing. Relationship-building from the ground up takes time. This teen is interested in investing in authentic relationships.  Authenticity is cool!

The shifting environment related to the Coronavirus pandemic is, and will continue to be, a major challenge as related to physical health along with economic well-being. DanceWorks Chicago is dedicated to creating a safe space for artists and audiences. We can’t always be “in the room where it happens” (especially now); however, we can be working hard behind-the-scenes to make things happen, taking an active rather than reactive/wait-and-see approach.  A boutique organization, DWC is relatively well-situated with a cash reserve, supportive board, dedicated staff, and passionate network of artist/ambassadors. DWC is in R & D mode, using this time for experimentation, relationship-building, and reflection fueled by the resources of innovation, openness, grit, and gratitude.

DWC’s continued commitment is to a bottom line that is fiscally-responsible and reflects core values of artist empowerment, creative support, and audience engagement. Think global; dance local.

In the spirit of Chicago’s improv community, and noticing that there is only one letter separating improv (what is happening right now) from improve (the opportunity within the challenge), DWC will emerge from this unprecedented situation stronger, more knowledgeable, and more connected.

DanceWorks Chicago is always moving. It’s our tagline and our hope.

From Kari & Matt Landry

Akropolis was founded in 2009 and we incorporated as a nonprofit in 2015. Since then we’ve been operating as an “arts organization” and a music ensemble in tandem. In addition to our artistic duties, we do things that all arts organizations do — board meetings, fundraising events, grants, financial audits, etc. These things are all integral to our success now, but viewing ourselves as an “arts organization” was uncomfortable at first. We were lucky that Kari had worked at nonprofits and even earned a Masters degree in Arts Administration from Eastern Michigan University. While this was very deliberate, we were still stuck between two worlds as artists and an arts organization. 

Looking back to 2015, we faced two primary barriers to being a successful organization: the knowledge of what goes into running an arts organization, and the time to do it. But what we didn’t know in 2015 was that even then, we were already acting like a high performing arts organization. What successful arts organizations know best is what they do best, and they spend most of their time doing it, just like a committed, hard working artist. The market for the performing arts has changed dramatically, and artists must now build their own capacity to find support for what they do. An arts organization can be an artist’s tool for building the shed that protects and nurtures their creativity. But artists find the label of “arts organization” intimidating when they consider the time and knowledge they don’t have. 

Ninety percent of our organization is made up of the work we’re already doing. That’s reflected in our budgeting. We have very low overhead and the vast majority of our spending is on ourselves as artists and our programming directly. The other 10% we learned on the go, but we took that 10% very seriously. In 2017, Matt left a steady job he had for four years and worked a year full time for Akropolis without any administrative salary, in order to finish building our shed. Kari did the same a year later. We felt so confident that Akropolis’ art was good enough. We just needed a strong organization to promote and support it.

Since then we’ve never felt more connected to our art. We’ve built the capacity to take more risks, including inter-genre collaborations, jazz crossover projects, scrap metal bicycle commissions, and more. This capacity has led to more capacity, and so forth. 

We believe that arts organizations which are run (or heavily influenced) by their artists or primary program deliverers are a great example to all arts organizations of how to spend the most time on what matters most. An arts organization should always be a tool wielded by the art itself. This doesn’t mean compromising financial sustainability or other foundations of strong organizations. It means never being afraid to do what you do best just because there’s something you don’t know. You can always learn new skills, and with regard to time, we’ve found it overrated. Our art, however, is irreplaceable.

Our advice for aspiring and existing arts organizations is to spend serious time noticing what you do, why you do it, and what you spend your time doing when you’re at your best. We’re talking about the work that makes a difference in people’s lives, directly. Then, find people or organizations that work in ways that inspire you, and ask them how they built the capacity to do it. Look inside and outside your discipline, and the arts in general. From there, determine what capacity fits you best and what tools will work best for you. Keep your art at the center always, and you’ll find that building or remodeling your arts organization shed can be just as wonderful as the art inside it!

Want to hear more? Join Julie, Matt, and Kari this Wednesday, June 10th at 4:00PM via Zoom. This conversational session will delve into their posts in greater depth, providing a chance for participants to ask questions and engage with these authors in real time.