This post is part of the Customer, Client, Collaborator Series in conjunction with Doug Borwick and ArtsEngaged on developing relationships with both new communities and existing stakeholders through artistic programming, marketing and fundraising, community engagement and public policy. (Cross-post can be found at Engaging Matters.)
A few months ago, I attended the dress rehearsal for “Dreamers Ever Leave You”. It was a transformational artistic and human experience.
At the National Ballet of Canada, we have two choreographic associates, Guillaume Cote and Robert Binet. Unlike a resident choreographer post, which is often filled with high profile, well established choreographers, our choreographic associates are young, emerging choreographers. Artistic Director Karen Kain created these positions in an effort to nurture a new generation of dance makers, and specifically Canadian dance makers. These talented young artists bring their ideas to Karen, and she provides the platform, dancers, and collaborators required for them to explore and shape their ideas and hone their craft.
Robert Binet approached Karen a year ago about a new idea. Inspired by the work of Canadian artist Lawren Harris, Robert had created a solo that he now wanted to expand on. The Art Gallery of Ontario, one of Canada’s most prestigious and respected arts institutions, was to present a major exhibition of Harris’s work. Curated by the American actor and musician Steve Martin, the exhibition seemed an interesting opportunity to explore a collaboration between the National Ballet and the AGO, and a perfect platform to develop Robert’s idea. We convened meetings with AGO officials, who enthusiastically embraced the idea. Budgets were developed, Robert’s ideas further shaped with input from key collaborators from both institutions, and the spark of an idea became the transformational experience.
Twelve world-class dancers, three floor-level stages in one large white-washed gallery, beautiful and haunting original music by Canadian composer Lubimir Melnik, and no seats.
That’s right. No seats.
The intention was to create a site-specific piece that broke the rules of the traditional theatre experience. The audience was to view the performance and the dancers as if they were viewing an art exhibition. They would be invited to wander around and through the performance. They would be allowed the use of phones to photograph and video the dancers as they watched.
An invited audience attended the dress rehearsal, and we were all curious to see how people would react as they entered the gallery. Would they all stand at one end of the room to view from a more “traditional” distance? Would they wander through, catch a glimpse, and head out of the space? How would the dancers handle the close proximity of the audience, when they are normally separated by an orchestra pit and a wall of light?
As the first group of attendees entered the gallery, you could feel the discomfort as people looked for the traditional theatre trappings – namely, a seat. They gathered around the edges of the space. And then it began to happen. One by one, two by two, people began to explore the space. The more they explored, the more they were enraptured by the experience. They ventured close in, and observed the dancers as glorious statues come to life. As the piece continued to unfold, you could feel the emotion in the room. The act of walking through the space revealed new patterns, relationships, perspective among the artists and the audience. There was no fourth wall. No separation. It was a shared artistic and human experience.
In my mind, this is the future of art. As an arts administrator, this realization is both inspiring and terrifying. This project had a price tag of more than $250,000CAD. With three 30-minute waves per night of 100 patrons at a time, the box office was able to generate about $80,000. That leaves $170,000 of the cost to produce this remarkable event to philanthropy and sponsorship.
How can large institutions move toward these kind of engaging, immersive, collaborative projects, while paying artists a living wage, meeting multiple union requirements and supporting necessary staffing and facilities?
The answer, for me, is a delicate balancing act. National Ballet of Canada was able to finance this mission-critical work because we’re fiscally healthy. Revenue from other repertoire allows us to be as creative as the artists we employ in finding multiple pathways for the public to experience art. We have to recognize that the one-size-fits-all programming mentality of the past is obsolete. We have to accept that patrons of the future will want a very different experience with art and artists – more immediate, intimate, interactive. Arts engagement will be less passive and more active. Sitting in a traditional proscenium theatre will continue to attract audiences for certain kinds of important revenue-generating programming, but that must be balanced with brave new ways to engage audiences with art, like the experience I had.
It’s not about “out with the old, in with the new”, but it is about creating a new eco-system for arts consumption that provides new and exciting ways to engage and inspire audiences and artists alike. It will require reassessing our business models to ensure we can fiscally support and sustain our organizations as we shift to a new reality.
As administrators and leaders, we fight this shift at our peril. We can get ahead of it, or be left behind.
Barry C. Hughson
Executive Director, The National Ballet of Canada
Barry Hughson took his first ballet class in 1976 when he was eight years old. This began a lifelong journey in the arts. In 1979, he founded a children’s theatre company in his hometown, which was formally incorporated and received non-profit status in 1981, when Hughson was 13 years old.
In 1988, Barry graduated from the Nutmeg Conservatory for the Arts and immediately joined The Washington Ballet in Washington DC. As a professional dancer, he performed classical and contemporary repertoire at the Kennedy Center and on tour in the US, Europe and Asia. An injury cut short his performing career in 1992, and he returned to Connecticut to create a community school for the arts at the Warner Theatre, and in 1997, became the historic theatre’s Executive Director. Under Hughson’s leadership, the Warner Theatre successfully mounted the largest capital campaign in the community’s history to restore the art deco theatre.
Since 2003, Barry has devoted his career to advancing the art of dance. Significant contributions to the field include his leadership in Atlanta Ballet’s Campaign for the Future that resulted in the elimination of the company’s debt and the acquisition, fundraising, and design development of its new home. During his years at Boston Ballet, the company achieved several key milestones, including the development and execution of the organization’s Case for Giving and $10-million-dollar Clean Slate Fund, the completion of a major renovation of the Ballet’s headquarters, and returning the company to the world stage with tours to Canada, Spain, Finland, and the United Kingdom. He joined the National Ballet of Canada in 2014.
As an arts advocate, consultant, and educator, Barry has worked extensively, including teaching and speaking engagements in the US, Europe and South America. He is the Vice Chair of Dance/USA, North America’s largest service organization for professional dance. In 2015, in partnership with Dance/USA and the Royal Ballet, Barry spearheaded the first ever meeting of North American and European dance leaders at London’s Royal Opera House. In Canada, he serves as Vice Chair of the National Council for the Canadian Dance Assembly and serves on the Steering Committee for the Canadian Arts Summit.