Valuing Dance: A Response and a Reflection

Karen Stokes
July 25, 2019 

Shout out to my colleague David Dorfman, whom I respect greatly on multiple levels, for putting out an interesting article on the question of valuing dance: “Is Dance Underfunded Because It’s Undervalued,” July 23, 2019, Dance Magazine. This continues to be something we in dance need to discuss, and it is great when substantive artists such as David write about it. 

As much as I agree with some core ideas in David’s article, I also have a couple of “contrarian” thoughts in response, which I share for discussion. 

On the topic of disliking the word artist. I understand, because there is a bit of societal disdain towards those of us who practice arts as a profession in the US. I know people who have referred to themselves as painters rather than using the term artist. But if one who practices engineering can be called an engineer, one who practices science a scientist, one who writes a writer, one who studies history a historian, etc . . . Why is it distasteful to call a person who practices art an artist? It is a pragmatic term after all. The word describes us in relationship to a practice. It seems to me that this may be a product of external forces who define the arts as being “less than” in terms of a profession, those who think that being in the arts is not only a luxury (non essential experience), but perhaps also foolish. 

I suggest that we “artists” (to use the word pragmatically) consider how the application of the word is being influenced by how society views us, rather than a word that describes the essence of what we do. To me it is simple. If you practice the arts as your chosen profession, you are an artist. Just like any other field. Otherwise we ourselves fall into the slippery hole of subscribing to an idea that “artist” is a negative, therefore a word that cannot be used. I would like to use it in plain terms, just like every other field. Not set it apart as “other.” 

Regarding the advocacy paragraph (starts with “Dancemakers”) about developing “money talk” skills, understanding capitalism, and having a prosperity mindset . . . well . . . YES. And NO. 

Over the last 25 years I have “made friends” with asking for money for my work. It is has never been something I wanted to do, but I understand it is necessary. I have taken more workshops than I can count on fundraising and related areas, and have gotten more advice than I ever needed or wanted from those who think the arts should follow corporate business models. Fundraising, and passionately talking about the value of my artistic projects to potential funders, is part of my regular practice. I teach these areas to my students at the University of Houston – especially the area of advocating the value of their work. To be frank, without fundraising, I would not have been able to execute my best work here in Houston. 

But no matter how passionately I talk about my work, its value, its positive impact, including a solid track record, this has not led to sustainability. While I do feel valued for the work I have done, I do not see the value translated into funding. In actuality, with each new project, it seems I am at the beginning again. There is little “memory” for what has been done, and only a few die-hard fans continue to give donations regularly without strong urging and advocacy. I have even been told by a funding agency that the artistic quality of work is not really considered in funding dance . . . I will just leave that there. 

The reality remains that sustainability is very difficult – and getting society to value what we do is attached to this. Even if you have a “prosperity mindset” as defined in David’s article, you cannot operate without substantive fatigue over time, which negatively impacts all aspects of dancemaking. 

Unlike a successful business model in capitalism, success in dancemaking, or choreography, remains detached from sustainability for most choreographers. Choreographers do not have the primary goal of making money. Capitalism is fundamentally about making money. 

In my opinion, it is a catch 22. Yes – fundraising skills, advocacy skills (talking with passion about your work and values), and positivity (prosperity thinking) are essential to doing ANY work at all. At the same time, we have to acknowledge that the capitalist model as it currently exists in the US is fundamentally flawed. I propose it is fundamentally flawed not just for dance, but for our society at large. The diminishing middle class and the widening gap between “the haves” and “have nots” will continue to divide our democracy if this challenge is not dealt with. Capitalism can work to a degree, but it cannot work as the sole guidepost (without regulation) or as THE top value within a society. As Robert Reich pointed out in his recent book, the value of “common good” in our society is under fire. 

At our core, we all got into this field because there was something about dance that we valued more than money. So when we talk about valuing dance, I don’t think we should talk too much about its value in economic terms. This was very popular in Houston at one point. A good deal of time, energy and money was utilized to conduct a major study about economic impact of the arts in Houston (Creative Economy of Houston). The arts DO positively impact the economy in Houston, and elsewhere. That is a fact. The information in the “Creative Economy” study is usable in grant writing. However, this comprehensive study has not led to more funding for dance in Houston. This indicates that funding for dance does not rely on an argument of economic impact. 

I want our messaging as dance artists to change. Less dialogue and emphasis on “prosperity” as it is tied to money. More dialogue on prosperity as it is directly attached to common good, the values all we share in the US that transcend the dollar: Values of kindness, of neighbors, of quality of life, and yes, of dance as an art form. 

Will that solve the catch 22 in dance? I don’t know. But it is a more interesting discussion. To talk of values beyond money is surely needed now. 

Professor Karen Stokes is the Artistic Director of Karen Stokes Dance, and Director of the Dance Program in the School of Theatre & Dance, University of Houston. 

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3 Enlightened Replies

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  1. Matt Detrick says:

    Well-written and much-needed assessment of dance and art, and their relation to economic impact. This can to easily be the end all for thinking about ‘value’ instead of the arts’ intrinsic value.

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