Do The Winners of Doris Duke's Leadership Grants Point to the Future of Dance?

In a perfect world, a dance troupe (just to take one example) could enjoy considerable economic and artistic success solely based on the strength of its repertoire.

Alas, we don't live in a perfect world. As nonprofits know all too well, artistic excellence is only one part of the overall sustainability equation for any organization. Bills must be paid. Donors must be appeased and cultivated. And more than ever, success must be quantitatively measured.

When a dance organization actually meets all of these challenges, it should be celebrated and rewarded. This is the logic behind the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation's new Leadership Grants Program for Dance. The foundation recently spread $7.3 million across 18 recipient organizations that demonstrated excellence in and a sustained commitment to the field of dance. 

Grants of $200,000 each were awarded to seven small organizations, while one mid-size organization will receive a grant of $400,000, and nine large organizations will receive grants of $500,000 over a period of up to four years. Potential uses of the grants exclude physical capital investments and bricks-and-mortar projects.

So how, exactly, did Duke weigh the effectiveness of the troupes in question?

The short answer is that Duke chose to support dance companies and dance presenters that "have been leaders, both artistically and organizationally, thinking creatively about reaching audiences in exciting new ways," according to Ben Cameron, program director for the arts.

The long answer is that Duke used a three-pronged criteria for selecting winners. Grantees distinguished themselves by the:

  • Quality of their choreography
  • Impact of their touring on communities across the country
  • Successful expansion of their own initiatives and educational programming

The first bullet point is a subjective one. The last two, however, can be gauged both objectively and subjectively. Programming directors—at least the ones who stringently track performance and audience engagement-related metrics—can point to the data to show that their work is reaching new demographics. And on the subjective side, some of the winning recipients, regardless of whether they have an Excel spreadsheet to back it up, are just plain cool.

For example, a single $1 million grant was awarded to the Mark Morris Dance Group in recognition of the company's excellence and efforts in the areas of education and outreach, including a program for patients with Parkinson's disease.

Running a dance troupe—or any arts organization, of course—involves juggling multiple balls. The three big balls are creating compelling work, engaging audiences, and expanding programming offerings. And to hear Duke tell it, these 18 winners have cracked the code.