Can Philadelphia Dance Companies Survive Without the Penn Foundation?

Dance groups in Philadelphia have their work cut out for them, thanks to a devastating funding cut from the William Penn Foundation.

The Philadelphia Inquirer described the funding cut as “abrupt,” as dance groups were given no notice or offers for transitional assistance. In 2006, Penn helped launch Dance/UP, an umbrella organization that serves many local dance companies and supported it with $950,000 in 2011. In 2013, Penn provided a $200,000 grant to fund the Dance USA National Conference in Philadelphia.

"It's like cutting off the legs and cutting out the heart," said choreographer and dancer Melanie Stewart, now an associate dean at Rowan University, said of the funding denial. "Dance/UP is essential."

It is not yet clear whether Penn will reconsider Dance/UP’s pleas for transitional funding to allow the organization to transfer programs to other groups and close its doors. But at this point, Dance/UP plans to shut down on December 31st.

"To find out it was completely zeroed out, and, 'Oh, by the way, you do great work'—that was a complete shock," said Dance USA Executive Director Ann Fitterer.

The local dance community is in shock and dismay, but it’s not giving up without a fight.

"Philadelphia was poised to be a great American dance capital," said Dance/UP Executive Director Lois Welk. "Now we're a little less poised. This is a very diverse collection of dance communities. Dance is not going to die."

The Penn Foundation (which named a new president not long ago) has recently taken a hard stance on providing the bulk of support to any single organization. Penn officials are encouraging nonprofits to diversify, and forcing them to do so by refusing to fund more than 25 percent of any organization’s general operating costs for over three years within a five-year period.

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So in that regard, this funding cut isn’t really about dance at all—it’s about investing more broadly than deeply. “Creative Communities” is still a Penn priority area that supports art, culture, and public space projects in Greater Philadelphia. Although the William Penn Foundation is the largest grantmaker in the region, its power isn’t limitless. There are over 600 cultural institutions in the region and there’s only so much foundation money to go around. The foundation currently has over $2 billion in assets.

Over the years, dance groups in the region have managed to operate on smaller budgets than, say, music or theater groups. Perhaps this is why Penn started with dance to cut funds and reinforce its strategic position. Industry experts estimate that there are 2,000 to 3,000 dance professionals involved in Philadelphia dance groups.

Historically, Penn has supported the planning, management, financial, and programming capacities of arts and cultural organizations to enable growth and diversification. Core support and project support are most common, however, Penn has occasionally paid one-time costs associated with a restructuring of an organization’s business model to build audiences and make it more financially sustainable.

To learn more about applying for a dance grant from Penn, check out the foundation’s grant page for Arts and Cultural Organizations. Certain disciplines, such as choruses and theaters, have additional eligibility requirements that apply.

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