What Can Dance Groups Learn from Mellon's Digitization Grant to the Martha Graham School?

New York's Martha Graham School of Dance recently received a $1 million grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, enabling it to build, digitize, and organize its archive of dance and choreography material. In the process, the school may also serve as a useful model for other nonprofit dance organizations looking to incorporate digitization technology in a structured and user-friendly manner.

Of course, it's no surprise that new archiving and digitization technologies are changing the way nonprofit organizations operate and solicit funding. That said, not all nonprofit sectors are the same. Academic and research institutions have been embracing archiving for decades now and it's only recently that arts organizations have been able to make a compelling case for them.

For example, a recent IP article looked at the Leon Levy Foundation's digitization grant to the New York Philharmonic. Rather than assisting in general programming or operational support, the grant went to digitizing the philharmonic's vast archives, and Mellon's $1 million grant to the Martha Graham School of Dance follows the same logic.

What's most interesting about the Mellon grant is the organizing principle that underlies the gift. After all, nonprofit arts organizations can pledge to archive material and roll out digitization efforts, but to what end? There needs to be a plan behind the work. What will they archive? What is the goal of archiving this work? And perhaps most importantly, how will they present the archived work such that it will be accessible and vibrant for future generations?

The school has a solution with what they call "toolkits." The school will create 35 separate toolkits that include:

  • Videos of generations of Graham dancers in rehearsal and performance
  • Stage drawings
  • Musical recordings and scores
  • Martha Graham's choreographic notes
  • Drawings and photographs of sets
  • Costume sketches, reviews and other materials
  • The center’s recently restored and digitized films and videos

Each toolkit will be organized around a specific theme or topic. (For example, the school suggested a toolkit for the ballet "Appalachian Spring.") All of this brings us to the next logical question: Now that we know what these toolkits contain, how does the company envision they'll be used by dancers and scholars in the real world? Well, for starters, choreographers can pull them up when the school revives a specific work. Students can access them to learn from their predecessors. And the school itself can lend the toolkits to other companies for a licensing fee.

Taken in total, the company's embrace of these toolkits illustrate how nonprofit dance organizations can effectively digitize their work to help preserve choreography, engage new audience, and perhaps even make a little money on the side as well.