Spotlight On: Sustain Arts and Dancers' Group

Michelle Lynch Reynolds is the program director at Dancers' Group. We interviewed her about her organization's experience using Sustain Arts--a newly-launched fundraising tool that provides open access to arts and cultural philanthropy data. 

1. What does your organization do? Tell us about your mission and your work.

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Dancers’ Group was founded over 30 years ago by a group of artists seeking performance and teaching opportunities. It has evolved to fulfill a dual function as a support organization for dancers and choreographers, and as a presenter of performance opportunities. We work to maximize the impact of dance in the Bay Area; our mission is to promote the visibility and viability of dance. We serve San Francisco Bay Area artists, the dance community, and audiences through programs and services that are as collaborative and innovative as the creative process itself.

We currently manage approximately 20 programs, including: fiscal sponsorship; admission-free public events; the In Dance monthly print publication; Re-granting; Bay Area Performing Arts Spaces website; the annual 10-day, region-wide Bay Area Dance Week festival; Membership Services; and local, state and national Advocacy. These programs and services are tailored to the needs of a growing dance field in order to support a full-spectrum of dance-goers and practitioners, and to develop and foster a strong dance ecosystem. 

2. What role does data play in your work?

As a service organization, Dancers’ Group collects data both for our own internal use, such as for program evaluation, as well as a tool for determining the health of the local dance ecosystem we serve. Data can illuminate trends over a range of issues facing artists, such as audience engagement, donor giving, cost of living/working, etc. Dancers’ Group has published several years of reports tracking key benchmarks for a healthy dance ecosystem; we are currently working on compiling our sixth year of data for that longitudinal study (at dancersgroup.org/research).

We know that in order to be responsive to the needs of artists, Dancers’ Group’s staff and board must constantly stay in touch with what’s happening in the dance community. A strong diagnostic capacity is essential to our viability as an organization, and is a large part of all of our programs. Much of this comes from personal interactions where we learn of one artist/organization’s work, challenges they face, and opportunities on their horizon. These collections of anecdotes in combination with data from sources such as Sustain Arts/Bay Area and the California Cultural Data Project gives Dancers’ Group the knowledge we need to adapt our programs to the ever-evolving needs of the artists we serve.

3. Has using the Sustain Arts tool influenced your approach to finding your own funding? Have you learned anything surprising from the data you’ve collected?

Sustain Arts/Bay Area’s interface for exploring local funding is super-slick! A user can easily see what foundations and/or government funders have supported other dance organizations, filtered by organization size and location. Beyond using it as a research tool to find new sources of funding based on who is giving to peer organizations, it’s great for prospect research for an upcoming project that involves multiple disciplines. Are you commissioning a piece of music for your next premiere? Looking up prior funders of music organizations may help you discover a potential funder for your project.

4. Outside of funding data, what other aspect of the Sustain Arts data do you anticipate will be most useful to your organization?

Throughout the year, Dancers’ Group advocates for the San Francisco Bay Area dance ecosystem, in conversations and meetings with funders, public officials, and politicians. Through this kind of advocacy, we strive to illuminate the extraordinary vibrancy and range of dance taking place all around us. (Did you know that there are over 800 dance entities working in the region?) We also strategically push for greater support of the sector, whether that be through increased funding, addressing equity issues, the need for more dance rehearsal/performances space, arts education concerns, or broader issues that impact the arts, like access to affordable housing.

When advocating for the sector, data can be used to paint a picture of both our challenges and strengths, in a definitive way that many public officials appreciate. Data about local arts organizations can reveal a sector that provides salaries to thousands of full and part time employees as well as many more contracted artists, designers, and vendors. Using data we can make a case for how arts spending brings in over $247M annually to the City of San Francisco alone (according to the Arts and Economic Prosperity study conducted by Americans for the Arts), not including the additional economic boon that comes from arts patronage on related activities such as transit, food, and drink. These numbers pack a punch, especially when combined with personal anecdotes about the power and vitality of the arts to transform lives. 

With Sustain Arts/Bay Area, Dancers’ Group has a powerful new source of information to use for advocacy. One example of this is the Participation tool that can be used to document the aggregate and local levels of engagement in dance. The ability to filter to the zip-code level is especially useful when talking to a city supervisor, to demonstrate precise activity in their constituent area.

5. In your opinion, how can data sharing and sector-wide transparency benefit arts funding?

One of Dancers’ Group’s guiding principles in all that we do is that the dance community’s strength lies in the strength of our bonds with one another. Sharing data can help us all learn about each other’s work, spot common challenges that we can more effectively overcome if we pull together, or discover successes and opportunities that can lead towards an ever-more diverse, resilient, and artistically vibrant ecosystem. 

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Michelle Lynch Reynolds has been working in the Bay Area dance ecosystem since 2005, as a performer, choreographer, and administrator. Michelle has worked in institutional fundraising for small to mid-sized arts organizations, and served as curator of dance programming at Meridian Gallery prior to joining Dancers' Group as program director in 2013. In addition to her work at Dancers’ Group, she is currently part of the Emerging Arts Professional’s Leadership Team.