Entrepreneurship in the Arts: Dance Canvas’ path to startup, growth, and finding a place in the community
By Angela Harris
I wrote a retrospective blog in 2014, looking back on why I founded Dance Canvas and how as a young artist, I discovered the value of entrepreneurship. In thinking about the SaportaReport blog and offering insight on my experience as an entrepreneur in the arts, I look back on my experiences founding an arts organization in Atlanta. I offer the following thoughts from my journey starting Dance Canvas (*along with some excerpts from my earlier blog):
#1 – Identify the need
Growing up in the ballet world, I was never exposed to the concept of leadership, business, and management, although I believe that an understanding of those principals is very important for artists and arts administrators. It was clear to me that I was in an industry where diverse voices were not present, and that there was a significant need to have a platform and pathway for new choreographers to be presented.
“Atlanta, at the time, was not the same dance city as it is today. I hear from native Atlantans that there was a huge dance scene in the ’80s and somewhere in the mid-’90s it started to trickle away. So, in 2007, when I was looking for my “next step”, there were not many options. I could have moved back to NYC, where I went to school and trained… But, there was something about Atlanta that kept me here. This was a fertile ground, a place where I could plant roots, build and grow a company, and hopefully act as a catalyst for the dance scene to continue to grow. It was a bit of a leap of faith…besides Atlanta Ballet and a few smaller companies, there weren’t many new “start-ups” happening at the time. And, an even bigger hurdle: Where would the money come from?”
An understanding of community is HUGE for any entrepreneur, and it is essential for arts organizations. I took a big cue from my friends at the Aurora Theatre. Directors, Anthony Rodriguez and Ann-Carol Pence consider their community in all aspects of their programming, whether the production is a reflection of or a challenge to their audiences. I was a performer at the Aurora at the time, and saw how important talking, knowing, laughing and crying with the community was to their staff. It was (and is) authentic to who they are as people and an organization and a model for how I wanted to interact with my audiences.
“So, I went out on a limb…I started talking to people…I started building my network…I started picking the brains of the people who made dance and the arts happen in Atlanta and beyond. What was needed in this city? What was missing? What expertise did I have that I could offer to this community and to other artists? And how could I continue to stay true to my mission in the process?”
#3 – Discover the Differentiation Factor
What makes Dance Canvas different is that we weren’t a dance company in the traditional sense. (I actually knew that I didn’t want to manage a company of dancers). I wanted to support the growth of the professional concert dance in Atlanta and to highlight the talents of the professional artists at work in the city by providing resources and opportunity. It is a different model…not quite a dance organization, not quite a service organization, not quite a presenter. But, that’s ok! We found our own niche and followed our value system to create a cohesive mission.
“We prided ourselves on three major values: Diversity, Professionalism, and “Relatability”. Our guiding principals were Collaboration and Inclusion. And most of all, like I say to each cast before every show, we have to “have fun while doing it…no drama…all love…because we don’t get paid enough to do what we do!”
#4 – Know your mission and avoid “Mission Creep”
As a new founder and one in need of funding, it was very difficult to turn down opportunities that didn’t fit the mission. I was being approached to send choreographers for wedding dances and provide dancers for birthday parties. It made me realize that many people didn’t understand what we were doing, didn’t have an understanding of professional concert dance, or I wasn’t promoting the organization properly. I used those interactions to dive deeper into our mission and create a new focus area of audience development and engagement.
#5 – See the Bigger Picture (Collaboration vs. Competition)
Many entrepreneurial success tips include some thoughts on a competitive edge. In the arts, I see it as the opposite. Our success grows as public interest and value become associated with our artform. Therefore, I don’t look at other dance organizations as competition. The more successful the dance community as a whole became, the more successful Dance Canvas would be.
Risk taking, determination, innovation and a vision are the principals that guided my steps during the start-up of Dance Canvas. Now, in our 11th season, I find it important to open doors and conversations for others to take the leap of faith and fill a need in our community.
Top photo: Photo by Richard Calmes; Couresty of Dance Canvas, Inc.; Choreography by Dana Woodruff