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Show and Tell

The Guggenheim Museum’s beloved behind-the-scenes New York dance series, Works & Process, was founded in 1984 by philanthropist Mary Sharp Cronson. 

“The story goes that the Guggenheim approached her and said, ‘Will you underwrite a performing arts series?’” said Duke Dang, executive director of Works & Process. “She had been on the board of New York City Ballet. Her brother, Peter Jay Sharp, was the chair of Juilliard. Her mother was the board chair of Martha Graham in the ‘70s. It makes sense that the Guggenheim would approach her. But she wasn’t just going to write a check and hope that the work got done. She said, ‘I’m creating a nonprofit so that I can make sure that artists are paid.’ She recognized her privilege, having grown up in a family where she was always invited to a dress rehearsal or to visit the studio or given a chance to meet artists at a reception. She wasn’t interested in creating another performing arts series. She wanted to share this experience she had had in her life with anyone who was willing to buy a ticket. And I continue to tell the story because these two principles still guide us: One, artists are always paid. And two, sharing the creative process.”

Dance Theatre of Harlem in “Nyman String Quartet #2” by Robert Garland. Performed at Works & Process, September 30, 2019. Photograph by Robert Altman

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Nearly 40 years later, Cronson’s nonprofit is going strong. So strong, in fact, that this season will be, by far, the largest in Works & Process history, spanning multiple venues beyond the Guggenheim and reaching audiences in new cities. Beyond the iconic panel discussions and intimate performances that anchor the organization, Works & Process has expanded in the last few years to include fully funded residencies and, for the week in January when the Association of Performing Arts Professionals (APAP) comes to town so presenters can shop for shows, a festival to promote the work developed in those residencies. 

The scope of the programming ranges from the intimate to the operatic and seemingly everything in between. The new directors of American Ballet Theatre, Dance Theatre of Harlem, and San Francisco Ballet will share their new visions and there will be peeks into the making of new operas premiering across the country. Raja Feather Kelly and artists of the feath3r theory will dive into a theatrical multiverse while Sekou McMiller & Friends will host a salsa, mambo, and cha-cha-cha party. Lar Lubovitch will be fêted for his 80th birthday (featuring a world preview with Adrian Danchig-Waring and contralto Anthony Roth Costanzo). The fiftieth anniversary of hip-hop will be celebrated with new commissions from It’s Showtime NYC! and legends Kwikstep and Rokafella. Broadway icon Chita Rivera will talk with her memoir coauthor, and dancers[AS1]  from the American Dance Machine for the 21st Century will perform excerpts of her famous roles.

“One of the things that’s really important to us is platforming all this virtuosity on the same stage,” said Dang. “I remember last season. I had this moment where on Monday we had the Met opera with Peter Gelb and Renée Fleming, and by Saturday we had five World Champion beatboxers—virtuosic music-making across the board, all on the same stage, everybody being paid the same amount. That’s what is exciting for me.”

Fjord spoke at length with Dang over Zoom in early September to talk about the history and evolution of Works & Process, how the values Mrs. Cronson instilled in him (namely that “free is too expensive”) help keep pay and transparency a priority, and how the organization has navigated what has been a difficult post-pandemic landscape for performing arts organizations.

This conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Duke Dang, director of Works & Process at the Guggenheim. Photograph by Robert Altman

I have been thinking about how the scale and scope of Works & Process has evolved over the last few decades. I’m wondering in tandem about your path. How long have you been at the helm?

I started as an intern in 2003. So, 20 years. The organization turns 40 next year and I’m 41. So almost half of my life has been at Works & Process.

  

When you were an intern, what did you want to get out of that experience? 

I was born in a refugee camp and came to America very poor. You know, Section 8 vouchers, food stamps, Headstart. My parents being typical immigrant parents didn’t really emphasize the arts. It was like, Be a lawyer, be a doctor, be an engineer, be something very practical. But I went to Boston University [on a] full ride and took an art history class, and that’s how I was exposed to the arts. When I started applying for internships, I could only accept internships that were paid. Now that’s very topical, but back in the early 2000s, the notion of a paid internship was rather foreign. My very first internship was with the Glimmerglass Festival. They had a paid internship program. The summer after that I had a paid internship at the Getty Center in their performing arts program. Then the summer after, I applied to the Guggenheim, and they placed me with Works & Process. I just thought it was part of the museum, but after I arrived I realized it was a separate organization, a separate 501(c)(3), founded and run by Mary Sharp Cronson. And I had no idea who Mary Sharp Cronson was, but I arrived, and I was like, “Oh, she’s fancy.” 

I came into this as an art history major, but I was never a performer. I never took any dance classes. Interning at Works & Process was a total crash course. I so appreciated it because Works & Process is just another name for show and tell. It’s like the first week of kindergarten…What does your teacher do? Oh, bring something from home and let’s do show and tell. It really made the arts very accessible. There’s nothing like hearing it directly from the creator, what their intent is and what they‘re trying to achieve. And then having the artists there to show that work that they‘re trying to create. My performing arts education has been probably 1000 Works & Process programs where I’ve gotten to hear it direct from the horse’s mouth.

Dance Heigenbotham in the Rotunda at Works & Process at the Guggenheim. Photograph by Diego Quintanar

What were your first seasons like and how did the organization evolve?

When I started, the organization was a half million-dollar budget and we would do 15 to 18 programs a year, really based on Mrs. Cronson’s network. That was the case from 1984, when the program started, into 2010. I did my grad work at NYU in performing arts administration while I was working at Works & Process, and I was the first arts administrator on staff through the founder transition as Mrs. Cronson became more senior and started to experience dementia. 

We went through a few key pivotal moments. First, we went from a program that was predominantly funded by either Mrs. Cronson personally or the Peter Jay Sharp Foundation (which was the foundation of Mrs. Cronson’s brother) to doing things like applying for foundation grants and starting a Friends Program, both of which enabled us to grow our resources. When the Peter Jay Sharp Foundation announced that they were sunsetting all grantmaking and closing, they gave us three years’ notice. They said, “You better raise the money, or you’re going to have to contract.” So we kept on raising more money and doing more programs and expanding.

 In 2017, Mrs. Cronson turned 90. I stepped up into a leadership vacuum, and we commissioned works from Daniil Simkin and Michelle Dorrance for the rotunda for her birthday celebration. We really got to spend a lot of time with artists [through their residencies in the rotunda]. That was when we realized we can resource creative process in a much bigger way. The rotunda was so magical. It also made us realize that there’s so many dance traditions that come from the circle: social dance and street dance. The theater of the Guggenheim itself is really trying to break the proscenium. It’s a thrust stage, it’s a circular space—the aisle is flush with the stage floor and literally wraps itself around the audience.  

And that’s when we said, “We’re going to expand the dance ecosystem through the rotunda.” We met the dancers with Dorrance Dance and Music From The Sole. We met Caleb Teicher and they wanted to put social dance onstage but also then involve the audience. We provided “Swing Out” with its very first residency. Ephrat [Asherie] said she wanted to work on a project that was intergenerational, that celebrated New York City club culture, and Chris Celiz was sharing with us a project called “The Missing Element” that he and Anthony Rodriguez were cooking up to bring beatboxers and street dancers together to collaborate rather than compete. So we had a lot of these pandemic hits. And by this point, we were already partnering with residencies like Lumberyard and Kaatsbaan. 

But what about the pandemic—how did that affect this trajectory? 

Our response was two things. One, we’re never going to cancel on artists—Mrs. Cronson would just kill me. This ecosystem that exists, it exists because of artists. (And that’s why the staff of Works & Process hasn’t grown because we really devote most of our resources to paying artists.) And we paid everybody $500 for virtual commissions under three minutes. By the end of March, we had put a call out and started to premiere these virtual commissions. We realized we couldn’t present performances, but we could still support creative process. That’s when I reached out to Mount Tremper Arts and Petronio and Kaatsbaan and I was able to access rapid testing. I got my hands on Tyler Perry’s bubble protocol for film. By August of 2020, we were putting artists in these bubble residencies. We had saved for a rainy day and, by anybody’s definition, this was a rainy day. 

Fortunately, the Mellon Foundation and the Doris Duke Foundation saw the work that we were doing, and they reached out to us. Between them, we got $750,000 to continue these bubble residencies from August of 2020 into June of 2021. The wakeup call was, “Wait, we don’t have to be at the Guggenheim.” The Guggenheim was closed, like so many organizations. We started to build these partnerships with residency centers and with Lincoln Center and the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts. Eventually the Guggenheim came around, and we were the first organization permitted by New York State to reopen live indoor performances in March 2021 [after intense lobbying of the governor]. 

I think another prevailing theme [that helped through this time] was Mrs. Cronson hated to take no for an answer. And I definitely inherited that. We’re always going to try to find the yeses. 

Natasha Diamond Walker in Martha Graham's “Spectre 1914” from “Chronicle” at Works & Process. Photograph by Diego Quintanar

Wow, ok, so that helps explain how there are so many different venues in this upcoming season, but what about touring? Touring shows seems like an effort way beyond broadening venues in NYC. Are you doing it to ensure artists keep having paid opportunities to show their work? 

It’s beyond making sure that artists get paid, you know, it’s about broadening the representation on our stages, broadening what concert dance can be. You can see we’re still doing Works & Process programs with American Ballet Theatre and New York City Ballet and San Francisco Ballet and Dance Theatre of Harlem and The Metropolitan Opera. But the reality is that it doesn’t make sense for us to support big companies’ creative process in this fully funded residency model. What we can do, though, because we have the trust of the Guggenheim and Lincoln Center and the New York Public Library, is support artists with residencies and then also present them iteratively. We can gather some oral histories, because the oral history is missing, or lacking with a lot of these traditions, right? Not every performer or tradition gets the Balanchine treatment. And why not? It’s about celebrating our traditions that work and maybe were developed right here in our own backyard, at a time when New York City continues to struggle. 

Then also, when you’re talking about these traditions that haven’t been in the concert dance space, [we are trying] to layer on or facilitate this transference of capital. It’s financial capital, but also cultural capital. To be able to say, “We performed at Lincoln Center, we performed at the Guggenheim,” that opens doors. Omari Wiles and “New York is Burning” just got a Bessie, as did LaTasha Barnes for “The Jazz Continuum.” We commissioned them and now they will be at American Dance Festival and the Kennedy Center [respectively]. 

Some go on to get agents, but the reality is that the agent ecosystem is experiencing attrition as well. And we’re not going to leave these artists hanging. [Touring] is about opening ourselves up to figure out how to get eyeballs on these works so that they would be considered for presentation. That’s where we’re flexing our muscle and reaching out to peers in the field. We launched the Underground Uptown Dance Festival in January, and it was the first APAP presentation in person since the pandemic, and it jumpstarted a lot of touring for these productions we’ve been incubating for the past five years. This year we are doing a really big event for the festival, and it will be at the Guggenheim and Alice Tully Hall. The idea is: how do we provide that launchpad for these works to be seen and have a life, long after Works & Process?

Our tagline might be to champion the creative process from studio to stage, but it’s almost like studio to stage to road now. 

 

How do you keep up with it all?  

I’m nonstop. I feel fortunate to really love what I do. People ask me: why do you work so hard, or, how do you work so hard? I think part of it is when I was at my most vulnerable, coming to America as a refugee, I had access to government services. But the reality is, who are the most vulnerable in this ecosystem? The artists. I think it is an injustice that so many existing arts organizations say they support artists, but when you look at their 990, the percentage of the budget that goes to artists, it is appalling. We’re up to about a $2 million budget and the past three years 41% of our budget has gone to just artists fees, not including production expenses.

Pam Tanowitz's “Broken Story (wherein there is no ecstasy)” at the Guggenheim. Photograph by Christopher Duggan

In talking to and interviewing artists, I’ve heard more than a few stories of contracts canceled a day into rehearsal or different artists getting paid vastly different fees on the same show.

Artists are afraid to bite the hand that feeds them. That’s why I’m just so glad that there is this unionization effort that’s happening across America. If you look on our website, we put it out there: we pay artists $1050 per artist per week when they’re in residency, and we pay artists and panelists $400 per performance. We had to change a music ensemble that we worked with for years, because of implementing fee parity between dancers and musicians. Why do musicians get paid more than dancers? These are oftentimes uncomfortable, awkward conversations, but they shouldn’t be anymore. As of January this year, it’s New York state law that you have to include a pay scale for every job. When presenters don’t share what their fees are, the power remains in the presenters’ hands.

Going with a food analogy, we already ask questions like: Is it organic? Is it local? Is it fair trade? Is it grass fed? Is it cage-free? Is it genetically modified? But there’s very little understanding of how artists go from studio to stage. My aspiration is [the field] adopting a studio to stage transparency, like farm to table where the performance is labeled: “This is a performance that was made with living wage.” Or “This is a performance that was made with minimum wage.” Or “This is a performance that was made with passion and volunteer time.”

  

This season will be Works & Process’s most expansive to date, and it seems to draw a contrast with some contraction lately in performing arts organizations. I am curious to hear your perspective on the larger landscape and how Works & Process has continued to grow within it.

We’re two generations into an America that hasn’t had compulsory arts education. And because of that reality, art oftentimes doesn’t speak for itself anymore. We must do more as performing arts organizations to educate the public. Otherwise, it’s just an attrition. 

We’re in a product-oriented ecosystem and it’s very transactional. I buy a ticket; I see a show. And it’s a missed opportunity, when the ecosystem operates on that model, because we all know that the most interesting part—and the part where artists spend most of their time, energy, labor effort—is the process. The big arts organizations keep on shoving product into the marketplace with very little education or cultivation of an understanding of what the creative process is. And that’s the most interesting part for us. That’s why process is literally in our name. I think that’s why our audience and our donors have continued to be so loyal and why we’ve been able to diversify our audiences. We demystify; we connect audiences to artists beyond performance. The reality is this privilege has typically only been afforded to donors. If you think about it, who else gets invited to that reception or into the studio? Mrs. Cronson’s idea when she started this program was that everybody should have access to the creative process, to be a fly on the wall, to learn behind the scenes.

But another reason why I think the performing arts are struggling is that we have inherited proscenium stages. And the proscenium stage architecture was created before TV, right? It has an arch, it frames what happens on stage, and it serves to distance artists and audiences. We all have super comfortable couches, so why sit in uncomfortable theaters to passively watch something on stage? Dance has the power to span the continuum of concert and social. So how do we remind audiences about the magic of live performance? It’s through participation.

 

That makes me think of a memorable Works & Process from many years ago where Damian Woetzel taught the audience part of “Serenade” and “Dances at a Gathering.” It was a powerful demonstration of participation and has stayed with me.

Participation, in person, is more important now than ever.  How can the arts weave the world back together and build community? We have to break that fourth wall and that’s part of why we are supporting so much street and social dance. This fall, we have two programs that go from the theater into social dancing in the rotunda. We’re in a space that facilitates that. We’re in a city that germinated so many of these traditions. So why wouldn’t we support it?

Candice Thompson


Candice Thompson has been working in and around live art for over two decades. She was a dancer with Milwaukee Ballet before moving into costume design, movement education and direction, editing and arts writing. She attended New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts, graduated from St. Mary’s College LEAP Program, and later received an MFA in literary nonfiction from Columbia University. She has written extensively about dance for publications like Andscape, The Brooklyn Rail, Dance magazine, and ArtsATL, in addition to being editorial director for DIYdancer, a project-based media company she co-founded.

comments

Cameron Grant

What a great interview Candice! I was a participant in early W&P shows when Duke was pretty green, but even then his intelligence, enthusiasm, and work ethic were as clear as day. Kudos Duke for your astonishing and wonderful accomplishments!

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