When the pandemic hit, forcing Dance Theater of Harlem to cancel performances and suspend classes, the company, like many arts organizations, was devastated. It had no safety net: with only very modest financial reserves, it was able to make it through with help from the federal Paycheck Protection Program and the Ford Foundation.
Then, this month, the company unexpectedly got the biggest gift in its 52-year history: a $10 million donation from the philanthropist MacKenzie Scott.
The gift, coming at a moment of such institutional peril, was nothing short of “transformative,” said Anna Glass, Dance Theater’s executive director. It will allow the company to say “We have a future,” Glass said. “We know we can exist 50 years from now.”
Dance Theater of Harlem was one of 286 “historically underfunded and overlooked” organizations around the country that were included in the latest $2.74 billion in donations from Scott, a novelist and the former wife of Jeff Bezos, and her husband, Dan Jewett. This round included arts organizations, and in New York City that meant aid for groups including El Museo del Barrio, the Studio Museum in Harlem and Jazz at Lincoln Center.
But this round of gifts promises to have an especially large impact on New York dance, with generous aid to some of the city’s most diverse companies. Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater got $20 million, which it plans to use to commission new work, perform Ailey’s dances in new productions, train teachers and offer scholarships to its school. Ballet Hispánico received $10 million, the largest gift in its history. And Urban Bush Women received $3 million.
Jawole Willa Jo Zollar — the founder and chief visioning partner of Urban Bush Women — said receiving the $3 million felt a bit like floating on her back in the ocean: She could relax into the waves, supported beyond the breakers. “You lay on your back, and you just float fairly easily, you have that support,” she said. “So because you have that support, you can relax into it a little bit more, and go into deeper thinking, deeper planning.”
Now she will be free to float, and to plan her next move.
“You do brilliant work on two cents of prayer and spit,” Zollar said. “And there’s a certain creativity that comes out of that, of what you have to do, but there’s also a price that is paid.”
She said she hoped to maintain the creativity that comes out of necessity, but to make it sustainable, so dancers don’t burn out. Sustainability, she said, means more than money. It’s also about investing in people — dancers, administrators, artists, educators and the community at large.
Like several other arts executives, Eduardo Vilaro, the artistic director and chief executive officer of Ballet Hispánico, said the Scott donation would help his organization move toward financial stability — and that, in turn, would help it take more risks in its art.
“This gift is the largest single gift the organization has ever received in its 50-year history, which is quite a remarkable thing to say for an organization of color that’s been doing such service in lifting the narratives of communities of color,” Vilaro said. “It cements our mission and legacy for years to come, because it’s going to ensure the health and future of our organization.”
The single donation amounts to what Ballet Hispánico typically aims to raise in five years. Now the company, like the others receiving funds, is in planning mode, consulting with its board about how best to use it.
But Vilaro said he thought at least some would go to bolstering the company’s endowment fund, and some would go toward scholarships for Latino students.
In the philanthropic world, gifts often come with strings attached: money that is earmarked for specific uses or specific programs. That wasn’t the case this time around.
“There are no hoops to go through,” Vilaro said. “There’s this kind of trust. And organizations of color have dealt — people of color have dealt with trust issues for so long, so this is kind of like, ‘We see you, we know what you’re doing. We trust that you know what to do with this.’”
In a Medium post titled “Seeding by Ceding,” Scott wrote about “amplifying gifts by yielding control.” After a rigorous process of research and analysis, she trusted each team to best know how to put the money to good use.
“These are people who have spent years successfully advancing humanitarian aims, often without knowing whether there will be any money in their bank accounts in two months,” she wrote in the post. “What do we think they might do with more cash on hand than they expected? Buy needed supplies. Find new creative ways to help. Hire a few extra team members they know they can pay for the next five years. Buy chairs for them. Stop having to work every weekend. Get some sleep.”
Officials at Dance Theater of Harlem saw Scott’s approach to philanthropy as radical.
“We live in a space, called ballet, that historically had been exclusionary,” Glass said. “And so we do identify as an institution of color. We do identify with our community, Harlem. And I think the statement that MacKenzie Scott is making is that institutions like ours have historically been under-resourced.”
Studies have shown that nonprofit groups led by Black and Latino directors get less philanthropic funding on average than their peers with white leaders.
For Dance Theater of Harlem — which was created in 1969 by Arthur Mitchell, the first Black principal dancer with New York City Ballet, and Karel Shook, partly in response to the assassination of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. — the Scott gift will help the organization achieve financial stability. (Keeping it going has been a struggle at times: in 2004 the company was forced to go on an eight-year hiatus because of its debts, but it mounted a comeback.)
“Dance Theater of Harlem is a 52-year-old organization,” Glass said, “and I think for the first time in this organization’s 52-year history, I think we actually see a pathway forward, to longevity and to stability.”