The Business of Making the Performing Arts Viable


Dance and theater organizations are going digital and changing their business approach to ensure their future

For the first time since the Covid pandemic, the artists of the great contemporary dance company Black Grace have set foot on an international stage.

It’s a big deal for them after being locked down in Aotearoa for the past few years, especially since being invited to perform at the famed Joyce Theater in New York and Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival in Massachusetts. Now they will return home for a local tour in early September.

While the successful company has 27 years in the game, its founder and creative director Neil Ieremia is the first to admit that the arts business isn’t the most sustainable career choice.

In order to build resilience within its ranks, the company has a cyclical staffing model in which dancers are mentored to learn basic technical and stagecraft skills, with production and anything else they might want in dive.

As previously reported by Newsroom, the industry is facing a crippling shortage of tech workers. While Black Grace’s strategy isn’t a complete antidote to that, Ieremia says it’s important to make the career paths of dancers and performers more visible, especially to young people.

“It gives them long-term options…they can move to different areas within the organization when they get older and can’t dance anymore,” he says.

“We really tried to impart as much knowledge as possible to the dancers to help create a more sustainable path for their careers in the future,” he says.

All members of Black Grace’s management staff have danced for the company at one time or another. In fact, two of the 12 dancers on the current tour hold other roles within the organization.

Black Grace founder Neil Ieremia wants to see dancers evolve into different roles within the company. Photo: Jinki Cambronero

Talent development is also a priority for Amber Curreen, one of the directors of Te Pou Theater in West Auckland, an organization run by Kaupapa Maori.

Instead of focusing solely on seeking funding that would simply fund the creation and presentation of theatrical works, the theater is broadening the scope of the funding it seeks, to help attract young people to the sector.

“With our artistic enterprise, we have taken the big picture and examined the different ways in which the arts serve the public. Rather than just looking at the narrow, narrow road of arts and entertainment, we also looked at the space of education and wellbeing.

Curreen aims to secure funding to pave the way for mentors to teach and educate young people who want to take on specific roles in the organization, whether in production or technical management.

Amber Curreen says Te Pou Theater is diving into the digital realm. Photo: Supplied

“We’re trying to have alternative pathways for people to get into professions in the arts sector by providing education and getting funding for the things we’re already doing,” she says.

At this time, the doors to the theater halls are closed for renovations. In the meantime, the company is diving into digital by creating an immersive digital space called Whare Whakaari Matihiko, with the help of funding from the Ministry of Culture and Heritage.

The theater will test it this month with a show called Kōpū: A Cheeky Peek. This will combine live-streamed shows with an online foyer where audiences can mingle with the digital realm. The theater will also be interactive, as audiences can share emojis and chat during the show.

“We think the future of theater is still very much alive…but if we need to do a digital experience, we want it to be social and a place where you build yourself up and don’t burn yourself out.”

Black Grace is also venturing into the digital world. The company has received funding from Creative New Zealand to create an immersive dance experience that will be unveiled in Auckland later this year.

Jonathan Baker, former director of Dance Aotearoa New Zealand, says arts organizations should seek to collaborate more. Photo: Supplied

This involves an audience entering a circular room 15m in diameter and lined with LED lights that project images of a dance recorded on video.

The product is scalable and adaptable, and the company hopes it can be configured to provide long-term passive income to the business.

“One of the company members doesn’t have to be there, they can perform somewhere else,” says Ieremia.

Jonathan Baker, a Kiwi working as a senior lecturer in strategy at Adelaide Business School, is a former director of Dance Aotearoa New Zealand.

He has already looked at the arts funding model in New Zealand. Going forward, he thinks companies need to consider small steps or changes they can make to attract audiences at a lower cost.

It might be like asking if the company really listens to the type of work an audience wants.

“What makes a potential ticket buyer leave their couch and walk away from their big-screen TV, to deal with traffic, expensive parking, and inclement weather? If art directors don’t really know The answer to that question, it would be good to ask people about their database. Form a group chat and make phone calls,” he says.

Viewers should be encouraged to become more involved in the show, by posting about it on social media or giving them the opportunity to meet and chat with artists, directors or choreographers after the show in the room bar.

Baker says there are a variety of options at the art company’s fingertips.

“How about partnering with a nearby restaurant and asking if they’ll be offering a discounted set menu to your audience? Or how about cross-marketing with another arts organization and offering you each other discount codes?”

New Zealand arts businesses could also take inspiration from the Adelaide Community Book, he says, where organizations collaborate and market themselves as industry partners.

“Rather than each organization risking being responsible for building its own brand, you can try to build that performing arts brand so that audiences see it almost as a whole,” he says.

“When all is said and done, each performing arts company is not in competition with another performing arts company. Companies compete with Netflix, they compete with Amazon Prime. They compete with people who just surf the internet or watch YouTube or TikTok. »

Kōpū: a cheeky look
Thu August 11, 7 p.m.
Digital foyer open from 6 p.m.
Whare Whakaari Matihiko
Tickets available on the Te Pou Theater website

Black Grace – New Zealand Tour

​​Auckland: Kiri Te Kanawa Theatre, Aotea Center 4 September, 5pm
Tickets available from Ticketmaster

Wellington: Opera September 6, 7 p.m.
Tickets available from Ticketmaster

Christchurch: James Hay Theater September 10, 7 p.m.
Ticketek tickets