Tales of Change: CounterPulse and Shawl-Anderson Dance Center Look to the Future

By Ann Murphy

November 1, 2016, PUBLISHED BY IN DANCE

In Italy there’s a famous adage that says “everything must change in order for everything to stay the same.” To our 21st century ears this might sound like a zen parable, but in fact it’s a paean to pragmatism, and suggests that the people who change alongside history’s sweeping transformations are likeliest to endure with their interests intact. Refuse to adapt, cling to things as they have been, and risk being swept away with the fierce currents of time. At its most cynical, it captures the kind of Machiavellianism that various corporations have employed as they adapt company messaging to align with public concerns, working to win over consumers’ sympathy while continuing to despoil the earth and seas or sell faulty products. At its best, though, the idea acknowledges that if we accept change and adapt to it—even use it—we have a chance of creating valuable continuity through time and across generations. For the arts, such continuity in the face of change is critical. Without it, vision sputters and traditions can die.

That said, organizations do die, and others gather dust. We all know the stories of the urban dance studio that, because of sky-rocketing rents, disappeared from the map. Or how, when the founder of a leading dance company died, the work disappeared as well. But we also know the inspiring tales of dancers insisting on keeping alive the legacy of their mentor, or of organizations that could have retreated faced with impending homelessness, or the need to modernize its entire operation, yet refused to give in. CounterPulse in San Francisco and Shawl-Anderson Dance Center in Berkeley each were faced with ineluctable upheaval and challenge, and each made a quantum leap that thrust them into demanding new eras for their organizations. Both trust that, in changing everything, their abiding purpose and mission will be sustained long into the future.

CounterPulse, A Cinderella Story
The path to such transformation is rarely smooth. When Twitter moved in up the block from CounterPulse, it signaled that a potential new risk-taking donor had entered the neighborhood, artistic director Julie Phelps said. But far more immediate than philanthropy, Twitter’s mid-Market arrival in 2012 meant that the once-sleepy zone was about to be absorbed into an area of high tech expansion, fueled by what the New York Times describes as “a city tax incentive that largely exempts them from city payroll taxes if they relocate to the Mid-Market….” No amount of forward thinking on Twitter or any other tech company’s part lessened the threat that the boom posed to the decades-old pioneering activist, interdisciplinary enterprise. With CounterPulse’s 10-year lease set to end in 2014, rent on the space was poised to triple, spelling the end of an era.

As many people learned, the Northern California Loan Fund soon got into the act to help CounterPulse plan for the future. The Kenneth Rainin Foundation was close behind, with its forward-looking efforts to provide seed money to arts organizations in order to secure their futures. Then, together with the Community Arts Stabilization Trust (CAST) (a joint venture of both the NCLF and Rainin), the non-profits set about to find CounterPulse a new home, as part of a larger effort to offset rapid monocultural gentrification of downtown San Francisco. Not far from their Mission Street digs, they found a former porn theater—a distressed property that sat on a block of bruised and shuttered facades on Turk Street in the Tenderloin. It had been the Dollhouse and, in true SF fashion, was once a gambling hall then the Buccaneer Tavern and, before the porn palace, the Gayety Theater. As is so often the case, change was both immediate and slow: it took two years for contractors to transform the forgotten space into a modern theater three times as large as the former Mission Street space, and the grand opening date came and went, construction delays postponing the opening night for months.

While the new building appeared to resolve the problem of securing a long-term organizational home, the building was the outward face of a complex agreement constituting a phased lease-to-own plan to enable CounterPulse to become owner of 80 Turk. The first step required that CounterPulse raise $1 million, which is a daunting task for most small organizations and especially one that serves the marginalized and under resourced. Then, following the heavy lifting of planning and renovating the site, CounterPulse had to agree to set its sights—and organizational strategies—on buying the building in a 7-to-10-year period while renting the space from the philanthropic owners at below market rates.

If this sounds complicated, even burdensome, it is, and the hard work for CounterPulse’s board, staff, and community in many respects has just begun. The good news is that CounterPulse is now known around the country as it was never known before. In some ways, Phelps said, “we really did just spread our wings rather than make a quantum leap.” But from another vantage point, “it was a quantum leap. We were a hole in the wall before with never a story in the paper about CounterPulse. Since then, I’ve flown across the country myriad times” to talk about the crisis and its solutions. “It’s such a rare story that the philanthropic support has skyrocketed.” Given its Cinderella story, it has a good chance of continuing the success. That is just as it needs to be, given that raising money has to be the strong force of the institution for the next decade while it holds fast to its mission to present “risk-taking art that shatters assumptions and builds community.”

According to veteran non-profit consultant Laurie MacDougall, when the heat is on because of crisis, “the most important thing for an organization’s survival is its mission.” MacDougall has helped countless organizations strive to clarify, build, and target their work in the decades she’s been in the business, and the first thing she wants to know when she consults with an organization is: does the non-profit need or deserve to exist? Then she asks: what kind of growth serves the mission? She enjoins non-profits to take a page from corporate culture and embrace “radical honesty,” which, even in the best of times, can be difficult. MacDougall is suspicious of pipe dreams, and is most chary of organizations that set their goals on buying property, since a mortgaged building pressurizes a non-profit and can easily become a financial albatross. Heavy debt is risky business, in part because few buildings are properly capitalized, MacDougall says, and they tend to have high fixed costs that are rarely planned for and therefore difficult to meet over time.

Shawl-Anderson Dance Center: a new generation takes the helm
So when MacDougall was hired by Shawl-Anderson Dance Center and heard that one of the board’s leading dreams was to find a bigger building than the crowded two-story craftsman house that Frank Shawl and Victor Anderson bought in 1968, she quickly laid the fantasy to rest––at least for the near term. Five hundred students pass through the modest three studios on Alcatraz Avenue each week, and every night the space becomes jammed with rehearsing students, making the yearning for a larger building understandable. But transitions, she says, are tricky, and the transition that is underway at Shawl-Anderson is one of the toughest— moving from founder-run to second-generation leadership.

Frank Shawl and Victor Anderson, professional modern dancers in New York, arrived in Berkeley—Anderson’s hometown—to set up a school and a company in 1958. Luisa Pierce, a dancer with Lester Horton then Martha Graham, joined the faculty, and the first guest teacher on site was Charles Weidman, one of modern dance’s pioneers. In the ensuing years, Shawl-Anderson managed to function both as the corner dance studio and as a serious training ground for future professionals, like Kate Weare and Ramona Kelley.

If CounterPulse has had to assume the heavy mantle of landholding, Shawl-Anderson is having to face a rapid modernization operation where organizational structures that were never needed during the loose, familial, and highly personal rule of the founders are now essential. Board and staff can no longer serve as extended family of the founders, even as those bonds hold firm; they must be stewards of a dance center modeled after the inclusive and non-competitive ethos of Shawl and Anderson’s mentor, May O’Donnell (dancer and choreographer with Humphrey-Weidman/ Graham). What MacDougall has made clear, is that the board and staff duty is to ensure that that mission endures.

The shift to second-generation at Shawl-Anderson has been slow and organic. In many respects it began in 2006, when Utah-trained dancer, teacher and blogger Jill Randall became assistant director at Shawl- Anderson, and Rebecca Johnson, a dancer with a degree in education and literature, joined as managing director in 2008. Randall built up enrollments and master classes, and created the Dance Up Close/East Bay performance series, while Johnson took on infrastructure. For two years, they developed a lock-and-key working relationship until Randall left for full-time teaching in San Francisco (2010-16). Johnson continued on. Self-described as having “an affinity for both programming and administration,” she oversaw everything from plumbing to artists-in-residence programs to teacher oversight, and continues to have an eagle eye on the big picture while balancing the books. In 2014, as the founders’ health suffered, Johnson’s supporting role made a quantum leap: she began building the organizational models that are critical for second-generation leaders. And so the transition began in earnest.

The team of four board members (myself included) and Johnson began two years of work that resembled the shared effort to outfit a ship previously sailed by master sailors who used only the stars and their intuition. Now it needed a built-in navigation system, a rudder, sails, and lifeboats to send it safely, if more swiftly, over the same waters it had been traveling for nearly 60 years. Shawl-Anderson also needed to be made navigable by any adept to come along with the same goals in mind as the founders’. Jobs at the center were clarified, new work created, pay increased, boiler and stairs renewed, and outreach to funders, donors, and community begun, all with the goal of finding new ways of meeting Shawl-Anderson’s mission.

Among MacDougall’s many wise directives was to begin balancing programs with management, investing in infrastructure and support staff, and creating a supportive work environment. To that end, the board asked Johnson to become the first executive director in Shawl-Anderson Dance Center history. Soon, with her every act of clarification, five new zones seemed to emerge requiring her attention. Not a year passed before Johnson found herself trying to manage the equivalent of multiple full-time jobs, and she risked burnout. As an organization, Shawl-Anderson had thrived on Depression-era frugality, but demands of technology, fundraising, facility care, staff and teacher training, and performance programming means that squirreling away 1’s and 5’s no longer suffices in running an organization today. What’s more, Shawl-Anderson’s mission includes the commitment to foster choreography and performance, and MacDougall made clear that, in order to move to a model where a greater percentage of income was generated by arts-funders, the center would need to develop and highlight its artistic role. According to board president Steve Siegelman, “that meant that, to more demonstrably serve the part of its mission that speaks to ‘fostering the evolution of the art of dance,’ Shawl-Anderson would need to hire a dedicated artistic director.” Such a person would not only lighten the infrastructural load but deepen and broaden programming.

That meant leveraging funds to hire a second director of the Center. A national search got under way, Randall applied and was selected from an impressive pool of applicants, and she stepped into the new role of artistic director in July 2016. Quickly, the two women began to share the clarified workload, make creative plans for the year ahead, and provide ballast for each other as well as the organization.

To MacDougall, Shawl-Anderson has put in place “all the ingredients for a successful transfer of authority and vision.” This includes “a spunky board of directors ready to take on the challenge; a very healthy fund balance; and, finally, Rebecca and Jill.” In her view, both women are “impassioned and effective leaders committed to the administrative as well as the artistic task of bringing Shawl-Anderson’s operations into the 21st century.” Like CounterPulse, Shawl-Anderson has a better than good chance of successfully managing its sea change—transforming outward appearances in order for the soul of the organization to remain the same.

Ann Murphy, a long-time Bay Area dance critic, is Assistant Professor and Chair of the Dance Department at Mills College in Oakland.