Elevating Chicago’s Buoyant Dance Community

Sarah Solotaroff Mirkin reflects on “awakening” of Chicago’s dance community Tweet This

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In fall 2015, Audience Architects honored Sarah Solotaroff Mirkin with its inaugural Distinguished Service to the Dance Field Award. Under her leadership at The Chicago Community Trust—as senior program officer for arts and culture, and later as vice president of programs—the Trust supported transformative investments to the Chicago dance field. Following are her remarks on accepting the award.

I wouldn’t be standing here if it weren’t for all of you. And I don’t mean just buying tickets to this event. I want to say something about the Excellence in Dance Initiative at The Chicago Community Trust, an initiative that ran from 2003 to 2007, because I believe it has been a successful little piece of philanthropy. I would like to talk about why I think it worked as well as it did.

As a program officer at the Trust over a number of years, most of them under executive director Bruce Newman, I was given a lot of freedom, even encouragement, to move into the community and explore what was going on in my area of expertise. Most of us program officers had had experience working in our respective fields, so we entered the community with some knowledge. Bruce encouraged us to explore, particularly to listen to the community.

When we recommended support of something, that recommendation was based not just on the qualities of the organization but what its standing was in the community as a whole. Not just what support from the Trust might do for the individual organization, but also what the effects of that support might tell us about the community as a whole.

Sarah Mirkin holds the crystal Distinguished Service to the Dance Field Award


By 2003 the Trust had already, a decade earlier, embarked on the quest to find or form a mid-sized theater for music and dance, again a need perceived by recognizing that a group of mid-sized music and dance groups needed a good place to perform. The need for that space was pointed out specifically by a report from the MacArthur Foundation in 1990.

What we called the MAD theater—the Music And Dance theater, now the Harris Theater—opened at about the same time that the Dance Initiative began.

As a number of foundations worked on creating that theater and as I moved about the community, it became clear that there was a keen need for a certain kind of performance space, but that was not all that was needed. There had to be organizations strong enough to use this new theater, and signs were that that was not the case. The dance organizations needed strengthening. There were other things happening in the local dance field which were attracting attention besides need. Who knows how accidental they were:

Hubbard Street Dance Chicago was gaining a national reputation.

The Joffrey Ballet moved from New York to Chicago.

Bonnie Brooks, a well-known presence in the field of dance, moved to Chicago to take over the dance program at Columbia College.

In addition to the Harris Theater, presenting series in dance began at Columbia College, the Museum of Contemporary Art and Links Hall.

Eduardo Vilaro moved to Chicago and founded Luna Negra Dance Theater.

Companies like Joseph Holmes Dance Company, Muntu Dance Theatre and Natya Dance Theatre were increasingly visible.

This is only a partial list, but it became clear that this orphan art form was stirring in a way that attracted the attention of anyone looking closely at the nonprofit arts community.

The Trust gathered a group of people together from the dance community to advise on the best ways a foundation could help this awakening. Artists, executive directors, artistic directors, critics, teachers met over a number of months to advise on the best ways to support dance in Chicago.

Yes, we did some analysis. John Munger of Dance USA did a thorough survey of dance in the Chicago area which helped the group identify prominent needs. And with the advice of this study group, I was able to go the Trust’s Executive Committee, the grant making body of the Trust, to argue for an initiative that concentrated on 1) making new work, 2) marketing for the dance community, 3) strengthening the dance organizations, and 4) enhancing good teaching of dance.

I want to emphasize that it was the Executive Committee of the Trust that allowed this initiative to exist, a rather bold step for a large community foundation that was responsible for giving support to the large range of community needs that Chicago had.

This orphan art form was stirring in a way that attracted the attention of anyone looking closely.

I remember one thing that caught their attention. I reminded them that there were certain times when funding would be most helpful in a field, and that had been demonstrated in the 1970’s when theater life in Chicago was particularly active and intense. Foundation and individual support helped that theater community grow to become what is now probably the strongest and most influential theater community in the country. If they supported dance in the early years of the 21st century that might just happen to dance in Chicago.

They listened. Members of the Executive Committee like Jim Glasser, Prue Beidler, Mike Koldyke, Marge Hartigan, Mardie MacKimm and a number of others took a chance. And it worked. Out of that 3-4 year funding program grew:

  • The Chicago Dancemakers Forum, ably led and continued by Ginger Farley.
  • See Chicago Dance and Audience Architects, the marketing and service functions for the dance community.
  • The Harris Theater’s dance program combining work of local companies with increasingly strong dance presentations, which is putting the Harris on a international stage of presenters and bringing talent to Chicago talent which not only performs here but also works with the local dance community.
  • The creation of an arts education department within the Chicago Public Schools, where dance is represented as one of the four prominent arts disciplines.

And I want to mention someone named Anna Paskevska, no longer with us, who built a deep and demanding dance training program at the Chicago Academy for the Arts, a dance program further developed by Randy Duncan and Harriet Ross. When developing the Initiative I turned to Anna, trained in Russia and then at the Paris Opera Ballet, to give shape and structure to a strong dance education design. I am sorry we did not have her long enough for her to fully develop that program; however, we have now a powerful dance program at the Academy; a strong dance presence at ChiArts, the CPS arts high school; and numerous education programs within our various dance companies.

Not everything has thrived. Some companies, some people are no longer with us. But overall, there exists in Chicago a dance community that people come to, not run from. Many are responsible for this, but let me say that I believe that it was the listening to the community and the timing of philanthropy, not just the money, that allowed dance to take firmer hold in Chicago.

Without those two things—listening and timing—the moment may have passed, and we would have lost an opportunity to achieve something lasting. So thank you for that opportunity.

And thank you for your support of Audience Architects and See Chicago Dance. Over a couple of decades I have watched dance service organizations come and go. They are hard to sustain when the field itself is struggling. With a buoyant dance community, we now have another opportunity to develop and sustain a service organization for the field. We deserve it.