Despite Economic Turmoil And Slow-To-Return Audiences, Some Dance Organizations Are Spending Serious Money On New Buildings

Even four years since the start of pandemic, the performing arts sector is still recovering. Venues are still seeing fewer ticket sales compared to 2019. Donations have dwindled. And several nonprofits have closed their doors altogether.

Despite all of these challenges, some cultural organizations are buying buildings in metropolitan areas. In doing so, they’re infusing energy into neighborhoods zapped by COVID-19 and helping local artists by offering affordable workspaces.

The street view of The Joyce's New York Center for Creativity and Dance.
The Joyce’s New York Center for Creativity and Dance. (Trina Mannino/Marketplace)

“It was the right thing for us to do for the community,” said Linda Shelton, executive director of The Joyce Theater, a dance organization that recently purchased a second building in New York’s East Village, “so that [the artists] have a place to create work that can be seen on The Joyce stage or Théâtre de la Ville, or wherever they go.”

The dance nonprofit bought the East Village space from a philanthropist who wanted it to go to a nonprofit. It was a deal at $16 million. Yet it’s still a “heavy lift” for The Joyce, said Shelton.

The Joyce’s New York Center for Creativity & Dance is 58,000 square feet, which includes rehearsal spaces, offices and artist studios. It’s already in use, but the building will also need an estimated $55 million of renovations, according to Shelton.

The organization leased the building for a year before closing the sale in order to gauge demand and to see if the dance community liked working in the space. “It’s been an overwhelming success,” Shelton said.

Among the artists working at the center on a Friday in February is the Trisha Brown Dance Company. The group rehearsed in the building’s former basketball gym in anticipation of their upcoming performances at The Joyce Theater.

People dance and rehearse in an open, gymnasium space .
The Trisha Brown Dance Company rehearsing at The Joyce’s New York Center for Creativity and Dance. (Trina Mannino/Marketplace)

Carolyn Lucas, the company’s associate artistic director, said rehearsal space in New York is limited and that it’s hard to find studios that align with the group’s rehearsal schedule.

“This space being here for the company, and for the community at large, is so vital,” said Lucas.

For any arts organization, actually buying a building is often expensive and difficult. But more nonprofits are expanding their real estate footprint — even as the arts and cities are still recovering from the pandemic.

Brett Egan, the president of The DeVos Institute of Arts Management at the University of Maryland, said that these organizations have to prepare for the upfront costs of acquiring a space in addition to the long-term operational cost of programming, staffing and maintaining the space.

While it makes sense for some, Egan said that other arts organizations are not ready to buy property.

“The industry is littered with examples of organizations that unfortunately were not, for one reason or another, able to anticipate the long-term impacts of taking on additional infrastructure,” he said.

The cost of managing the day-to-day operations of a building is something that ODC, a San Francisco-based dance organization, knows well. The nonprofit purchased its third building in 2022 for $6.7 million, where it holds classes and eventually rehearsals and performances.

A map of ODC's campus expansion
A map of ODC’s campus expansion. (Courtesy ODC)

“There’s always a danger, I think, for nonprofits to build a beautiful house and then not have enough money to put food on the table in that beautiful house,” said Carma Zisman, ODC’s executive director.

For the Bay area nonprofit, the benefits of acquiring another property outweighed the risks. That’s partly because in the pandemic, some local organizations lost their buildings and dancers needed a place to go. 

“This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, not just to acquire more space but very specifically, again, to control a bit of our destiny,” Zisman said, “and to be able to really improve the kinds of services we could provide for our own dancers and also people who really rely on us to make a home for them.”

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