For the National Dance Institute, which opened its first headquarters in Harlem this fall, the easy part was deciding to acquire a home. What came before and after proved more complicated.
The Institute, founded 35 years ago, had been searching for a permanent location for a decade. It teaches dance and other arts to more than 40,000 public elementary school students annually, primarily through free in-school classes but also in after-school and weekend lessons. As borrowing space from schools and arts institutions around the city became increasingly difficult, the institute decided to put down roots on West 147th Street between Adam Clayton Powell and Frederick Douglass Boulevards.
It has transformed P.S. 90, a school abandoned since the 1970s, into what founder Jacques d’Amboise describes as “a communication center for the arts,” with four studios, two art galleries and a convertible performance venue. “They took an enormous abandoned space and brought life to it,” says Lloyd A. Williams, president and CEO of the Greater Harlem Chamber of Commerce, of which the National Dance Institute is a member.
The institute launched a $20 million capital campaign to purchase the school, including $11.5 million for the building and subsequent renovation and another $8.5 million to sustain operating expenses. George Soros’s Open Society Foundations contributed $5 million in what d’Amboise calls “a moment of generous madness,” while board members and other donors provided much of the rest, though the institute remains $6.25 million from its goal. The institute was able to purchase the building outright and has no mortgage.
Its $3.8 million annual budget comes largely from foundations (40 percent) and from its annual spring gala (25 percent); government grants, corporate and personal donations provide the remainder.
But with its new location, the program hopes to increase corporate fundraising. “Now that we have a physical space, it will make forming collaborations with the corporate sector easier, because we do have four walls and the ability to have signage and recognition and host events,” says Michele O’Mara, director of development.
The renovated school provides potential donors with a compelling reason to contribute, she adds. “We can bring them downstairs and they can immediately see the children dancing and see firsthand the experience these children have,” O’Mara says. “Seeing is believing; it’s truly a sight to behold.”
John Sheehy, the director of development and marketing for The 52nd Street Project — a nonprofit that develops and produces new plays with children in Hell’s Kitchen and acquired its own center in 1996 — attests to this benefit. “The challenges of fundraising are constant and ongoing, but we have found an advantage in establishing a new home,” he writes in an e-mail. “We have taken the opportunity to gain wider exposure for The 52nd Street Project in the press and in the community. This has in turn opened up new relationships with funders. So while it is an enormous undertaking to establish your own place, and the attendant expansion in expenses can be daunting, it can be an enormous opportunity for growth.”
As the National Dance Institute adjusts to its new home, it will also try to engage with the Harlem community. “We just arrived here in October,” O’Mara says. “We’re all just settling in and getting to know one another, but we very much want to be part of the neighborhood and partner with not only the residents but the businesses here as well.”
The business community has already started to benefit, Williams says. “Of course they’re bringing visitors and employees, so the fact is that naturally the center has a broad economic impact on the surrounding landscape for the businesses that now have a strong infusion of economic capital,” he says. The institute employs nearly 50 full and part-time teachers and administrators, but Williams estimates that it brings hundreds of people to the neighborhood daily.
Its eventual impact remains to be seen, however. In the future, for instance, the institute could rent out space in its new home, but such plans remain unclear.
“This is going to be a year of firsts for us,” O’Mara says. Along with its evolving programs, “We’re very hopeful the new space will change the fundraising landscape for the organization a bit as well,” she says.
For more information on the National Dance Institute’s move click here.