excerpt from "Lessons Learned"

by Melanie Stewart


I designed my life around producing new work, finding ways to fund my artistic explorations and sharing my work and artistic philosophy with the next generation of artists. My goal was to seamlessly meld my responsibilities as an artist, producer and educator and to create a sustainable and meaningful lifestyle. I was essentially modeling my behavior after my own mentors in graduate school, many of whom worked within the profession and academia. It looked easy but like many of my colleagues, I increasingly struggled with the difficulty of balancing my work and my life, while maintaining my core values and working to produce original artistic work within the constraints of a traditional nonprofit dance company model. I felt I had to make a choice: stay in or get out.

I am sure I am not the only artist who has contemplated whether it is realistic to believe that one can create a new paradigm for operating and, at the same time, produce meaningful artistic programs. However, there are two undeniable issues that face the art-maker within the 501-C-3 Model ; 1) that there is little support within our culture to pay artistic directors a living wage and 2) that the skills, time and resources needed to build a business do not facilitate good art-making practice. I was in desperate need of a way to realign my intellectual and artistic values with my way of life.

It was odd that the company [Melanie Stewart Dance Theatre] was relatively successful for its size and stature in the midst of all of this. Everyone around me seemed to support this way of working. It seemed as if artists were simply expected to relentlessly compete for grants, develop their own marketing and PR and hustle all the time in unfettered capitalistic fashion. Ultimately I realized that what I was really doing as I engaged in all of this bureaucratic planning was living what I now call “The Big Lie”.

"The Big Lie" is when one pretends to have systems and capacity to produce programs to meet the external pressures and expectations of the nonprofit arts field, when in truth (at least in the dance world) there is usually one unpaid artistic leader doing all of the work and frantically creating a façade that looks like an institution. This “institution” appears to be complete in that it has a strategic plan, succession plan, development plan, marketing plan, fundraising plan, etc.

Learn more about “The Big Lie” by e-mailing