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Accounting for Change at Repertory Dance Theater, part 2

Accounting for Change at Repertory Dance Theater, part 2

By Joanna L. Johnston, MBA, CPA
RDT Board Treasurer and UACPA Non-Profit Committee Member

This article was originally published in The Journal Entry, a publication of the Utah Association of Certified Public Accountants. Writes Joanna, “Since this article was published in 2014, I’ve learned so much more about Repertory Dance Theatre and the art form. Consequently, I’ve re-upped for another term as a trustee of RDT’s board. This extended stay at America’s premier repertory dance company has given me added insight into the way America’s arts organizations not only survive change but thrive because of it and how accounting professionals can be a critical part of that success.”

In part 1, Joanna, a professional CPA and Repertory Dance Theatre’s current Board Treasurer, talks about the history of modern dance, RDT, and what she feels our art from offers an audience.  In this post she talks about the challenges and unique opportunities a dance company faces as it transitions staff members and strives to keep the Company and the art form moving forward.

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Like most arts organizations … RDT must compete with other performing arts companies and entertainment outlets for audiences, sponsors and donors. Throughout the last decade of economic downturns, RDT has needed to look for new ways to recruit and retain valuable corporate and foundation sponsorships. In addition, RDT has had to evaluate its financial position and cut expenses without cutting quality. Several years ago the Company reached out to the accounting community through the UACPA [Utah Association of Certified Public Accountants] in an effort to recruit CPAs for its board of trustees. Three CPAs responded, and [as of 2014] two are still serving on the board in executive positions. Having CPAs on the board has proved to be an invaluable asset. Their awareness of current tax laws and GAAP standards have helped the organization obtain refundable small business health care credits, provide assistance with reporting issues, budget and plan for cash flow fluctuations, work with auditors throughout the audit process and act as liaisons with local and state agencies concerning public funding for the arts. The administrative staff for RDT is only five full time employees, and none are accounting professionals, so it is imperative to have CPAs on the board to advise and support the staff on financial and reporting matters.

Recently, RDT has had to confront an unanticipated succession issue. RDT’s bookkeeper for the last 13 years was diagnosed with a terminal illness in June 2013. Even though the position was only part-time, she was responsible for recording all the financial transactions including receivables, payables, payroll and tax payments. She performed reconciliations and prepared financial reports for the administrative staff and the board. She was the only member of the staff who knew how to use the accounting software, print checks and prepare the financial information and reports. When Linda Smith, RDT’s Executive Director, became aware of the bookkeeper’s illness, the Company was challenged and in need of current and accurate financial information for grant proposals and end-of-year reconciliation. There was a struggle to get the books caught up while attempting to advise other members of the staff and board treasurer how to use the software to record transactions, prepare reports and print checks.

RDT wanted to honor a dedicated employee’s years of service while recruiting a new bookkeeper. A smooth transition needed to be created to keep financial continuity in the interim. I was asked as the board treasurer to step in for a two-week period to get invoices recorded, payables paid and travel per diem checks printed for the dancers going out on tour, before another bookkeeper was hired and took over. … RDT’s new bookkeeper … [had] to adjust to new software and accounting methods that function differently. It … [took] some time before the financial process … [was] running smoothly again, but with the help of experienced CPAs on the Board, the succession [was completed.]

This situation has demonstrated to the staff and board the importance of cross-training and information- sharing in a small non-profit organization. Going forward, a plan … [was] created to ensure that more than one person knows how to perform basic financial functions within the Company, and that key personnel feel comfortable sharing those duties with other members of the staff. Currently the board and administrative members of the RDT staff are formulating a strategy that incorporates segregation of duties and contingency planning to ensure accurate financial reporting and financial stability. Meanwhile, the artistic staff continues focusing on the mission of the organization which is still, [now in its 51st year] … dedicated to the creation, preservation, performance and appreciation of modern dance.

Many people confuse the non-profit status of an organization with the organization’s goals to be profitable in order to achieve its mission. Incorporating skilled accounting professionals on the staff and on the board of a non-profit arts organization like Repertory Dance Theater help ensure financial continuity while enabling the artistic staff and performers to provide quality entertainment and educational opportunities to the community.

Joanna L. Johnston, CPA is a Tax Manager at BDO USA, LLP with a passion for non-profit arts organizations. She is the Treasurer for Repertory Dance Theater, Vice-President of Finance for the Utah Wind Symphony, as well as a member of the University of Utah Business Alumni Association Board. She can be reached at jljohnston@bdo.com

Accounting for Change at Repertory Dance Theater, part 1

Accounting for Change at Repertory Dance Theater, part 1

By Joanna L. Johnston, MBA, CPA
RDT Board Treasurer and UACPA Non-Profit Committee Member

This article was originally published in The Journal Entry, a publication of the Utah Association of Certified Public Accountants. Writes Joanna, “Since this article was published in 2014, I’ve learned so much more about Repertory Dance Theatre and the art form. Consequently, I’ve re-upped for another term as a trustee of RDT’s board. This extended stay at America’s premier repertory dance company has given me added insight into the way America’s arts organizations not only survive change but thrive because of it and how accounting professionals can be a critical part of that success.”

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What is Modern Dance? As a board member for Repertory Dance Theater for over five years, I still have difficulty answering that question. My typical response is “Modern dance is an emotional, free-flowing dance style that needs to be experienced. Please join me at a performance. You won’t be disappointed.”

Modern Dance was born in the early 20th century. Early modern dancers broke away from classical ballet  and other forms of “academic” dance. They focused on “self-expression” and created movement to communicate the energy, the society and sometimes the politics of the 20th century.  Costumes became less restrictive; dancers frequently performed in bare feet and were not afraid to show the effort in creating movement. In the 1930’s, pioneers such as Martha Graham focused on muscular contraction and release, resulting in movements that were sharp, jagged and “fraught with inner meaning, with excitement and surge.” Other choreographers such as Doris Humphrey, Jose Limon, Merce Cunningham and Twyla Tharp are known world-wide for developing their own individual movement languages, styles, and choreographic theories.  Today, modern dance encompasses a wide variety of influences including African-American dance, jazz, ballet, and traditional cultural dances from across the globe. It is now an international art form.

Repertory Dance Theater (RDT) was founded in 1966 through a cooperative effort between the Salt Lake City dance community, the University of Utah, and a major grant from the Rockefeller Foundation. Virginia Tanner, a respected educator and director of the Children’s Dance Theater, dreamt of having a professional company of dancers dedicated to the performance, creation and preservation of American modern dance. As a founding member of the company, Linda C. Smith has strived to fulfill that dream, first as a dancer, and now as RDT’s Executive/Artistic Director. As a result of her efforts, RDT, in residence at the Rose Wagner Performing Arts Center in Salt Lake City, has become both a museum and contemporary gallery of modern dance.

The “storefront” for many performing arts groups including RDT is public performances. However, there is so much more to the Company than meets the eye. RDT’s community outreach programs include adult dance classes [conducted at RDT’s Dance Center on Broadway], ranging from Flamenco and Jazz to African and Ballet. Summer workshops offer high school and college students opportunities to dance and create with nationally renowned choreographers. Ring Around the Rose is a monthly series of interactive performances targeted toward families to encourage understanding and appreciation for the arts. Through Arts in Education programs sponsored by the Utah State Office of Education, each year RDT dancers visit 25,000 students in elementary schools across the state demonstrating the interaction between art, history, ecology and cultural diversity through dance. Students learn new concepts in problem-solving through movement and are presented with new avenues of awareness that can improve self-confidence and provide opportunities for each student to create and explore. RDT’s extensive collections of dance works enable the dancers to tour the country throughout the year, providing national recognition for the company. Through its performances and outreach, RDT is telling America’s story through dance.

 

Come back for part 2 on Monday to learn more about the unique difficulties and challenges RDT faces each year and the special skills Joanna brings to the board as she helps steer RDT to success.

Joanna L. Johnston, CPA is a Tax Manager at BDO USA, LLP with a passion for non-profit arts organizations. She is the Treasurer for Repertory Dance Theater, Vice-President of Finance for the Utah Wind Symphony, as well as a member of the University of Utah Business Alumni Association Board. She can be reached at jljohnston@bdo.com 

The Place for Art in America: Everywhere (Part 1)

The Place for Art in America: Everywhere (Part 1)

RDT: "Missa Brevis," by Jose Limon
RDT: “Missa Brevis,” by Jose Limon

I’m a culture worker twice. I’m both an artist myself, and I’m a fundraiser for the arts. As a novelist and editor of creative writing, I pursue my own imaginative and expressive impulses through my craft, and with my vision of what I think literature has done and can continue to do to broaden and enrich the human enterprise. But as a fundraiser for Repertory Dance Theatre (RDT), those pursuits are not so much “deep-sixed” as they are suddenly in vivid conversation with, for want of a better word, the non-cultural sector. Among others, this sector includes STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) as well as the business world. Tragically, it is also starting to include public education … but more on that later.

I want to talk here about the intersection between the arts / humanities and business. For cultural organizations like RDT, a mid-sized performing arts group with an annual budget of $800,000, the Great Recession was an opportunity for arts administrators like me to turn over the stones in the rock garden of corporate America, and to learn to speak the language of business. After all, many arts groups (10,000 or one-tenth of the nation’s organizations by one 2009 count) not only took it in the teeth, but would shutter their doors forever. With unemployment in the United States peaking at 10 percent, we needed the validation of the moneyed crowd. We needed their endorsement. Oh yeah … and we needed their cash sponsorship.

In short we needed them to see us. The business sector, more often elusive than not to artist-types like me, also includes government agencies which can be quick to contract their revenue streams to a symphony, or a gallery, a ballet or a book award–to a mere drizzle. Or they can even attempt to seal that funding off entirely the moment the Dow Jones Industrial Average plummets and someone starts screaming about economic priorities. Needless to say, the priorities of economics, like those of politics, are in the eye of the beholder … or the screamer in this case. What is the economic priority of one is clearly not that of another.

But corporate America, which accounts for just 5% of charitable giving of every kind (human services, culture, etc.) in the United States, contracts even more quickly than tax-based agencies.

The Economic Web: Arts and Culture are an integral part of it.
The Economic Web: Arts and Culture are an integral part of it.

I mention this because RDT, where I’m the Director of Development (aka, fundraiser), has made an intrepid effort of late to reach out to businesses not just because we need increased sponsorship for our programs through their offices of corporate responsibility. We have also approached them because, as an arts organization, we have to make ourselves part of the economic web just to be seen. We have to get on their radar. They have to see us on their terms, not ours.

For this reason, small as we are, RDT makes enormous efforts to network with organizations such as the Salt Lake Chamber of Commerce and the Economic Development Corporation of Utah (EDCUtah). RDT carries a membership in both organizations, fortunately, through the affordable contract of ticket trade for membership dues. These organizations are social sites where RDT gets to preach to someone other than “the choir.” They are sites where we are challenged to tell our story in ways that insert us into the fabric of society as seen through the eyes of economic development.

This is not an easy task. Business folks are folks first: real people with real limits on their time, resources and attention. Like “us,” they get locked into their own boxes, and into their own lexicon: if they don’t have a word for something, it doesn’t exist to them. For example, RDT not only spends a lot of its time with defining “repertory” and “choreography” at these networking events, we have the challenge of explaining why any of it matters.  The conversation can sometimes go like this:

Tutu

“Dance? My daughter dances. Costs me a fortune to send her through that school every year.”

“Really? Does she study ballet or modern?” He looks at you blankly. [Wrong turn. Go back…]

Take Two: “We do what’s called concert dance.”

“Concerts? Like music?”

“We’re professional dancers who perform shows in a theater.”

[More blank stares. But you’ve got a hook. Keep going…]

“We tell America’s story on stage.”

“What kind of stories?”

“Stories about you and your family … ”

“No kidding?” [Takes a sip of his beer.]

“…and of the whole human family. How old is your daughter?”

“Eight.”

“She’s probably seen RDT in her school. We serve 30,000 Utah school kids every year with dance programs.”

“She’s crazy about it. Always wearing that tutu.”

[Empathetic laughter]. Yep. That’s us. [Even though we’re not the ballet, we’ll take credit for a tutu.] We’re the ones that give meaning to her life in school. We get her to ask the question ‘why?’ … ”

“Why?”

… so that she connects what she does in the classroom and who she is in her family to how she sees herself. Who she becomes.”

“That’s cool.”

“Yep. That’s what we do. It is cool!”

“So, you work with kids.” [He’s looking around the room for his next networking opportunity. You need to go in to the wind-up.]

“And big kids too. Like you and me, in the theater. Art asks the question, [You gesture around the room] ‘Why are we doing all of this?’ ‘Why and how does it really matter?'”

“Ah, sort of like church?”

“Sort of. But you get Sundays off.”

Cheeky though the conversation above might sound, I hope it illustrates the point I’m trying to make which is that the arts and humanities aren’t just embroidery to something called “the things that matter” (i.e., making and spending money). The arts are part of the warp and woof of the tapestry of life. They temper everything, and inform everything, and they faciliate thought and action. More than a tapestry, they are part of the web of life that connects everything to everything: science to faith, justice to law, education to the soul, commerce to community. When one corner of the web of human living moves, it moves everything. Art in general personifies how that happens, and  dance in particular embodies it–literally.

That’s part of the story of RDT as well. Not just our concert series, our popular Dance Center on Broadway, or our school outreach. And that’s the story we have to tell in some shape or form to the broader population that sometimes seems fixated on everything but arts and culture. They need to know that our work matters to the community which, when healthy, and fully-dimensional, actually helps provide a real space for sustained economic development. So, you see, we are brought full circle, which arguably is the modus operandi of art, to circle back, to elevate the questions, not the answers.

In another post,  I would like to blog on how we talk about our art form and our programming to others who do not speak the language of culture. The moniker “Creatives Industry” is emerging to suggest the role that creativity plays in economic development. The term, two words from opposite sides of the universe improbably jammed together, broadens the tent of what is creative while honoring the gold standard of creativity: the fine arts and humanities. To be useful, the term has to be defined. Americans for the Arts has a narrower version than others, but as a story-teller, you and your cultural organization, can use the term fluidly (and liberally) to inspire others to draw the arts and cultural sector into the visible web of what we call “the economy.”

There is a place for culture in America. Even an honored place. But first we have to learn the language of the population we are trying to reach. What’s the good news? They already want what we are offering. The market is there.

david_300x300A fiction writer and essayist by trade, David Pace is the Director of Development at Repertory Dance Theatre. You can visit his personal website at www.davidgpace.com