Portland Columbia Symphony Realm of Nature Beaverton and Gresham Oregon

Communal Creativity: How #instaballet grew from an idea into a successful arts non-profit

Finding a community model for their crowd-sourced choreography helped the Eugene dance company connect with donors, partners, and the public, and build sustainable financial support.

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Dancers perform at the 2023 Arts & Business Alliance of Eugene's annual BRAVA (Business Recognizing Arts Vision and Achievement), where #instaballet was recognized with the Fentress Award, which recognizes a local arts organization for exceptional work and achievement in the arts. Photo: Athena Delene.
#instaballet dancers perform at the 2023 Arts & Business Alliance of Eugene’s annual BRAVA (Business Recognizing Arts Vision and Achievement), where the dance company was recognized with the Fentress Award, which recognizes a local arts organization for exceptional work and achievement in the arts. Photo: Athena Delene.

The journey to becoming a successful arts nonprofit is different for every organization. Most start from the spark of an idea, then testing, shaping, and reshaping that idea. But taking that idea and turning it into sustainable support for the development of programs, capacity building, and staffing requires connecting on many levels with the donors and foundations that represent a key revenue stream for most arts organizations. 

The story of Eugene’s #instaballet illustrates how grantmakers are integral to their success.

When, during the summer of 2013, Suzanne Haag and Antonio Anacan, both then dancers with Eugene Ballet, had an idea for the Lane Arts Council’s First Friday ArtWalk, turning that idea into a nonprofit organization was not at all on their minds.

“We just wanted to do something creative with dance during the summer when we had time off,” says Anacan. They landed on doing a mock rehearsal with a group of dancers at the popular First Friday ArtWalk held monthly in downtown Eugene. “We decided to ask the audience to come up with ideas, and they could watch, participate, and give feedback as we transform their ideas into movement, and at the end of the night we’d perform the dance they helped create.”

#instaballet dancers take their cues from the audience during an event at the Oregon Contemporary Theatre. Photo courtesy of #instaballet.
Dancers take their cues from the audience during an #instaballet event at the Oregon Contemporary Theatre. Photo courtesy of #instaballet.

They called it #instaballet because “creating together is the quickest way to share our art,” explains Anacan. They considered it a one-time event and didn’t have expectations beyond having people create together and experience what it means to be a dancer and a choreographer. (Read Gary Ferrington’s 2015 ArtsWatch story about the project’s origin.)

Anacan and Haag invited a colleague, Miranda Atkinson, to participate in that first event. “I wasn’t sure the idea would work, but told them I would come to support them,” recalls Atkinson, who would eventually become #instaballet’s first executive director. “It turned out to be magical. The audience got very into it. They threw out all these ideas, and the dance became the structure for their creative ideas to come to life. There was something so special about a community of people who didn’t really know each other creating art together.” 

#instaballet dancers Antonio Lopez and Nina Nicotera improvise on site at the Riverfront in Eugene. Photo: Antonio Anacan.
#instaballet dancers Antonio Lopez and Nina Nicotera improvise on site at the Riverfront in Eugene. Photo: Antonio Anacan.

Given all the audience appreciation for the first #instaballet event, Haag and Anacan decided to continue to produce them. Says Haag, who would later become the resident choreographer at Eugene Ballet, “We thought if we’re going to continue, we should maybe raise some funds, because we made about $18 from our tip jar at that first event, and we thought that the artists should make a little money for doing this.”

Sponsor

Portland Area Theatre Alliance Fertile Ground Portland Oregon

First steps

When Haag and Anacan first began applying for grants to support their nascent program, Lane Arts Council agreed to be their fiscal sponsor, but, to apply for grants, they had to become incorporated. Eventually, #instaballet would achieve full nonprofit status in 2015.

“We’re kind of an accidental nonprofit,” says Haag, “but I don’t think we’re alone in this path for small arts organizations.”

In order to grow and thrive, nonprofits need to find strong partners and create connections between their work. Over the next ten years, #instaballet would continue to connect with audiences and find new pathways to bring ballet to the greater Eugene area community. In addition to performing at the First Friday ArtWalks and other venues, in 2016 they began working with students at Eugene’s Bridgeway House, a nonprofit which offers programs and supports children and families who are affected by autism. Their unique, interactive model made immediate connections with the students.

Hayley Tavonatti (right) leads a dance with Bridgeway House students in Eugene. Photo: Chris Pietsch.
Hayley Tavonatti (right) leads an #instaballet dance with Bridgeway House students in Eugene. Photo: Chris Pietsch.

Since then, they extended their community partnerships further, developing programs with other Lane County schools and nonprofits, including the Jasper Mountain Center, which provides support for children who have experienced trauma or abuse, and Circle of Friends School, a non-profit that supports children with complex physical and developmental disabilities. 

#instaballet dancers helped students from Eugene’s Bridgeway House explore their creativity and transform their ideas into movement, dancing with them as they formed lasting and meaningful connections. Video courtesy of @instaballet.

These partnerships have proved a special experience for both the students and the dancers. According to the #instaballet website, the programs “help empower students to find agency through movement. They build and strengthen community. And, they advance equitable access to dance while contributing to a repertoire of work created by and for diverse communities.”

Sponsor

Portland Opera The Snowy Day Newmark Theatre Portland Oregon

Creating connections

Today #instaballet has more than twenty established partnerships with local businesses, schools, and artists, to help them continue to bring ballet out of the theater and into the community. 

“We’ve experimented with trying our program in new places, like Circle of Friends School, which serves children and youth with complex disabilities. We then adapted our process to make it more accessible to these partners,” notes Atkinson. “Our funders have appreciated this broader community of support.”

Ana Brooks (right) is one of several dancers who participate in the #instaballet outreach and education programs, here at the Circle of Friends School. Photo: Miranda Atkinson.
Ana Brooks is one of several dancers who participate in the #instaballet outreach and education programs, here with a student at the Circle of Friends School. Photo: Miranda Atkinson.

“A lot of organizations are successful because they partner with other successful organizations,” says Rachael Sneddon, Chief Executive Officer of The Marie Lamfrom Foundation, a family foundation whose namesake was the mother of Columbia Sportswear’s Gert Boyle and Sneddon’s great-grandmother. 

“When I look at #instaballet, they are finding really great connections in Lane County like the First Friday Artwalk and the Circle of Friends School and saying ‘here’s this amazing thing we have to offer on top of the other great work you are doing.’” says Sneddon.

In 2023, The Marie Lamfrom Foundation awarded a $25,000 grant to #instaballet to help fund Antonio Anacan’s position as the organization’s first artistic director. 

Brooke Geffrey-Bowler shares a moment with a student at the Circle of Friends School. Photo: Miranda Atkinson.
Brooke Geffrey-Bowler shares a moment with a student at the Circle of Friends School. Photo: Miranda Atkinson.

Sponsor

Portland Columbia Symphony Realm of Nature Beaverton and Gresham Oregon

Finding a unique innovation

As in the for profit world, innovation is key for nonprofits. Sometimes a nonprofit idea takes off because its innovation is timely.

“One very compelling thing about #instaballet is that they are out there interacting with the community and then creating something communal,” says Pauline Fong, Chief Program and Impact Officer for The M. J. Murdock Charitable Trust. “Given the context of today with all the divisiveness, bringing people, with all their differences, into a space to create something together is important and wonderful. When people create something together, it bridges divides.”

The M. J. Murdock Charitable Trust was founded in 1975 following the death of Melvin J. “Jack” Murdock, an innovator and co-founder of Tektronix, Inc. to provide funding and resources for arts and culture, education, health and human services and science projects in the Pacific Northwest. This past year they funded a key step in #instaballet’s growth: they provided $145,000 over three years to support the hire of the organization’s first executive director.

For #instaballet, finding this unique model of community creativity has helped fuel the growth of their programs and staff.

#instaballet's Erin Johnson (right) engages with a student at the Circle of Friends School. Photo: Miranda
#instaballet’s Erin Johnson (right) engages with a student at the Circle of Friends School in Lane County. Photo: Miranda Atkinson.

Says Fong, “There aren’t many arts organizations that have communal creativity as their particular model as #instaballet does. The fact that this model works out in the greater community and with the neurodiverse makes it a timely and innovative outcome.”

Sponsor

Portland Columbia Symphony Realm of Nature Beaverton and Gresham Oregon

Strategy and sustainable outcomes

While nonprofit innovation is important, so, too, are sustainable outcomes. “Nonprofits are along a whole developmental continuum,” ways Fong, “and there are some really important inflection points as they develop. Part of creating sustainable outcomes is investing in them at those inflection points.”

Sara Stockwell of #instaballet plays with a student at the Circle of Friends School in Lane County. Photo: Miranda Atkinson.
Sara Stockwell of #instaballet plays with a student at the Circle of Friends School. Photo: Miranda Atkinson.

Strategic planning processes with board and staff are important for sustainable outcomes.  Miranda Atkinson explains that the #instaballet board and staff spent years organizing and planning for their grant applications for the two key staff positions: Artistic Director and Executive Director.  “We spent three years getting ready: diversifying our revenue, documenting our work, forming an advisory committee, and growing the board,” says Atkinson.

“Before applying to the Oregon Cultural Trust, #instaballet had gone through a strategic planning process and showed both a planning structure and impact that would support a staff position going forward,” says Aili Schreiner, Trust Manager at the Oregon Cultural Trust, who also recently gave #instaballet a grant of $18,500 to support staffing.

Funding for Oregon’s arts and culture nonprofits

There’s a constant dance going on behind the curtains of Oregon’s arts and culture scene, one between nonprofit organizations and the grant makers that fund them. The vigor of that dance impacts the strength and vibrancy of our cultural scene.

According to a recent Forbes article, Oregon ranks 16th in the nation for individual charitable giving. Nonprofits need these repeat individual donors for their long-term survival, as it is generally a more steady funding stream. Grantmaking private and government foundations play a complementary role: they are key to helping nonprofits through key stages of development and growth, as #instaballet’s story illustrates. 

Sponsor

Chamber Music Northwest Beethoven's Complete Piano Trios The Old Church Portland Oregon

Co-founder Suzanne Hagg dances in the street in 2013, the year she and Antonio Anacan first conceived of #instaballet. Photo: Antonio Anacan.
Co-founder Suzanne Hagg dances in the street in 2013, the year she and Antonio Anacan first conceived of #instaballet. Photo: Antonio Anacan.

All nonprofits turn to grant makers at various stages of their development for program and capacity building. Those grant makers, in turn, help identify and fund ideas that create the most impact, so, in turn, the health and growth of our network of nonprofits is influenced by what they fund. Both nonprofits and grant makers have a role in funneling the concentration of wealth at the top into cultural endeavors. 

The Oregon Cultural Trust plays a distinctive role among grant makers. Created in 2001 by the Oregon legislature, the OCT was in direct response to a group of leaders in arts and cultural organizations making the case that nonprofits deserved stable state funding because the impact of their work was a bedrock of community well-being and prosperity. The funding mechanism the legislature came up with is the incentive of the Cultural Tax Credit, which empowers individual Oregonians to direct state dollars into statewide nonprofits. This funding model remains unique in the U.S. and helps provide stable and accessible money for the state’s cultural network. 

OCT’s Schreiner speaks hopefully of the future durability of Oregon’s altruistic systems. “During the pandemic nonprofits showed us one of their strengths: their creativity,” she notes. “But it also seemed to bring the greater public to a deeper appreciation for how important the work of cultural nonprofits is.”

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Photo Joe Cantrell

Jean Zondervan does communications work and enjoys creating content for causes. She has written and produced collaborative projects for print, web, exhibits, and video and has a particular interest in exploring environmental and social issues through the arts. Prior to settling in Portland, she taught English as a first and second language in Texas and South Korea, worked at the Art Institute of Chicago and a small gallery in England, and grew up on a farm in Minnesota. She currently tends to kids, pets, and a large garden in North Portland.

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