5 Questions with Heather Hartley About See Chicago Dance
Everybody knows that behind the stage, there’s a completely different world called backstage, where all kinds of professionals do all kinds of work to make what happens on stage be the best it can possibly be. In the multifaceted universe of Chicago dance, there’s another scene behind the scene backstage, where other professionals do all kinds of other work to help the Chicago dance scene be the best it can be. One of the most noteworthy of these back of backstage scenes is See Chicago Dance. Since 2006, SeeChicagoDance.com has been an invaluable web resource, with the ambitious goal of telling everyone about all the dance performances and events happening in Chicago. But behind its outward looking web presence, the organization behind See Chicago Dance also supports and encourages just about every aspect of the area dance scene.
On Tuesday, March 27, the organization that has hosted seechicagodance.com, Audience Architects, officially changed its name to See Chicago Dance. At a reception and performance to kick off Chicago Dance Month, one of many important services from See Chicago Dance, Board President Michael McStraw (who is also the Executive Director of Giordano Dance Chicago) announced the change, and explained the organization’s evolution as “streamlining its identity to match the name of its popular website”.
Heather Hartley is the Executive Director of See Chicago Dance, and we asked her to give us a better understanding about some of the many things that make this organization so valuable and so unique. It makes for a fascinating set of stories — there’s a lot happening in this scene behind the scene. Here’s what Heather told us:
Johnny Nevin: See Chicago Dance (formerly known as Audience Architects) is what is known as an “Arts Service Organization”, and the name is quite literal in your case; you’ve been around since 2005, and from the beginning the idea was to serve needs in the dance community. Fast forward to 2018, and See Chicago Dance continues to imagine and develop a variety of ways to support the Chicago Dance Community. Can you tell us a little about what the organization actually is, and about the change of the name from Audience Architects to See Chicago Dance.
Heather Hartley: See Chicago Dance is a nonprofit service organization with the mission to advocate for the dance field and strengthen a diverse range of dance organizations and artists through services and programs that build and engage audiences. Our two-pronged approach focuses on building audiences while developing a more cohesive dance community.
Originally born as the website SeeChicagoDance.com, we sprang forth as part of a multiyear market research study, funded by the Chicago Community Trust in 2003, on how to strengthen the dance sector and build larger dance audiences. SeeChicagoDance.com quickly proved to be a valuable asset for patrons and artists alike. It was clear that this resource needed to continue beyond the duration of the CCT grant. So, in 2006, marketing professionals Carol Fox and Niki Morrison created a supporting service organization to ensure that vital audience development services would continue for the Chicago dance field. Carol and Niki called the organization “Audience Architects” because the original concept was that the nonprofit could potentially provide services to additional art forms, such as theater and music, so the name was intentionally broad at the inception. However, as time passed, the organization continued to focus on the art form of dance, in part because dance has some of the greatest audience development needs.
This spring, as part of a five-year strategic plan, Audience Architects changed its name to See Chicago Dance to streamline and strengthen our position across all consumer markets. Accompanying the evolution of our organizational brand identity is a refreshed and expanded website serving both artists and patrons. Now the name of the organization matches and melds with our high-traffic website, creating a platform that has value for audiences and dance artists alike.
Johnny: You’ve spoken of your core objectives in terms of “bringing audiences and artists together”. Can you talk a little about the practical details of such a goal? For example, how does an organization like See Chicago Dance actually go about imagining the specific, practical ways in which you try to accomplish that goal?
Our flagship program, SeeChicagoDance.com, is the most comprehensive source for Chicago-area dance performances and events throughout the year. The website has nearly a quarter million visitors annually and drives ticket sales for dance in Chicago through a dynamic events calendar, feature stories and reviews, discount ticket offers, and detailed information on more than 200 dance organizations. Our “Hot Deal” and Featured Highlight emails reach thousands of proven dance patrons, serving to engage audiences and grow the dance sector. We also employ an editor and a roster of dance critics who write professional reviews and features on more than 70 performances per year, offering in-depth information on the dance community during a time when press coverage for dance is dwindling in other media outlets.
See Chicago Dance exists as a megaphone for dance in Chicago. We provide regional dance organizations with increased visibility, expansive resources, and forums to showcase and share their talents. Examples of our services beyond the website include hosting professional development workshops for artists, convening the dance industry for quarterly networking and shared learning opportunities, and offering numerous events, artists discussions, and showings to engage and inform the public about Chicago’s vibrant and diverse dance scene. We see dance transform and change lives, expand horizons, and encourage change. Countless artists are doing amazing things through dance here in Chicago, and See Chicago Dance exists to empower them—and share them with you.
Johnny: Your work goes on year round, but every April you put it all into an even higher gear with Chicago Dance Month. Can you tell us about this — what the idea is, and some of what’s in store for this April?
Heather: Now in its sixth year, Chicago Dance Month highlights the breadth, variety, and artistic richness of the Chicago dance community. Each April, See Chicago Dance promotes and highlights more than 70 dance events—the core intention being to remind and inform Chicagoans about all the tremendous dance activity happening all the time and encourage people to go out and see dance! In addition to the dozens of dance performances and classes taking place all over Chicago, FREE special events this April include Moving Dialogs: Culture in Motion (April 3), an interactive performance featuring Chicago Dance Crash and objects at the Haitian American Museum of Chicago, produced in partnership with the Chicago Cultural Alliance; Mid-Month Pop-up Performances (April 10), site-specific performances by several Chicago dance companies in the Pedway at Block 37; Open Studio Fridays (now through May 11), featuring performances, mini dance classes, and other activities every Friday at the Chicago Cultural Center’s Dance Studio; and the Chicago Dance Month Celebration and Scavenger Hunt (April 30), a progressive event that starts on the steps of the Chicago Cultural Center, continues down Michigan Avenue with site-specific performances, and concludes along the Riverwalk. Our website SeeChicagoDance.com contains more info about all the above events, as well as “Hot Deal” discounts for many paid performances around town.
Johnny: One of your more imaginative initiatives is a portable dance floor. How does that work, and how did that idea get started?
Heather: In 2017, See Chicago Dance secured a grant from the Service Club of Chicago to build a portable dance floor, enabling us to present dance performances in locations throughout Chicago, including venues in marginalized neighborhoods that otherwise lack suitable, safe flooring. Dancers are sometimes asked or expected to perform in locations that have concrete or other unsafe surfaces, and SCD wanted to change this dynamic. The floor is available to member organizations for a modest rental fee, so artists can secure new bookings, grow audiences in non-traditional spaces, and generate more revenue. The portable floor will help to build new audiences among the “dance curious” by facilitating activity in nontraditional spaces, allowing dance to go to the streets and into community centers, shopping malls, art galleries, and other spaces where the public congregates and creating new energy and awareness for dance in numerous locations. We have used the portable floor in several spaces for site-specific events, and programs have occurred on State Street, in a furniture store, in the 900 North Michigan Shopping Center, at the Palmer House Hilton, and at several Park District spaces.
Johnny: What are some of the most important characteristics about dance, and especially about the dance community in Chicago, from your perspective
Heather: Chicago’s dance community is truly one of the most diverse in the country—in terms of race, budget size, genre/style, and geographic location. A study conducted by the University of Chicago Cultural Policy Center in 2014 confirmed that dance is THE MOST diverse art form in the city, with dance artists living and working in nearly every ZIP code and ward. So from an audience perspective, the breadth and variety of choices you have is tremendous and exciting. There’s something new and unexpected happening in the Chicago dance field all the time. The Chicago dance community is also collaborative, and it’s not uncommon for organizations to partner, help one another, and share information or assets. I like to call it “coopetition”—a healthy blend of cooperation and competition that creates a sense of innovation and unity.
Dancers themselves are, by definition, resilient and disciplined people, and Chicago dance boasts some of the most gifted and versatile artists on the planet. Professionals in other cities regard our industry highly, and dance leaders elsewhere often think of Chicago as containing rich talent, great technique, and a high level of experimentation. The field of dance is ever changing, and Chicago is on the leading edge of creating impactful work.
See Chicago Dance presents Chicago Dance Month throughout the month of April, but there’s so much going on that we have to turn the mic over to See Chicago Dance themselves. Here’s what they say about Chicago Dance Month:
Chicago Dance Month highlights the breadth, variety, and artistic richness of the Chicago dance community. In addition to the dozens of dance performances and classes taking place all over Chicago, FREE special events include Moving Dialogs: Culture in Motion (April 3), an interactive performance featuring Chicago Dance Crash and objects at the Haitian American Museum of Chicago, produced in partnership with the Chicago Cultural Alliance; Mid-Month Pop-up Performances (April 10), site-specific performances by several Chicago dance companies in the Pedway at Block 37; Open Studio Fridays (now through May 11), featuring performances, mini dance classes, and other activities every Friday at the Chicago Cultural Center’s Dance Studio; and the Chicago Dance Month Celebration and Scavenger Hunt (April 30), a progressive event that starts on the steps of the Chicago Cultural Center, continues down Michigan Avenue with site-specific performances, and concludes along the Riverwalk.
For more information about Chicago Dance Month, visit seechicagodance.com/festival/chicago-dance-month-2018