At Philanthropy Roundtable’s 2023 Annual Meeting, Lincoln Jones, founder, director and choreographer of American Contemporary Ballet (ACB) in Los Angeles, shared his experience as an artist navigating the pressure of divisive ideologies in recent years and how it nearly cost him his ballet company.
Below are excerpts from Jones’s remarks, as prepared for delivery:
I took my first ballet class when I was 19 years old. But I was so compelled by it, and by the vision I had of what I thought ballet could be, I started my own ballet company.
We started in a borrowed warehouse with two dancers. Eight years later, we had 21 dancers, and 70 performances a year, more than any other company in Los Angeles. We had revolutionized the way ballet was presented, the culture of a ballet company and were drawing entirely new audiences to the art.
Then it all nearly went away.
It was because I didn’t think the company should be used to foreground politics and political organizations, because I refused to use race as a metric in hiring and advancing dancers and because I would not shape our art according to outside ideological decree.
Because of this, the company was threatened, individual dancers were threatened and most art grants were, and still are, off limits to us. I lost donors, board members, dancers.
I never thought I would see what I saw in the arts during that time. Artists wrote to me, telling me how isolated they felt, and how they had to lie to preserve their livelihood. That was not an abstract fear. I myself was told many times that if I spoke up, I would never work again.
I don’t know how many letters I wrote to individuals and organizations in the media and nonprofit worlds, trying to explain the seriousness of the situation in the arts. But I do remember who answered: Philanthropy Roundtable. They gave me an opportunity to speak on their podcast about what was happening.
No head of an arts organization had yet spoken out, and I remember feeling fairly certain that doing so would mean the end of my career, but that if I didn’t speak, things would be much worse. If people thought artists unilaterally supported these policies, which they actually did not, it would only reinforce them. I remember planning everything I would say on the podcast, because I thought if I said one thing that could be misinterpreted, it would be so much worse for me and the cause I was representing. And then I thought, “What the hell am I doing?”
I’m supposed to be an artist. My job is to look deep into myself to try to find something true, something beautiful, something that will mean something to other people, and here I am afraid to even say what is on the top of my mind.
At that moment, I resolved to speak freely. It was the best decision I ever made. I got myself back that day.
But it didn’t stop there. And as a result, I got to meet some truly incredible and generous people in this community. … Some of them are in this room tonight. You know who you are. And I want to thank you from the bottom of my heart for your support and friendship. We wouldn’t be here today without you.
Most arts grants are still unavailable to us. But this is only the most recent development in a long trend away from funding the arts. There are a number of reasons for this, such as the fact that as the arts have become more politicized, they have driven those who just want art, away. As they leave, it only reinforces the trend.
But should we support the arts at a time when there is so much strife and basic need in the world? The answer is absolutely, and never stop. Here’s why.
When we are down, or despondent, we look to things of beauty to comfort us, to remind us of the meaning in our lives, to give us the hope and fuel to persevere. In a time when we are more and more overwhelmed by a news and social media cycle of despair, we need things of beauty on a grand scale.
The arts are the language of the soul. And at a time when society is pressuring individuals to speak, think or be other than they are, it is the soul that needs reinforcement.
There is an old saying by Lao Tzu: “Watch your thoughts, they become your words; watch your words, they become your actions; watch your actions, they become your habits; watch your habits, they become your character; watch your character, it becomes your destiny.”
We can add to this: Watch your citizens, they become your culture. Watch your culture, it becomes your thoughts.
It is a particular quirk of humanity that storytelling, representation … art, shapes us more deeply than science or philosophy.
Right now, we live in a time when much of the most visible art is made in the service of selling us something, whether it be a product or an ideology – lately, it is often both at once. But when art is used to sell something, it becomes propaganda. We don’t want the soul of our nation shaped by propaganda.
To close, I’ll tell you a brief story. A young choreographer, we’ll call her Melissa, once went to George Balanchine, the greatest genius in the history of ballet, to show him her new ballet, and ask him what he thought of it. After watching, he said “It’s fine … it’s fine. But it is too Melissa. People don’t come to the theater to see Melissa, they come to see themselves.”
They come to see themselves. I see this as a sacred trust, and one we must take very seriously.
While American Contemporary Ballet is shut out of most arts funding, the audience doesn’t seem to care. Our entire season last year was almost entirely sold out. It seems that art, independent ideology, is still in demand.