We had a chance to chat with Sharon Duncan (ARAD ’98), Director of Individual Giving, and Ebonie Pittman (ARAD ’08), Senior Director of Development, Dance Theatre of Harlem. Sharon and Ebonie shared the story of how ARAD brought them together, and their experience as development professionals at Dance Theatre of Harlem.
Tell us about yourselves! Where are you from? What were your undergraduate degrees? What brought you to ARAD and how did you two ultimately meet?
SD: I’m born and raised in Harlem. I went to Howard University, where I majored in Dental Hygiene and Human Development. I first completed the Dental Hygiene program and then got my B.S. in Human Development. I was thinking that I would eventually go to Dental School. However, that did not happen. I ended up working every summer at the Dance Theatre of Harlem, where I went after school every day as a little girl because it was not far from where I lived. I never wanted to be a dancer; I just really liked the structure of it. I loved studying dance basically.
So, I had worked several positions at the Dance Theatre of Harlem. At the time, I was Arthur Mitchell’s Assistant. We were on tour in Germany, and I was probably in my fifth or sixth year as his assistant and he saw me one day in the afternoon before the performance and he said, “What’s happening? What up?” and I said “Oh, nothing. I’m just a little bored with the job. I mean, I’ve done it, I know what to do”, and he says to me, “Okay, you know what you need to do? You need to get an advanced degree in arts management, and you should go to Columbia.” And, I was like, “Really?” So, I started researching different programs, and I liked Columbia’s program. I also had another colleague who came through the program and I talked to him about it. He knew Joan Jeffries, who at the time was the program manager, and encouraged me to apply. So, I did. I get my interview with Joan, get accepted, and only then do I realize, “Shoot! This is a full-time program! I can’t do this program. I work full time!” So, I called Joan and she said, “You will do this program, and you will do well in this program so please just accept the admission!”
EP: I’m a native North Carolinian. I studied dance all the way through college at the Ohio State University. In my freshman year there, I already knew I wanted a degree in Arts Administration. I was always that person who knew that I had a dual interest in the performing and the business side of the arts. So, even at 18, going into college, I knew that TC was my future. Fortunately, it worked out that I got into the program. So, after graduation, I moved back to North Carolina for about a year and then moved to NYC in the fall of 2004. I started the program at TC in the fall of 2006, which worked out nicely – I was ready to get back to school. So, that’s what happened, I just kind of knew that I wanted to be there. That’s been my trajectory ever since, dance and arts administration.
Then, what happened with Sharon and me. I was taking the Principles and Practices course, and we had to do a case study. My classmate at the time, Claire and I, decided on the Dance Theatre of Harlem. Joan Jeffries, who was also the program manager at the time, put me in contact with Sharon and mentioned that she was an alumnus of the program. We went up there, did a site visit, and interviewed her for our paper. Then Sharon and I just stayed in contact over the years. That was back in 2008.
What are your current roles and how did you get here?
SD: So, I’ve been at Dance Theatre for a long time. I’ve been here for over 30 years in various capacities, including school administrator and director of administration. I had wonderful mentors and role models at DTH eager to teach me all aspects of the organization, and I took full advantage of it. I enrolled at TC when I was the school administrator for the DTH School. Later, I went to Alvin Ailey because I realized all my experience had been at the Dance Theatre of Harlem. Ailey was seeking a director for its arts education program, so I went there. I was the Director of Arts Education and National Director of Ailey Camp for two years, establishing partnerships with private and NYC public schools and expanding their youth camp around the country. It was great work, but at the time, Ailey was not the size it is today, it was a smaller organization, and I was a department of one. I began to burn out from managing the school residencies around the city and setting up the camps.
After leaving Ailey I got hired at the Thurgood Marshall College Fund to be the Director of Development. They were structured differently and focused on higher education. What was most exciting was the opportunity to attend The Fundraising School at the Indiana University Lilly Family School of Philanthropy with the 40+ advancement officers from the HBCU member schools that fell under the Thurgood Marshall umbrella. The Fund received a major grant to offer the training, and I was fortunate to be able to participate and hone my skills in fundraising while working.
I ended up back at the Dance Theatre of Harlem in 2002 as the Director of Administration. We suffered a financial crisis in 2004, which resulted in laying off the professional company and many staff members. I was asked to stay on and transfer to the Development department, having known many of the relationships DTH had with donors and funders, having been Arthur Mitchell’s executive assistant. We continued to operate the DTH School and its education programs and slowly made our way back, thanks to major funding. However, the Company did not return until 2012. DTH had new leadership and the Development team was in a state of transition. In 2015, I found myself as a department of one with a part-time associate. It was challenging for a few years. Thanks to major funding from the Mellon Foundation, we were finally able to rebuild the department. I encouraged Ebonie to apply for her position. At first, she didn’t think she was ready for it, but she probably was. Then she came back in 2020, and she is winning in her role! Now, she’s the Senior Director of our department! So, I work under Ebonie now as the Director of Individual Giving and it’s a pleasure. With Ebonie, we’ve brought more structure to the department and we’re able to do some things that we couldn’t do before; set goals and do some good work.
EP: Speaking of the crisis, that was actually what the case study was about for my class. Dance Theatre at the time did not have a company. The school was operating but the company was not performing. It couldn’t have been a better case study for school. How does an organization with such an incredibly rich history, that has a very particular role culturally in the ballet canon and continuum, survive and think about the way that they’re modeled in order to move forward and continue the work that Arthur Mitchell and Karel Shook sought to do when they founded it in ‘69?
So, fast forward to 2017. I moved back to NYC in 2014 and was working at the American Ballet Theatre. In 2017, I learned about the Director of Development position at Dance Theatre. I had a conversation about it, interview for it, but ultimately decided to stay at ABT for another 3 years. Then, in June of 2020 I finally made the jump. Which is moderately crazy because we were well into the pandemic. There were no live performances. Everything was on Zoom. We were a team of 2 ½ because we only had a part-time Development Associate. We are now a team of five, which is significant because while Dance Theatre may be small compared to other ballet companies such as ABT or New York City Ballet – we do just as much work. We do the same amount of programming. We do the same amount of cultivation and stewardship. How Sharon held that down by herself all those years is still beyond me! So, I’ve been honored to step into this role and help build what I believe will be a sustainable development program. There are still a lot of things that we need. Some strategic planning and thinking needs to happen for sure. But, there are some systems in place that weren’t there before.
In all your experiences, were there any specific courses, classes or projects at TC that you feel were very helpful?
SD: Organizational Behavior! These were electives but they helped so much. That course taught me how to look at an organization and see what works and what doesn’t, make assessments and come up with solutions; understand how individuals work, what skills capacity is needed, etc. I had a boss at the Dance Theatre of Harlem, and he would say, “Okay, we’re going to do this project,” and I had already thought through so much of it in my head. I drove him crazy! He would just say, “We’re not there yet, Sharon.” I credit that course in teaching me how to navigate within different organizational cultures.
EP: The thing about the Organizational Behavior class is, when you’re in development, you’re dealing with people. Development is literally about building relationships with people. So, you have to learn how to manage personalities. Knowing people’s strengths and weaknesses. How to delegate and get the results that you’re looking for. Not just in terms of the dollars raised but, again, in the relationships that you’re trying to build internally and externally with donors and prospects. I think I took two or three of those classes.
I would say, as far as the actual classes in the program, they provided a lot of foundational information. We learned about unions and collective bargaining, fundraising, accounting, and marketing for the arts, and how those things impact the work of an artist and arts organizations. I think, at the time, there were two tracks in the program, one specifically for visual arts and the other for performing. Given my background, I took Principles and Practices of the Performing Arts. This was where we learned about strategic planning and proper budgeting.
But, I think in hindsight, it’s when you step out of the program that you really realize how everything works together. Academic spaces are academic spaces. Until you really do the work, it only takes you but so far. You have to be in the trenches to understand how all pieces work. I only say that because I know that in my class we had people come straight from undergrad who didn’t have work experience in between. It really made all the difference in terms of how you were able to participate in some of the discussions in class and what you would ultimately take from the program long-term.
What do you feel is the role of arts administrators?
SD: The role of the arts administrator is to support the vision and mission of the organization. It is to ensure that good art is made and supported by skilled individuals, who ensure the work provided by that institution can thrive and be financially sustainable in an environment that benefits the staff and the larger community it serves. My experiences at DTH showed me the value of administrators. Artists are creative and they’re visionaries! They’re brilliant! They have all these great ideas but may not have the business acumen to do it. So, you began to see that we need to put people around them and these ideas, to bring them to fruition. This became so clear to me in working with Arthur Mitchell, who was very passionate and driven. Our role as arts administrators is to make the dream a reality or put it on hold until we can.
ED: Yes, founder’s syndrome is a real thing. Arthur Mitchell was definitely a part of this generation, where a lot of artists started their own company but did not have the people with the business acumen helping them. We have been very fortunate that the larger arts community sees the power and the importance of Dance Theatre of Harlem. So, while we went through that very difficult 8-year period, they did what they saw as necessary at that time.
Michael Bloomberg was the Mayor at the time and put money towards keeping the school open, which was very necessary because quite frankly, I don’t know if DTH would have survived had that piece not been operating at all. But this is the role of arts administrators. I think that we have an opportunity, because a lot of people still don’t know who we are, what we do, or the importance of our work. On the back end, the dancers don’t just get up and dance, and I think that’s what drives both Sharon and me, and everybody else who works for the arts. This is not easy work, at all. And, again, throw a pandemic in it. We’re competing with public hospitals and schools that are trying to educate and keep people healthy. It’s like – who are we, asking for money for ballet classes?! What people realize is that art maintains the perspective. I like to say that the arts are what give people something to live for. So you may ask yourself: “Why are you here?” To engage. Art comes in many forms– whether it’s ballet, television, music on your radio, going to a gallery, watching something on your phone, the clothes you wear, or the designer who made them. You engage with art every single day!
SD: And a lot of the feedback we would receive from our online programming this past year has been, “Thank you for this…This is really helpful to me in this time…Oh, we found this so comforting.” You know, Mr. Mitchell always said that art is a healing balm. He often referred to DTH as a healing balm. The Company sometimes found themselves performing in cities after a catastrophic event (Mt. St. Helena’s) or in places of unrest, such as South Africa, during Apartheid. He always saw our role as one of comfort and healing.
What are you excited about in the coming year?
EP: I think I’m most excited about us as a global community accepting that this is our new reality and finding ways to work within it so that we can continue to do what we do best, which, in the context of arts, is making it available and accessible to all people.
The dancers just did a world premiere last weekend in Detroit and this was the last destination they were supposed to perform at before the pandemic in March 2020. So, now, 2 years later, they had the chance to do the world premiere of this ballet, set to the music of Stevie Wonder, who is from Detroit. I was able to go on Saturday night. It was wonderful, everyone was really excited! But, the best part! There was a woman sitting diagonally across the aisle from me. During intermission, she walks over to her friend in front of me and says, “I have never seen anything like that in my life!” I got the sense that engaging and watching ballet was not something that was very high on her list. But, to know that someone who has had little exposure to ballet saw that piece and was floored! “I didn’t know what that music was or where the movement was going! But, that was BAD!” And when I say bad, I mean good, because she was of a certain generation. I look forward to more moments like that.
I also look forward to DTH getting to a place where we can think more creatively and strategically on this other side of “the pandemic”. It feels like in some way we’ve been maintaining and holding on because we’ve had to. I’m looking forward to new works! I’m looking forward to new programs! We’ve done things in this last year and a lot while I’ve been here but there’s room for so much more! I think we’re finally at a space to have those conversations and I really look forward to what DTC will be in 2022, 2023, and beyond. It’s a different company now than it was 20 years ago.
SD: I’m a lot like Ebonie in that I’m looking forward to seeing where Dance Theatre of Harlem is going. The first 50 years have been great! There’s so much that we have accomplished and there’s still so much that we can do. What does that look like? I don’t know, but I look forward to the exploration. We’ve always thought of ourselves as being innovative. So, figuring out what that looks like in this new reality is exciting. I’m also interested in DTH establishing new partnerships with our community.
What advice would you give aspiring arts administrators thinking about development or fundraising for the arts?
SD: Keep mentors and keep growing your network. If you’re thinking about development or fundraising, be sure you like people. I often hear fundraising compared to sales and I know why they say that, but you need to like people and know how to listen. Ebonie said it earlier – this work is about relationships. You need to be comfortable with hearing the word “No,” it just means not now. Also, there’s nothing more exciting than seeing someone excited about supporting the work you do, or the work of an organization. They feel a sense of belonging and making a difference. Fundraising is challenging and rewarding! Development personnel are the facilitators. We tell the stories and build the relationships that hopefully lead to partnerships and support of the mission. Be inspired by the work of the organization.
EP: I would cosign that, especially the network piece. I’m still friends with people and colleagues that I graduated with in 08. They’re very much still a part of my network and community. We lean on each other.
Also, if you know what you want to do when you get out of school, great! But if you don’t, I would advise you to take that admin assistant, associate job so that you have an opportunity to learn all the pieces, all the wheels and the cogs in the system. So that you can figure out exactly what you want to do and what your sweet spot is. The beautiful thing about development is that because we fundraise for the entire organization, we know every bit of it. We know everybody because we have to. We’re writing for production. We’re writing for programming. We’re writing to fund a new software for operations. You name it. We’re in there. Whereas, some other departments can feel a little more siloed. But I think Sharon and I have a broad perspective of how the bigger picture works because we started out as administrative assistants and associates. All of that experience really helps to shape which direction you may go in. And if you don’t know in the beginning, that’s fine. Learn as much as you can. Just be open to it because, again, it’s hard work regardless because you’re in the not-for-profit arts. So, you have to have a passion for it. You have to know that this is what you want to do, the importance of it, and why we, as an arts and cultural industry, are necessary.
Sharon Duncan is the Director of Individual Giving, Dance Theatre of Harlem. She has held several positions with Dance Theatre of Harlem including Director of Development and Director of Administration. She was the former Director of Arts Education for the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater and the former Director of Development for the Thurgood Marshall College Fund. Sharon received her B.S. in Human Development from Howard University and her M.A. in Arts Administration from Teachers College, Columbia University. She has a CFRM from the Center on Philanthropy at Indiana University and is a fellow of the James P. Shannon Leadership Institute.
Ebonie C. Pittman is the Senior Director of Development at Dance Theatre of Harlem where she oversees the strategic planning, development, and execution of all fundraising activities. Previously she was the Senior Director of Philanthropy, Institutional Support at American Ballet Theatre (ABT), where she managed all corporate, foundation, and government fundraising. She has served as an applications review panelist for the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs and New York State Council on Arts. A champion of diversity and inclusion in the arts, Ms. Pittman has played an active role in the advancement of ABT’s former Project Plié, now RISE, diversity initiative. As a fervent supporter of the performing arts, and a dedicated arts administrator, Ms. Pittman previously worked for the North Carolina Theatre, The Wallace Foundation, Young Audiences New York, and Buglisi Dance Theatre.
A native of Durham, NC, Ms. Pittman started dancing at a very early age under the tutelage of Lauren Lorentz de Haas and the late Barbara Bounds Milone, and spent summers studying at North Carolina School of the Arts, Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, and the Bates Dance Festival. She danced professionally with Mezclado Movement Group in New York City, and she is currently on the Board of Directors of the Triangle Youth Ballet in Chapel Hill, NC.
Ms. Pittman graduated cum laude and with distinction from The Ohio State University with a Bachelor of Fine Arts in Dance, and she has a Master of Arts in Arts Administration from Columbia University, Teachers College.
Dance Theatre of Harlem: https://www.dancetheatreofharlem.org/