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Powerbroker of Contemporary Dance
Episode 30

Powerbroker of Contemporary Dance

CI to Eye with Gina Gibney

This episode is hosted by Erik Gensler.

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Erik and Gina discuss her secret to fundraising success, how to work with a board of directors, her role as a female leader, and “The Upward Spiral,” which is her organization’s code word for incremental growth.

Erik Gensler: Thank you so much for having us here. This is the first remote podcast you’ve ever recorded at your downtown location.

Gina Gibney: Oh, I’m honored. Nice to be here, Erik.

Erik Gensler: Thanks. So, you recently went through a reran where you changed then name of your company to Gibney. Tell me about what precipitated that change.

Gina Gibney: People were already calling us Gibney. It was a shorthand, and it was comfortable, and they would say, “I’m going to Gibney.” Or, “I met Gibney.” And it was just sort of naturally taking hold, but I think it always- also reflects our growth as an institution. The fact that, yes, we are fundamentally, and in a very dedicated way, a dance organization, but yet we serve a really broad constituency. We serve dance, we-performance art, we serve domestic violence survivors. We’re very, very involved in the social justice community. And we’re many, many things within the performing arts field. So, it just made sense to kind of adopt our identity as an institution and try to embrace that.

Erik Gensler: With the new name came a new logo and a new visual identity. I’d love to hear the genesis behind the new identity, and if you can talk a little bit about what that process was like.

Gina Gibney: First of all, the name, which is my name, is a nod to our artist founding roots. We are, at the very core, an organization of artists. We were founded by an artist. We were founded by a female artist, and that history is really important to us. So, I think part of the name, the evolution of the name, was to try to remain true to that but to broaden and expand. the new visual identity was a lot of fun to work with. We worked with an amazing organization, Objective Subject. And a lot of the work we’ve done with Objective Subject was really incremental. You know, the idea of expanding from one studio to three studios, the idea of moving down to 280 Broadway, the idea of opening a few more spaces. But we really wanted to pause and look at the sort of breadth of what we do. And also, to look to the future, I really believe so strongly that our organization ha-has a-a real responsibility to create a platform for the future of dance. And there’s something about the new logo to me that really works, because you can see through it. It, it’s a bunch of vertical bands that create the name, and it feels both strong, but it’s also flexible. It’s designed to move when placed in front of a photo or in front of another image. So, it’s flexible, but it’s strong. But also, you can see through it. And I felt like, at least in my mind, it’s about seeing through the present to the future. Seeing beyond.

Erik Gensler: When you were thinking about what the future of dance looks like, what is that? Where-where did that take you?

Gina Gibney: At 280 Broadway, we’re really surrounded by emerging artists, so I am constantly surrounded by, what I see, as just a huge amount of desire and talent and capability and real, real genuine interest in making a difference. But there’s just such a lack of resource. There’s such a lack of infrastructure. We’ve done what we can to address the space crisis. We have 23 studios now.

Gina Gibney: Across two locations. But there’s such a crisis of infrastructure. And to me, it-you know, I hope this doesn’t sound corny, but the world so desperately needs right now what dance artists have to offer. Dance has this amazing capacity to open minds, to open hearts, to change viewpoints, to bring things together that are often in conflict with one another to resolve those sort of discrepancies and resolve tensions. That’s the whole artistic process. And the world so needs that right now. And so, if we can find ways to channel this idealism and this incredible talent and drive, and try to make up for some of that infrastructure, I think that the field has so much to offer. So, when I look to the future, I really think about those artists, and I think about the ways that we can empower them to do the very best work they can. To-to, and this is something that I know is really near to your heart, to make sure that that work finds its audience.

Gina Gibney: And to allow that work and to give that work a platform to create the change that it’s capable of creating.

Erik Gensler: I’ve known you for a long time. I think we first met when, by now has been more than, God, fifteen years ago, was a studio manager for you, and your company was-

Gina Gibney: Our one studio.

Erik Gensler: (laughs) One studio.

Gina Gibney: Studio 52. Where it all started.

Erik Gensler: Which is amazing how your company has evolved over the last 15 years, and I’m curious. Was the vision of the company always to become what it is now?

Gina Gibney: I never anticipated this kind of growth. I mean, what has happened to our organization is beyond my wildest imagination for what we could’ve done and achieved. Our organization as it is now existed back in 1991 in Studio 51 in a very embryonic form. We were a company I wanted to make work. I wanted to develop as an artist. Yet I wanted a home. I wanted an artistic home that would allow me to embrace and be surrounded by my colleagues and share with them. And there was also the impetus to reach outside of that space to, reach other communities. To reach beyond those walls to other communities. That little germ of an idea, company, center, community is really absolutely the bedrock of our organization. And through the years the different pillars of the organization grew at different paces and at different rates and with different amounts of support, but those three ideas were always there. Not as static pillars, I probably misspoke when I used the word ‘pillars’, but as these concepts that are interrelated and in dialogue with one another, and they just grew, and grew at different paces, and then when the opportunities around real estate and space came about, it was really like, almost an overnight transformation. But the groundwork had really been-been laid. And the space that I shared with Ryan, and that Ryan managed throughout those years, had a very, very specific culture. It had a culture of warmth, inclusion, respect, it was a very professional space but where people supported one another. It’s not a competitive environment. And that, culture, is still very much, at play here.

Erik Gensler: So, you had the one studio, and how did that evolve into the first major building project? And then how did that evolve-evolve to the next, and then how did it evolve to the third?

Gina Gibney: Well, back in 1991, think about, you know, a choreographer, me, (laughs) being relatively new to New York and suddenly having the opportunity to have a studio space at 890 Broadway. I mean, that was such an incredible opportunity and gift that was really made possible by my landlord, Eliot Feld, who for some reason, took a chance on someone who just had an idea and wanted to create a space. A work space.

Erik Gensler: And-and that building is where ABT’s home is. There’s a lot of history for dance and-and art in that building.

Gina Gibney: Huge amount of history. That’s where Michael Bennett bought that building with the proceeds from chorus line. And he did Dream Girls there, and there’s a huge amount of Broadway history, American Ballet Theater, Woody Shelp, JC Theatrical Footwear, Barbara Matera, huge history. And of course, Eliot Feld and Ballet Tech. But to be part of that environment, you know, literally, I’d only been in New York maybe two or three years. It was just incredible. And the care that went into building that space and that culture, and the favors that were called in by my partner, Pamela Van Zandt, who’s our founding cherish. She just so wanted me to have that space. She wanted me to have an artistic home. And so, the love and the care that went into building that space and the pride. And you know, we sustained that year after year after year after year. It was really difficult. We had good years. We had bad years. But you’re talking about a strong of time from about 1991 to about 2010. Where we just simply sustained that one studio space.

Erik Gensler: Wow.

Gina Gibney: And we’re just fortunate. I felt fortunate that, you know, if time when real estate was going crazy around us. Was the Flatiron district. When I moved there, it was the, you know, the carpet district-

Erik Gensler: Right. (laughs)

Gina Gibney: And suddenly, it was the flat iron district. And it was very Tony and the real estate just really was very hot. But somehow, you know, our landlord made it possible for us to continue to stay there. But I was just happy to be sustaining that one company, that one studio, and a pretty, pretty, robust community action program. But really in the economic downturn of 2008-9, we had a horrible, horrible, horrible series of, really a couple bad, bad years.

Erik Gensler: Mm-hmm.

Gina Gibney: it was a period of time where we lost funding on almost every front. I had been really careful to diversify the funding of the organization. We had earned income from the studio. We had a lot of corporate support for our community action work. We had some foundation support. It was very well diversified, but in that time, and it wasn’t during the economic downturn. We kinda held on. But right after that, it just seemed like on every front, we got hit. We lost a key teacher at the studio. The corporate world pulled away from our community action work after the downturn. Foundations were down. And we literally almost went out of business.

Erik Gensler: Wow.

Gina Gibney: And somehow in that, I really decided to prioritize the studio, prioritize, my relationship with the landlord when we had to choose what bills to pay. We paid our rent. And something in that sort of struggle for survival in that year, reinforced my relationship with Eliot Feld and when spaces started to open, he started to allow me to take them over. And it was an unbelievable lesson in economies of scale, I’m sure when Ryan was our studio manager a lot of people called and he said, “Sorry. We don’t have any space. We only have one space and it’s full.” But we now had three spaces and very, not a whole lot overhead, and it started to really turn things around for us.

Erik Gensler: Wow. So, part of this growth, I’m assuming comes with a lot more responsibility around fundraising when you have more spaces. The costs have just gone up I’m sure, and I think you’re an amazing fundraiser, and I’d love to talk about fundraising, and if you were to provide some of the guiding principles and how you think about fundraising, what are they?

Gina Gibney: Well, first and foremost, I believe that it’s about keeping your promises, and I believe that so strongly that, you know, someone is entrusting you with funds that were very hard, won funds. They are earned funds.

Erik Gensler: Right.

Gina Gibney: And they’re entrusting you to do something with that, and you need to keep your promises. You need to be clear about what you can do and what you will do, and then you really need to keep your promises in your relationship with the funders. And I think that is the main thing. That, you know, I’ve been working at this for a very long time, and the relationships that I have were very slow to build, but they’re very strong, because I’ve really worked to keep my promises. I think there’s another factor, though, to our-our sort of business model, which is that, you know. Again, for the first 20 years of our organization, it was a huge struggle. Lot of rejections on the fundraising front, even though we had, you know, various, program platforms, a lot of struggle. But when we started to invest in the community and invest in spaces that could be utilized by the community, it was-it was interesting. We then became a more stable organization because we had a really steady stream of earned income. We had better cash flow, and we had more stability. We could pay the rent. We could keep the lights on. We could pay the studio manager and maybe start to pay the rest of stuff. And it was really that stability that really attracted contributed income. Funders I think with us know that their funds are not gonna go to keep our lights on. They’re not gonna go to meet our rent. But they’re gonna be able to be applied to programming.

Erik Gensler: That’s right. Have you felt a change in the fundraising environment in the last few years?

Gina Gibney: The change that I’ve observed is because we’ve grown from an organization that had a budget of around 500,000 dollars to an organization that has a budget of over 5 million dollars. And the change I’ve perceived is that it is definitely, easier to gain fundraising momentum as a-a larger institution. I think that funders are much more, inclined to take risks, you know, to venture into projects that are slightly more unorthodox or risky, because they trust that you’ll be there. I think it’s very, very difficult for small entities and probably getting more difficult for small entities to raise money in this climate.

Erik Gensler: If you could give one fundraising tip to people listening who need to raise money for their organization, what would it be?

Gina Gibney: Well, again, just keep your promises. Yeah,it seems so simple, but people are giving you money. You know, sometimes, I get letters, fundraising letters through the mail and they’ll be, you know, just a copy of something that no one signed that is just a xerox of a signature. No personal and I think, why would somebody expect me to take the time or, you know, an online, request that has absolutely no personal element to it. Why would somebody think I’m gonna go online and-and take the time if they won’t take the time to do the outreach? I mean, the other thing is show gratitude. We all like to be appreciated and, you know, when funds are given, there should be expressions of gratitude and-and specific expressions of gratitude. Not just ‘Thanks so much. We did a lot.’ But what did you do? What was the impact? Who was reached? How did it make life different for certain constituents? But to-to really develop those relationships.

Erik Gensler: Yeah. So, I’m hearing keeping your promises, personalization, relationships, giving thanks, all those things. I think you do really well.

Gina Gibney: It’s like what your grandmother taught you, right?

Erik Gensler: (laughs)

Gina Gibney: Say please. Say thank you. Keep your promises. (laughs)

Erik Gensler: Yeah. Where should we be talking about more as-as arts leaders? What should be on our agenda as we gather in many arts. There’s many arts gatherings, what should-what should be on those agendas?

Gina Gibney: I think that we should be spending a lot more time articulating why what we do is important. I was thinking of you in the earlier part of the conversation. When you start to think about allowing work to find its audience, and to me that definition of work is very broad. That work could be, movement, experiences, and creative experiences for women in domestic violence shelters that could be, violence prevention work with youth and schools, using dance as a catalyst as a conversation. That could be audience sitting in a dark theater watching a dance performance. It could be someone taking class in a studio. But allowing work to find its audience, how we-we struggle so much with that question. What is our relevance? Who will our audience be? Who is our audience? How can we get more people to engage in what we have to offer? I think we spent a lot of time talking about that. What I don’t think we spend a lot of time talking about is why is that so critically important? You know, I try to whenever I, have the sense that is about, I’m speaking about how do we serve artists that I complete that sentence with something about the audience and the importance of that work reaching an audience.

Gina Gibney: I just think that we have so much to offer, but we often have a very narrow view of what the impact of that work is actually gonna be.

Erik Gensler: You’ve always had a focus on empowering women, and you work with many people across non-profits and board members and for profits. In your experience, do you think in the arts, it is easier to be a female leader?

Gina Gibney: No.

Erik Gensler: Tell me.

Gina Gibney: I came into the dance field in part because of the sense of community in the dance field. I used to think that it was because of how much I loved dance and my love of music and my love of movement and expression, but I realize now that it actually has a lot more to do with how incredible I think the dance community is. What a-what a strong community in sense of, connection there is. I forgot what your question is. (laughs)

Erik Gensler: The question is around, you know, being a female leader in the arts] we’re in this very interesting moment about female leadership and I just, I think of you as such a strong leader, and you happen to be a woman, and I’m just curious if you run up against challenges because of that.

Gina Gibney: I entered a field that was led by women.

Erik Gensler: Mm-hmm.

Gina Gibney: I entered the field that at time, when female choreographers were really strong, powerful, you know. And that traces back to the history of contemporary dance, modern dance. And I’m very proud of that history. And it seems that during the course of my own career, the field has become much more male dominated on every level, and I know that there are very important and good reasons for that. And I think it’s never about wanting to disempower anyone, but the reality is that this field is now heavily dominated by male leaders. And I think there are, again, I think there are reasons for that. And I feel a very strong sense of my role as a female leader, but I feel that it’s unusual and, you know, one of the reasons that our organization wanted to sustain the name is to have an institution in New York City with a woman’s name on the door.

Erik Gensler: I love that. Yeah.

Gina Gibney: I mean, think about it. We have Streb, which is amazing in Brooklyn. But so many of the organizations that have reached an institutional level are either, either have a-a male name on the door or run by-by men. And many of the positions that have turned over recently have either been, sustained by men or a position that was held for decades by a woman was handed to a man.

Gina Gibney: And so, I think it’s a, you know, many, many. There’s a lot of grumbling right now but the number of curatorial positions in New York City that are held by white men, and so, I think it’s very, very important, to run an institution and to empower women in the field.

Erik Gensler: You have corporate leaders on your board, and maybe you don’t have a perspective on this. I’m just curious. I don’t want to say easier, but it’s different to be a female leader in the arts that it is, say in a corporate or non-arts environment?

Gina Gibney: I don’t know. I doubt it. I doubt it. I mean, there’s such a scramble in the arts, and so-so few rewards. And the competition for those rewards are so great, that I think, I don’t think it’s easier. I doubt that it’s easier. You know, it’s difficult everywhere for women. It’s difficult everywhere for a lot of people. (chuckles) but I think that the… I can’t speak for the arts, but I know in the dance world, it’s very, very difficult for women.

Erik Gensler: Yeah. How so?

Gina Gibney: I think that without making sort of stereotypes around gender. I think that there was a period of time in the history of dance when, for a lot of reasons, having to do with historic dynamics around companies and, you know, who in some of the major companies were rising to kind of stardom, and how those in many cases were men, and they then left those companies and were positioned really well to start their own companies. And this is all, I’m talking about the 80s, and I’m talking about the early 90s. They had, a star power they had a-a novelty as really almost iconic male dancers. And I think that started to create this culture in which men led companies and men led organizations, even though that had not been traditionally the dynamic. And there were really interesting cultural and historic factors that led to that, but it left a lot of women back on their heels ad not quite prepared to deal with how they would compete in that kind of arena.

Erik Gensler: How would you describe your leadership style?

Gina Gibney: I think I lead through enthusiasm. I love what we’re doing, and the opportunities that we have is just so exciting. You know, space is such an incredible resource, and the ability to connect people in space is so such a powerful concept. I think I lead through my care for that and my, just, belief in that. I also really believe a lot in incremental change and in, kind of the idea of just steady progress. We have a kind of internal code word, code phrase. The upward spiral, which to us just means that the dance world has so long been looking down. So long been counting failures, counting rejections, competing, feeling under resourced, but if you just, you know, think about each day having a better, interaction with someone, handling a problem in a slightly better way, learning a new skill, bringing someone new into the fold, just, you know, the second time you do something, do it a little better. Suddenly, you’re on a pathway that’s spiraling upward, and you didn’t have to take that big leap. That impossible step that I think in the dance world we’re all, like, ‘Oh, how am I gonna get up to that next step?’ But you’re just gradually and very positively moving-moving in, you know, in an upward direction.

Erik Gensler: I love that. We talk about that incrementalism with marketing, so how can you make your email program just a little bit program? And it just makes it so much easier cause you don’t have to wrap your head around something so big and impossible.

Gina Gibney: And it forces you to be creative, because you can’t do it the way you did it the last time. You have to change things and try something a little different.

Erik Gensler: I love that. What’s something you think you do really well as a leader?

Gina Gibney: I like running meetings. I like, bringing people together around a topic, bringing people into the room I am a strong believer in setting a kind of context in direction at the beginning of that meeting, so that you don’t just all sort of jump in the fray and come up with ideas, but you know, you either set a little historic context. You talk about a larger goal. You talk about a longer term goal or a problem, or you summarize recent progress, but I like setting that context and then really trying to make space for people to really do their best. Make their-make their strongest contributions. I like giving people a lot of space.

Erik Gensler: But facilitation and sitting back and making the space for, well, it’s making the space for dance, making the space for progress, work, development, growth.

Gina Gibney: Yeah, I try to do that. I think that in the context of a meeting, I could learn to be a little bit making space for even more, open ended, expression of viewpoints. I tend to be very passionate about the direction of the organization and the culture, and I feel like I do a lot of sort of coaxing to make sure that we stay in those sort of basic parameters that I am so dedicated to, that I think really are the secret of our success and, you know, things that are really bedrock. Non negotiables. But-

Erik Gensler: Such as?

Gina Gibney: Oh, things like respect I believe so much in creating a respectful environment here. So, if I find out that an email has gone out to a group of people that are-that are very important to our organization, but it’s been sort of a generic email or, you know, I’m very, very, quick to instruct and give feedback. I really believe in, just treating our space with respect, treating our colleagues with respect, treating people with different aesthetic points of view with respect. We do a lot of different things, and that means we say yes to a lot of people and we say no. And sometimes we say yes to one person in one context, like training and education, and we may have to say no to them in a presenting context. But just so important to communicate and make sur that people know why you’re making the decision that you’re making, that you’re transparent, that it feels fair it’s all really important to me. But I think as a manger, that’s where I give people a lot of room. I like to create clear goals and clear expectations and let people really make their work here be their work.

Erik Gensler: What’s something you’re working on to improve as a leader?

Gina Gibney: I think the idea of trust and we have a lot of employees now, and I think trusting that if you hire really great people, and you give them all the tools they need, that they’ll deliver and that you don’t need to micromanage them and you don’t need to, you don’t need to kind of constantly look over someone’s shoulder that, you know, we’re all adults. We all have lives and that, some-some day you may just really need to take a personal day or, you know, some day you may want to work from home, but to just try to be fluid and try to really understand that people are human beings.

Erik Gensler: Is that a bit of letting go?

Gina Gibney: A bit of letting go. I think that the risks and the challenges that we took, especially in, you know, the move to 280 really created a lot of tension within me of, you know, needing to know that people were working and that our funds were well spent and I’m trying to kind of loosen that a little bit, and realize that people are productive in many different ways at many different, and to try to create a little bit of, of space for that.

Erik Gensler: Yeah. I feel some themes are coming here. (laughs)

Gina Gibney: Space. (laughs)

Erik Gensler: Space. It’s all about space, you know. Where do you look for inspiration?

Gina Gibney: I love nature. I love to garden. I love to be outside. If I don’t get out of the city after six weeks or so, I start to get a little stir crazy. I love to go to the ocean. I really am, you know, I’m a-a country girl. I grew up in Ohio in a very, very small township. I’m used to being near a woods, near water.

Erik Gensler: Mm-hmm.

Gina Gibney: And I love to be out in nature.

Erik Gensler: What brought you to New York?

Gina Gibney: Dance.

Erik Gensler: Yeah.

Gina Gibney: And a lot of fear. I mean, it took me maybe three sort of false starts before I actually moved to New York, because I just did not think that I could survive here.

Erik Gensler: And look at you now. I mean, that’s such a lesson,

Erik Gensler: How did you learn about board governance How do you work with your board?

Gina Gibney: Yeah. Well, I’d actually turn that question around, and I’d ask myself a different question.

Erik Gensler: Great.

Gina Gibney: Which is how did I learn about business? And I actually learned about business through my boards. You know, I don’t have a single credential in business other than that I found an organization. I’ve never taken a single business course. I’ve taken some leadership courses.

Erik Gensler: Weren’t you going to be a lawyer?

Gina Gibney: I was going to be a lawyer.

Erik Gensler: Yeah.

Gina Gibney: Yeah. Well, I quit the dance world for about a year and a half, and I took the LSATs and I was gonna go to law school, and then I changed my mind.

Erik Gensler: Okay.

Gina Gibney: Yeah. It was so funny, because I said, “I wanna have a non-profit after I get my law degree, and I wanna do some social justice work, and I wanna do some work with women.'” And I thought, ‘You know, I don’t need to go to law school to do any of that.’

Erik Gensler: (laughs) All those things.

Gina Gibney: But I have really learned from being around a lot of really amazing business people, and my partner’s an incredible business person. Pam Van Zandt. She was our founding chair. And I think that one of the secrets to our successes and organizations, we actually listened to our board, and we actually worked with them. And-and, you know, taught them what we know about the field and what-what our vision was and how we wanted to operate, but also, just really listen to them. And I’ve always been very fortunate to have a strong board that respected me. I’ve had so few challenges around alignment or around, differences of opinion or power struggles. Just, so few. And, I think I’ve just sort of gradually learned, how to-how to work with a board.

Erik Gensler: So, we’ve come to the last question, this is your CI to Eye moment, and the question is if you can broadcast the executive directors, the leadership teams, staff and boards of a thousand arts organizations. What advice would provide to them to help them improve their businesses?

Gina Gibney: I think the secret to, a good organization, a great organization, is to have a great culture. You know, we are all just essentially the sum of our networks and our relationships, and those, relationships are so important. And they don’t happen automatically. They happen through care and tending and signals that are sent and the conscious and persistent cultivation of creating the kind of culture and the kind of organization that you want to have. It’s not magic. It’s not just from the top down. It’s from the bottom up, and it’s about really bringing people together, aligning them around things that you all really believe in. And then really creating expectations of how you’re gonna work together. And to me, that is absolutely the critical element.

Erik Gensler: I love that. Thank you so much.

Gina Gibney: Thank you.

About Our Guests
Gina Gibney
Gina Gibney
Head of Gibney

Gina Gibney is the head of the newly renamed Gibney, an artist-founded and women-led organization that provides space for dance, physically and metaphorically in New York City. With 23 studios and multiple performance spaces, the company is a performing arts and social justice powerhouse. Dance Magazine named her as “One of the Most Influential People in Dance Today,” and The New York Observer called her the “Power Broker of Contemporary Dance.”

Read more

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