FOCUS ON KAREN STOKES DANCE
Houston Arts Alliance
More nonprofit organizational infrastructure doesn't mean less work. Often — let’s get real here — most of the time it’s quite the opposite.
It was a hard lesson for artistic and executive director Karen Stokes, who was named Best Choreographer by the Houston Press this year. Her innovative namesake dance company was at a critical point in its growth before her current company manager, Toni Valle, encouraged Stokes to apply for Houston Arts Alliance’s three-year Resident Incubator Program. The initiative supports emerging organizations with budgets between $50,000 and $200,000 through in-depth training and resources to bolster organizational efficiencies. The program also offers capacity funding of up to $15,000 per year and office space at HAA.
For the interview portion of the application, Stokes interrupted personal travel to fly back and participate in what would become a real shift in the company’s organizational progress.
“I like to think of our company as a big pie,” she quips during a rendezvous at a popular local coffee shop. With a slice of chocolate pecan in the periphery, the analogy made delicious sense, also considering the Thanksgiving tradition of eating as much as you can in as little time as possible.
“Before I was doing the whole pie,” Stokes adds. “I was the administrator, choreographer, grant writer, intern, crust, filling, lattice top and a la mode ice cream. When Toni became the company manager, the logical next step was to divide the pie in half to avoid, shall we say, growing horizontally.”
Administratively speaking, that means carving responsibilities between Stokes and Valle to ensure no one descends into a Tryptophan slumber, also known as nonprofit administrative burnout.
“That’s not what happened,” she recalls. “All of a sudden there were two pies. And when we hired administrative assistant Jerrica Mark, we found ourselves with three pies.”
Any particular flavors?
“We laugh about that,” Stokes says. “We laugh about the increased responsibilities that come with increased efficiencies. Although some day-to-day tasks are now off my plate, that gives the company an opportunity to grow in areas that we couldn’t consider before — on top of being responsible for managing a staff and an energized board of directors.”
Stokes' main goals and objectives remain: What is the company doing to disrupt the art form’s status quo? One of the challenges, she found, when one starts building administrative infrastructure is that the institution of the company wants to take over. What’s critical is ensuring that the infrastructure exists simply to support the artistic and educational goals of the art making company.
"Having additional infrastructure in some ways has freed us to be able to take projects more spontaneously,” Stokes says. “Drench, performed at Discovery Green, was one of those projects. We were able to take it on thanks to an opening in my schedule plus the administrative support. The work was very rewarding, and the publicity and exposure was fantastic."
For Stokes, the most rewarding part of participating in the program has been the camaraderie that comes with sharing growing pains with her pie-sharing staff and with other art nonprofits participating in the Resident Incubator Program.
"I don’t feel alone in doing this,” Stokes adds. "Now I have people who are in the nitty gritty with me. We can say that this is really hard — together. Psychologically and emotionally this is very helpful."