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Merce Cunningham's company faces fundraising challenges

July 28, 2009 | 10:00 am


Dance is often called an art form for the moment, but Merce Cunningham was always planning ahead.

In June, the choreographer announced an initiative called the Living Legacy Plan that would safeguard his work and provide for a smooth transition of assets in the event that he should no longer be able to serve as leader of his New York-based dance company.

It was an innovative move in a career marked by innovation. But with Cunningham’s death Sunday, his foundation finds itself in the difficult position of having to fund the $8-million plan as it simultaneously goes into effect.

The Cunningham Dance Foundation said Monday that it has raised approximately $2.5 million toward the $8-million goal, with most of the money so far coming from lead gifts from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation and the Nonprofit Finance Fund.

“While Merce was alive, we had the luxury of time to raise the money. Obviously, the effort is even more urgent now,” said Allan Sperling, a Cunningham Foundation board member and chairman of the legacy committee.

Tambra Dillon, the Cunningham Foundation’s director of institutional advancement, said that “we have several large financial prospects pending, and we’re confident that we will reach our goal.”

She added that raising money in the current economic environment has been difficult and that company leaders will be meeting imminently to discuss details of the plan’s implementation process.

Cunningham’s Living Legacy Plan provides for a two-year international tour followed by the closure of the dance company. Those cities that are already on the company’s schedule — including a three-evening engagement at Walt Disney Concert Hall in June 2010 — will be absorbed into the final tour.

After the company’s closure, dancers, musicians and other staff members will continue to receive compensation and career-transition resources for a limited period, provided that the $8-million fundraising goal is met in time, according to company leaders.

The plan states that all of the company’s assets will be transferred to the Merce Cunningham Trust, which will serve as the custodian.

The trust, which was founded several years ago, will continue to administer the performance rights for the dances that Cunningham created during his life.

In addition, the company will create a series of “dance capsules” — digital packages containing complete documentation of Cunningham’s repertory work.

The company said it has just begun working on the capsules and hopes to have 10 completed by June 2010.

The Cunningham Foundation said it will take three or more years for the entire legacy plan to be completed. The foundation operates on a budget of approximately $5 million a year, with half of the money coming from donors and half from performance revenue.

The foundation leases rehearsal and office space at Westbeth Artists Housing, located in New York’s West Village neighborhood. It will continue to rent space at that location until the trust decides to end the foundation’s operations, according to company leaders.

-- David Ng

Photo: Merce Cunningham with members of his dance company. Credit: Anne Cusack / Los Angeles Times

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