Supporting a Broad Range of Chicago’s Dance Artists: A Conversation with ACLF Program Participant Joanna Furnans, Executive Director of Chicago Dancemakers Forum May 22, 2023

Traditional ballet and modern dance companies have long been a mainstay of Chicago’s arts and culture landscape. But according to Joanna Furnans, executive director of Chicago Dancemakers Forum (CDF), the city’s dance scene includes much more.

“Most people don’t know the full range of what’s out there,” she says. “I don’t even know the full range. That’s why CDF looks to the dance artists themselves to show us, then gives them the time and resources they need to create.”

Examples of past CDF grantees include Fabulous Freddie, who merges Vogue, Breaking, and Ballroom to explore his coming-out experiences as a Black gay man; Marcela E Torres, who resurrects ceremonial dances honoring the history of tobacco in Mexico; and Kinnari Vora, who researches and raises awareness of end-of-life practices through appearances in hospitals and nursing homes, as well as in more traditional theaters.

Chicago Dancemakers Forum is committed to supporting as many groundbreaking artists like these as it can. So, when Furnans heard about the Arts and Culture Loan (ACLF) program, she jumped at the chance to participate and increase the organization’s impact.

Funded by the MacArthur Foundation and administered by IFF in partnership with BDO, Fifth Third Bank, and Restart Consulting, ACLF offers Chicago arts and culture institutions like Chicago Dancemakers Forum support they can pick and choose from based on their needs: a line of credit, financial training workshops, expert technical assistance, and a Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) Collective.

We sat down with Furnans to discuss CDF’s involvement in the program. We also learned more about CDF’s critical role in Chicago’s dance community and Furnans’ perspective on some of the biggest barriers — and opportunities — dance artists currently face.

IFF: You’ve been in your role as executive director for about a year now. What drew you to the ACLF program?

Furnans: It appealed to me because I’m a new executive director. My background is more as an artist in the queer, experimental dance space. And while I’ve been following and partnering with Chicago Dancemakers Forum in a variety of ways since I first moved to Chicago in 2013, I will take as many suggestions and participate in as many trainings as I possibly can to improve my understanding of the financial side of what we do — especially when it doesn’t cost the organization.

When I heard about the ACLF opportunity and the level of expertise available for free, I knew we couldn’t pass it up. It’s the kind of support artists need and should get, and I’m grateful for it.

IFF: Could you share more about the need for programs like ACLF among Chicago’s dance artists? What are some of the barriers you face?

Furnans: Recent studies show that within the arts as a whole, dance artists are paid the least. In Chicago, the majority of dance artists are also people of color — and access to resources is directly related to race, gender, sexual orientation, socioeconomic status, and other elements of identity. So, we are marginalized people working in a marginalized genre.

Independent dance artists — versus artists who have incorporated to create a 501(c)(3) dance company — face especially big challenges when it comes to making new works. There are very few resources for them, and the overhead is high. How is an independent dance artist supposed to raise enough funds on their own for an entire cast or crew of people to come together and put up a work in a park, in the community, or on the stage?

Another related issue is how audiences perceive the social value of dance. I think there’s still a troubling dichotomy in people’s minds between “community dance” and “concert dance” or something that’s considered “high art” dance. Many incredible dance artists are challenging and shuffling those categories, and I don’t know if audiences are fully prepared to experience dance in those ways.

IFF: Where does Chicago Dancemakers Forum fit in when helping dance artists overcome these barriers?

Furnans: CDF stands out in the ecosystem because we are truly one of the only service organizations whose mission is to support and invest in the growth and development of individual dance artists’ creative practice in Chicago .

We’re less concerned about  producing shows or the final product (although, dance artists do need and want to share their work with the public). We are more focused on supporting the process of making art. Through CDF’s Lab Artists Program, we offer tailored support and financial resources to help each dance artist focus on their whole self and dive deep into their creative practice — and do it in a way that’s (hopefully) sustainable within today’s larger economic, social, and political systems.

IFF: Let’s talk through how the ACLF program has helped CDF with your mission. Which components of the program have you experienced?

Furnans:  We have participated in three of the four opportunities. La Mar Brown, CDF’s operations manager and I  took part in the multi-week financial training workshops and individualized coaching. We also benefited from the technical assistance component, which resulted in BDO building a financial model for us. And we’re currently going through the process of closing on  an ACLF line of credit.

“It was huge for the BDO team and program participants to acknowledge that nonprofit arts organizations have been underestimating and underreporting how much it truly costs to do the work that we do.”

IFF: What takeaways or benefits stand out from the financial training workshops?

Furnans: One thing that stands out was an informative discussion about calculating the true cost of programs. It was huge for the BDO team and program participants to acknowledge that nonprofit arts organizations have been underestimating and underreporting how much it truly costs to do the work that we do.

If we only report the programmatic costs, and don’t include general operating and administrative costs like our internet service, insurance policies, payroll fees, development activities, and staff salaries, we’re shooting ourselves in the foot. We can’t address issues like pay equity if we continue to uphold the pervasive but unsustainable expectation for arts and culture nonprofits to just scrape by.

It was also helpful to learn about the importance of calculating our liquid unrestricted net assets (LUNA) in order to effectively manage our cash flow and plan for the future.

IFF: In what ways have you applied these concepts?

Furnans: We received several very helpful worksheets and Excel templates with built-in formulas. We can plug our information in and get a clearer sense of our financial picture, plus use the templates as a reference whenever we work on our budget.

I also appreciated attending the workshops and planning sessions with the incredible staff  at CDF. Now the three of us speak the same language and can jog each other’s memories about key concepts like LUNA. And it was awesome to be in a cohort of other arts organizations. That created a much-needed  feeling of community.

IFF: Let’s shift to the technical assistance project. What was that like?

Furnans: BDO built a multi-year financial model for us, which has been really eye-opening.. As a small nonprofit, we wouldn’t have had the time to do something like that ourselves. It was totally free and they are experts at creating these kinds of models.

The process was very smooth. They interviewed multiple stakeholders in the organization. Then, they factored in all of our current programs, our salaries and other expenses, and our ideas about where we want to be in three to five years. From there, they projected what increases and expenses we might expect if we follow the path we have in mind — and what income we’ll need. It’s an interactive model, so I can go in and change certain cells and numbers as our thinking evolves.

It’s interesting: Since we had those initial conversations, my thoughts and plans have grown even more. It’s almost like being put in that mindset positioned me to think more strategically overall. That was an unintentional but really beneficial byproduct.

“ACLF provides tailored, one-on-one support to help you tell your story, organize your work, and connect you to more resources. It’s a gift. The BDO representatives working with us helped us get the application in, and I’ve felt so taken care of. That’s what CDF does for artists, and now that’s what ACLF is doing for us.”

IFF: You mentioned that you may also use the ACLF line of credit. What has the application process been like?

Furnans: ACLF provides tailored, one-on-one support to help you tell your story, organize your work, and connect you to more resources. It’s a gift. The BDO representatives working with us helped us get the application in, and I’ve felt so taken care of. That’s what CDF does for artists, and now that’s what ACLF is doing for us.

The application process also forced me to project cash flow, which I’d been wanting to do anyway. It’s difficult to predict because we’re typically beholden to other foundations and institutions  for income, plus there’s a significant gap between when we receive a grant and when the money shows up. We might get notified that we are a grant recipient  in April, for example, but it won’t actually show up until the first week in December. And the funder might have additional issues that come up and that delays payment even further.

Completing the application — which I used a template from the training for — led to a lightbulb moment for me. It helped demystify the year ahead in terms of when money’s coming in and going out, what our bottom line might be each month, and when we need to make sure we’re covered to weather a dip.

IFF: How do you think the line of credit could help CDF?

Furnans: It will definitely  help me sleep at night. If necessary, we can pull from it to help pay our expenses — and I’ll know we can pay it back with the interest and be fine. We haven’t had that assurance as an organization before.

IFF: Zooming out a bit, what opportunities do you see for CDF and Chicago’s dance community as a whole going forward?

Furnans: One of the things I think a lot of arts ecosystems learned during the height of the pandemic is that it is entirely possible for foundations and organizations to come together relatively quickly and put money directly in the hands of individual artists. We saw it happen with lottery-based relief funds. There’s no reason that approach needs to go away. And CDF is poised to be a conduit between artists and foundations t who want to keep being responsive. We’ve built a practice of listening to dancemakers in the community to understand what’s needed at any given time, then tailor our support to each artist accordingly — and we plan to double-down in terms of being artist-led and artist-influenced when making decisions.

I also see an opportunity to start expecting basics like thriving wages, good healthcare, and retirement benefits for artists — just as our culture expects those things for employees at stable for-profit companies. Those things should be norms within our sector, and I would love for funders and other arts organizations to help us imagine how to get there.

Let’s keep the conversation going around racial, gender, geographic, and other inequities. A lot has already shifted. But so much more needs to happen. Let’s decenter white western ideas of professionalism, beauty, and false dichotomies like “entertainment versus art.”

Most of all, let’s trust artists wholeheartedly. Let’s thank them for waking up every day and doing what they do. I know I’m grateful and Chicago Dancemakers Forum is excited to do our part to ensure that dance artists keep going.


This piece is part of a series of profiles and thought leadership pieces reflecting on the impact and lessons learned from the Arts and Culture Loan Fund in 2022. Learn more about IFF’s Arts and Culture Loan Fund. Learn more and support the work of Chicago Dancemakers Forum