wise elephant, making it happen

David D. Timony

By Jason Moriber • May 19th, 2009 • Category: Guru Interviews

A report prepared by the Urban Institute (http://www.urban.org/publications/411311.html) found that “While 96% of Americans value art in their communities and lives only 27% value artists.” I believe this general tone enables great creative solutions developed by creative people to go undiscovered. As an example the solution a theater company develops to find flexible rehearsal space is not immediately interesting to small businesses, yet there are dozens of books that offer case studies of small businesses solutions that could be enriched by the experiences gathered by creative professionals.

I am fortunate to be an old acquaintance of David D. Timony, the current Chair, Fine Arts Department at Girard College. He responded to a question I posted on Twitter and Facebook about a use for empty commercial spaces. David replied he had a unique solution/case study where his school “traded” their unused space with a not-for-profit in an arrangement where both parties gained great value. It’s a wonderful example of a creative solution that can be useful to any organization, company or individual seeking “free” workspace.

Wise Elephant (WE): How did you come about the idea to barter work-space for teaching-time?

David D. Timony (DT): I’ve worked with dance companies in the past and was a co-founder of a Manhattan company. Space was always the hottest commodity and bartering for space was pretty common, though the barter was not always dance related; I have seen people barter accounting services, bedrooms in apartments, and even translation services. My NYC company actually had mirrors and bars in someone’s bedroom as rehearsal space when we couldn’t book unused space at art galleries or colleges.

A movement that was getting some press prior to the current recession was the “small schools” (http://bigpicture.org) movement which makes use of the idea of infusing the surrounding city resources for educational purposes as one of its sustaining objectives. There are some great examples of these schools in Chicago and New York. When you can bring communities into the schools and offer real-life examples of learning, there is benefit for all. I thought that this would be a perfect opportunity to open our campus to the community for mutual benefit.

WE: Can you describe your current relationship with one of your barter-tenants?

DT: We have three companies in-residence at Girard College right now. Each of the groups has the same arrangement–exchange of dedicated studio space and office space in exchange for weekly instructional time with a group of interested students. This has come to realize itself, essentially, in student companies. It’s great to have them on campus–they are sometimes in the lunchrooms and use the offices as their primary point of business and meeting. the students see them doing what professional artists do. The influx of visitors to campus due to meetings, previews, and rehearsals brings traffic onto the campus that may not have ever been here which is an added benefit.

WE: How did you find each other?

DT: I was eager to see how we could meet some content standard needs with the resources that our school possessed rather than tapping into funding sources which, as you know, are always stretched. One of our campus buildings has high ceilings and skylights which we always dreamed of turning into art/music studios and I thought that they would make inspiring dance studios. I searched the internet for Philadelphia based modern companies because, in my experience, modern dancers come from a traditional background of training and departed at some point–they could bring a diverse experience to the table. From that search I, literally, started calling companies in alphabetical order. The first company who called me back was Miro Dance Theatre (www.mirodancetheatre.org). I was surprised how many working companies do not have active listings, web pages, and phone numbers.

WE: Has this relationship led to new collaborative ideas?

DT: There have some incredible outcomes from this partnership. As a school, we’ve been able to incorporate yearly performances by the professional companies as well as the student companies which have been well received. One company has partnered with 21st Century Community Learning Centers and developed an international exchange of dance. The system is going live this year and allows our student dancers from Miro Dance Theatre to view video techniques and assignments from partner companies in the UK and Hong Kong as well as post assignments for the other companies. We are hoping to have this culminate in some type of international performance–live over the web would be awesome if we could work out the particulars.

The first company was key in us meeting the second and third companies. We now have a theatre company and a classical Indian company in-residence and the work that they are all doing here is wonderful. This year Philadelphia Magazine name us the Best Private School Performing Arts program due in large part to our residency programs. It seems that every year, there is some manner of recognition for the companies-in-residence and for the school; we are very grateful for that because we know that it is recognition of hard work by everyone involved.

WE: Who did you have to gain approval from at your college for the barter? Was it a hard sell?

DT: I met with the President and Head of School and it was a very easy sell on my part. The burden falls on the artists to make it work with the school community. We were very thankful to have had the idea received with such eagerness. From there we were able to simply do what we do as teachers and artists to recruit and retain students for the program. As a boarding school for students in grades 1-12, Girard College has been open to adding programs to supplement instruction and activities.

WE: Could this work for other disciplines, such as accounting or technology?

DT: I would like to see this type of partnership move into other content areas. The idea of resident scholar may be a little more challenging to operationalize. You don’t want to bring someone onto campus who simply ends up tutoring or providing homework help. Those things are important, but it would then be a redundant service to the campus. It is also dependent upon the needs of the individual versus the resources of the school. As an institution, space is something we have. That being said, spaces are what they are–a perfect artist studio may be (and likely is) very different from what a scientist would like to use on a regular basis.

WE: Is this a threat to teachers? As an example if you trade space for dance classes is there a dance teacher now out of work?

DT: It shouldn’t be seen as a threat to teachers. We didn’t have dance before so it’s all gain for us. Beyond that, it’s intended to be supplemental to the full curriculum that we offer at Girard College. The practitioner faculty have a specific role as do the classroom faculty.

WE: From your experience could this model also work for community service? Such as a city would offer space in buildings in trade for community service?

DT: In corporate settings, this seems like the perfect model. I’m not an accountant, but it seems obvious–especially in times like these–that the potential tax benefits of in-kind donations could be very helpful. I remind people that donations to non-profit entities will provide you with the same tax benefit (or more) than it did last year–a much better return than current investments.

Imagine if you had an office space in your building: you are already paying for that unused space, the computer network, the heating and air conditioning. Maybe you cannot rent the space for a number of reasons. If you set up a desk in that room with a computer and a dedicated phone line, you could create a base of operations for any of a number of eligible 501c3 organizations in your area. The 501c3 includes the in-kind donation into its bottom line which increases the eligibility for larger grants and puts it on a different plane financially. You are able to write off that donation for full value and will likely benefit from the increased traffic to your business and gain a reputation as a responsible community member. That’s an easy sell, in my opinion.

WE: Have you tried to be evangelical about this idea? Given it as a case study to other universities? Would you?

DT: The resident companies have been very pleased with this arrangement and I’m a little surprised that others who have seen it have not tried to emulate it somehow. It may be that some groups do not want to work with kids or whatever their reasoning may be–it’s definitely not for everyone. I look around Philadelphia and see these opportunities everywhere. It seems that every school in the city, private or public, could afford a little space in exchange for professional instruction.



Jason Moriber is a veteran product/project/marketing manager, underground artist/musician, and online community developer, Jason expertly builds/produces/manages clients' projects, programs, and campaigns. Follow me on twitter http://twitter.com/jelefant
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