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Zachary Lewis, The Plain Dealer  |  June 18, 2014

Pam Young guides DanceCleveland series to success: Cleveland Arts Prize 2014

CLEVELAND, Ohio -- DanceCleveland wasn't always rock-solid. Amidst its success, that fact is easy to forget.

But the Cleveland Arts Prize hasn't forgotten. The Cleveland Arts Prize knows who made the group what it is today: executive director Pamela Young.

Hence its choice this year to confer on Young the Martha Joseph Prize, its award for visionary and strategic arts leadership.

"I thought I was behind the scenes," said Young, reacting to the award, her first substantial prize of any kind. "I'm not a dancer. I couldn't believe mine was a successful narrative."

Successful it most certainly is, however. So, too, do the words "visionary" and "strategic" apply to Young with keen force.

Simply put, if Young hadn't been named director in March 2003, there might not be a DanceCleveland to honor. Neither would the group, a presenter of world-class modern dance, be one of the region's bright lights on the verge of celebrating its 60th anniversary.

"We had a good plan, and they stayed with us," recalled Young, referring to her board of directors. "If that hadn't happened, we wouldn't be having this conversation."

As Young suggests, DanceCleveland very nearly went under. Just prior to her appointment, her predecessor had departed suddenly, and the board, of which she was a member, was taking steps to shut down the organization.

Young, though, wasn't ready to throw in the towel. Experienced in the realm of arts nonprofits, having already helped several other groups retreat from the edge of extinction, she saw possibility, and stepped forward.

"They didn't see a way out," said Young. "But I had been with organizations in crisis, and it didn't scare me. I said, 'Let me see if we can't make some kind of road map.' "

A road map is exactly what she made. Over the following several seasons, Young righted the ship by taking an eight-month break from presenting and shifting the group away from a hand-to-mouth funding pattern. For the first several months, she drew no salary.

Today, Young is rightly proud of her track record: 10 years in the black, with surpluses. Also under her watch, DanceCleveland has diversified its board, expanded its audience, created an "opportunity" fund and fortified itself for economic downturns. One day she hopes to establish an honest-to-goodness endowment.

"We've made some strong decisions," she said. "We've pushed ourselves in new directions and made ourselves more poised for the innovative things coming to Northeast Ohio."

Not all of Young's accomplishments have been administrative. No, the most visible aspect of her work has been extending a legacy of presenting great modern dance, carefully pegging companies and works to venues and times, always scanning for talent.

Artistically, too, Young has kept an eye on the future, as she has financially. On her to-do list these days is investing in new dance through the work of Camille A. Brown & Dancers, and working to make Northeast Ohio a national center for choreography.

"We're not in system where there's money for the creative side," said Young, noting that if Cleveland were to become a center for new dance, "It would put us in a pretty prominent place."

Not that it isn't in a prominent place already. Thanks to Young, Northeast Ohio is home to one of the oldest presenters of modern dance in the nation.

For nearly six decades, patrons have had only to attend DanceCleveland shows to encounter everything from the hottest up-and-comers to the biggest names in the field.

"We've had many great moments in the theater," said Young. "Sometimes it's really magical."

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