SMU DataArts - Cultural Data Profile


After Nearly Everything was Lost to a Fire, Chen Dance Center Continues to Uplift the Community

  • Posted Mar 12, 2021

A story about resiliency, community, and innovation even through the toughest of times.

Photo by Leon Liu. Photo by Leon Liu.

Now more than ever, it is important to understand the elements of successful strategies that fuel financial stability for arts and cultural organizations with a mission focused on primarily serving Black, Indigenous, Hispanic/Latinx, Arab American, and/or Asian American communities. In the report, The Alchemy of High-Performing Arts Organizations: A Spotlight on Organizations of Colorwe explore the lessons to be learned about relevance and resilience, as well as about community and the unique challenges these organizations face.

According to our research, the cornerstones of high performance appear to lie in the alchemy between community orientation and high-quality programs. Arts leaders we interviewed suggest therein lies the formula for strategic vision, or the organization’s answer to the question, “How will you have created value, and for whom?” 


A Spotlight on Community Orientation: Chen Dance Center, New York, NY

H.T. Chen, Artistic Director; Dian Dong, Partner and Company Member

Essentially, for our organization, we are totally mission driven. We just don’t know any other way. When we first moved into 70 Mulberry Street in the heart of Chinatown, people called us “La MaMa-Chinatown.” Ellen Stewart was a founding board member of our company and we got our start there. 

In January 2020, the entire 70 Mulberry Street building burned down and we have been displaced since then. From our three dance studios, piano rooms, theater, archives, storage and office, only 5% of the items from the office were retrieved from the fire, which we now keep in a mini-storage unit. 

Nevertheless, we continued to provide for the community through online classes and alternative programming. You always want to give the best and manage to deliver under all kinds of circumstances. At one point, the two of us used the mini-storage unit to teach from, while our teachers were teaching from their apartments. Success is how you can continue working with your artists for the long term. Make the artists, students, community members valued and you build trust. We have always believed that “good art has social value.”

Image provided by Chen Dance Center; H.T. Chen with Lao children; Fresno, CA. 2006. Image provided by Chen Dance Center; H.T. Chen with Lao children; Fresno, CA. 2006.

From a more practical point, long-term success is due to thinking through how to turn each dollar into $3, or a smaller engagement into a larger project. H.T. Chen & Dancers has toured to many sites, but never did only what the presenter expected of us; we always did more. For example: For a 2006 residency at CSU Fresno, the company made an advance site visit on our own to learn more about the surrounding area, which included a large Laotian resettlement community of farmers. We returned with a local phone book and made calls from NYC to arrange free dance workshops for the children in this community. A small team arrived three days before the full residency to begin dance workshops and a performance for the refugee children.

We feel that it isn’t enough just to do a performance or a residency. It’s really an opportunity to impact a community. We’re always full of ideas and pack everything we can into every moment of engagement. At the end of the CSU residency, we were treated by the Laotian families to a summer feast. One farmer donated a pig and another donated a cow. It was the most delicious spicy meal, eaten in 113-degree Fresno Valley weather. THAT made the residency really complete. It’s the approach of, “… and while we are there …” do something meaningful. Forge relationships wherever you go.


Established in 1979, Chen Dance Center has been dedicated to serving the Asian-American community and the New York City dance community. 

The Alchemy of High-Performing Arts Organizations: A Spotlight on Organizations of Color

What lessons can we learn about relevance and resilience from high-performing arts organizations that primarily serve communities of color? How do they establish and maintain deep connections with the communities they serve and that sustain them, and what are the distinctive challenges they encounter in doing so?

Read the Report