After decades of struggling financially and relying on large loans from its founder, Philadanco has received a $420,000 grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.

The grant is one meant for underfunded arts organizations, said Mellon program officer Susan Feder. But it was also given to Philadanco with an eye on succession, as founder Joan Myers Brown prepares to leave the company in the spring.

Philadanco is heading into its 50th anniversary season and the 60th anniversary of its Philadelphia School of Dance Arts. Brown created the school to give black dancers opportunities to train and the company a place for them to perform.

“On the eve of its 50th anniversary, Philadanco is still making great art in the absence of philanthropic help,” Feder said. “Given Joan’s pending retirement ... this one is directed toward the leadership transition. We hope it will generate renewed confidence in other funders and donors.”

Brown, 87, has long said she would remain with Philadanco until the end of this season, which opens Saturday at the Merriam Theater with a gala highlighting alumnus Leslie Odom Jr., of Hamilton fame on Broadway.

The Mellon grant, for “organizational structure and capacity-building,” is one Mellon developed five years ago to give organizations such as Philadanco a needed leg up.

Philadanco dancers performed their spring program "Dance Philly Style," in April at the Kimmel Center.
YONG KIM / Staff Photographer
Philadanco dancers performed their spring program "Dance Philly Style," in April at the Kimmel Center.

The International Organization of Blacks in Dance, which Brown founded, has twice received this grant, in 2016 and 2018. This is Mellon’s first direct grant to Philadanco, Feder said, although the company received a 2020 National Dance Project Grant of $45,000, and that project is funded by Mellon.

The Doris Duke Charitable Foundation also recently awarded Philadanco $90,000 to support its 50th anniversary celebration.

Brown has long said she has had trouble finding funding because of inattention to black arts groups. Some potential funders have been troubled by the large debt the company owes to Brown, who has lent the company hundreds of thousands of dollars of her own money. The company’s 2014-15 tax return lists a $718,391 loan from Brown.

“This amazing gift for a leading national funder speaks volumes about our place in the national and international dance world,” Brown said in a statement about the Mellon grant.

Throughout Philadanco’s history, Brown has worn most of the hats at the company and its dance school, as artistic director, chief fundraiser, even answering the phone — but she has started to hire specialized help.

Last week, the company hired an interim executive director, Elgie Gaynell Sherrod, a professor at Virginia Commonwealth University, as leader of the organization’s business side and a new strategic plan.

Brown will be receive the 2019 Bessie Award for Lifetime Achievement in Dance in October for her choreographic influence on black dance in America.