Dancing after the Nonprofit Is Gone

Bruce Davis

Los Lupeños de San José was founded in 1969 in San José, California. What began as a study-performance group formed to promote Mexican dance and culture grew over time to become one of California’s leading nonprofit organizations representing Mexican folklórico. From its inception, Los Lupeños has been a colorful cultural ambassador for San José and California, touring throughout the United States and Mexico performing a varied repertoire of dances from choreographers and teachers from both sides of the border.

At its “nonprofit” institutional “peak,” the company enjoyed a well-deserved reputation for its very popular escuela, which taught Mexican dance and music to hundreds of children and adults; it had a full-time executive director and expanded its operations to a building in downtown San José that housed three dance studios, administrative offices, a conference room, and storage space for props, sets, and many dozens of original, often handmade costumes.

It was around this time that one of my own board officers (also serving on the Los Lupeños board) came to my office in tears. Apparently, the new executive director (their first) was not managing the organization’s finances properly and things were spinning horribly out of control; there was now a large debt they could not pay and the company might be forced to close. (Sound familiar to anyone?)

Being the responsible arts council executive director that I am, I gave my board officer a tissue and told her I would be happy to meet with Los Lupeños’s board and offer a possible solution that I would help organize — a one-time “bailout” meeting with local foundations. The board could come to the meeting, make its case to the funders, present a plan of how it would be addressing the organization’s problems, seek financial assistance, and hope that the funders would decide to help.

Indeed, this all occurred back in 2001, and as I expected, the foundations proved supportive and agreed to eliminate the debt of Los Lupeños (I think it was $60,000) and further agreed to invest an additional sum to assist with the group’s longer-term fiscal solvency.

Within a month of this successful meeting assuring the company’s survival, the board president of Los Lupeños and her husband won $161 million in the California Lottery. True story!

New lottery millionaires Al and Carmen Castellano stepped up to the plate (after creating the Castellano Family Foundation) and have now been involved with Los Lupeños for more than thirty years. All three of the Castellano children were taught by and performed with Los Lupeños. Al and Carmen call their work and involvement with Los Lupeños a “labor of love.” They live and breathe Latino and Mexican culture (the main focus of their foundation), but neither their volunteer time nor their financial contributions could prevent the eventual decision of the Los Lupeños board to shed its nonprofit status and organizational trappings. The downturn in the California economy set the company’s new direction.

Five years ago, the arts funding world that Los Lupeños depended on was rapidly disappearing. The California Arts Council stopped making grants throughout the state, including to Los Lupeños. The City of San José, for many years a huge source of financial support for the group, cut its overall arts funding by 50 percent and reduced funding to the group significantly. Moreover, many mainstream local foundations and corporations never really funded Mexican folklórico dance and music groups. Even with Al and Carmen’s support, board members became fatigued from the roller-coaster ride they had been on, and once again the organization’s future was very much in doubt.

After carefully reviewing all available options and alternative considerations, the board decided that the group should go back to its roots, the dance. With expert leadership from a very smart board (which included now Deputy Secretary of Education Martha Canter, then a local college chancellor), the group completely shed its staff and facility (including its beloved escuela), and began the process of ending its long life as a nonprofit corporation.

Four years later, Los Lupeños is now part of the folklórico dance program of the Mexican Heritage Corporation in San José. The escuela has recently reopened, and the group has a new part-time executive director and has been successfully touring and performing with platinum recording artist Linda Ronstadt, the artistic director of the San José Mariachi and Mexican Heritage Festival. They are also still in possession of their greatest physical “asset” — all the beautiful and irreplaceable costumes accumulated over thirty years.

While this is certainly a unique situation, as other artistic-based nonprofit groups are faced with the organizational life-and-death realities of our current economy, changing audience demographics, and for-profit entertainment competition, Los Lupeños’s story might provide a pathway of light for survival beyond the nonprofit structure. It can be done. They are truly still dancing after the nonprofit is gone.

Bruce Davis is executive director of Arts Council Silicon Valley.