Rosy Simas' first thought, when the foundation called, was: "Oh, I'm in trouble."
The dancer, choreographer and transdisciplinary artist is outspoken, she said. "I think of it as saying the things that need to be said, especially around inequity and injustice, and sometimes people can't receive that."
But the Doris Duke Foundation was calling, instead, to congratulate her. Simas had won a 2023 Doris Duke Artist Award.
A national honor given to just six performing artists, it comes with an unrestricted grant of $550,000 — double the prize from previous years.
"The award is, for me, a real recognition of my work cumulatively over the last 30 years," said Simas, 55, founder of Rosy Simas Danse, based in Minneapolis.
An enrolled member of the Seneca Nation, Simas has for decades self-produced her dance works, layered with video she captured and history she researched. Created in conversation with her dancers and collaborators, they unspool in galleries and on stages here and across the country.
It's difficult work. It's slow, expensive work.
"With Rosy, there is a complete lineage," said composer François Richomme, who has collaborated with Simas for more than a decade, including on "Weave" and last year's acclaimed "She Who Lives on the Road to War." "It's a cultural lineage, and it's also family lineage for her, and something very strong through her energy and veins and blood."
Simas combines those deep, felt histories with her strong understanding of contemporary dance, he continued, to create something rich and beautiful.
During a conversation in the Northrup King Building studio space she's made into a home for dancers who are Native, Black, Indigenous and people of color, Simas reflected on the Doris Duke award and what it means — not only for her. The conversation has been edited for brevity and clarity.
Q: What was your reaction to learning that you had won?
A: This couldn't have come at a better time. Inflation has really kicked my butt. They doubled the award to $550,000, paid out over seven years. I was proud of them for this action, taking a position in the field to say to other funders: We need to support artists at a level that is actually making a significant difference in their lives.
Q: To have it be that much money, without restrictions...
A: The number one thing they said to us is, we're not giving you this to prop up your projects. We want this to help you apply for more things. We live in such a scarcity model in the arts, and people have feelings about who gets what. With half a million dollars, it seems like we're instantly rich. But that's not what this is.
I actually feared that this would negatively impact the organization.
Q: So how will you use this money?
A: Some of it is just getting out of debt. An artist can go into debt quite quickly, especially with dance, because you're also working with other people. I experience that every time we produce a show. I'm going to establish a retirement plan.
I'm going to support other artists. ... I'm going to be doing research that will require me to go to other places, to spend time in New York, where our reservation is.
And then I'm going to put aside a small amount for projects each year that I would call my freedom projects. Maybe I want to work with a group of people and make something small. I could put $10,000 a year toward that. To work without constraints. To be able to say — yes, I want to do that.
Q: You've been digging into funding for artists and demanding change for years. Why?
A: Before receiving the Native Arts and Cultures Foundation grant, I was a bodywork therapist. That $20,000 fellowship, significant at the time, was enough for me to be able to quit my job. And one of the things that I immediately did was look into the funding structure — at the McKnight Foundation, at the Minnesota State Arts Board. I did research, made pie charts, made them public. I felt that people were unaware of what was happening because there wasn't transparency.
There's a lot of good work that's being done now. What we do here in Minnesota is seen throughout the United States.
Q: So the Native Arts and Cultures grant really shifted things for you as an artist.
A: For the first 20 years, I didn't really get any support except two really small state arts grants. They were literally both under $2,000. So the first award that I got of any significance was from a national organization.
Q: What do you think that says?
A: That says a lot about this community. People are still uncomfortable about the reality that the performing arts were driven by some racist ideas — especially dance, because it's a body-based form.
If I had had more recognition in the first 20 years, what would I have been able to do with my work? With not just my work but the field of Native contemporary dance in general? It probably would have had a really positive impact. On the other hand, I can't say I regret having developed my work in the way that I did. I learned so much from self-producing for 20 years.
Q: What did you learn?
A: Self-producing means learning to build things, learning how to work with materials. I now identify as a transdisciplinary artist. I edit film, I build costumes. I don't do it alone, by any means. But I never had the money to hire a set designer. And by the time I got to a point where I could have, I realized that they weren't going to do anything I didn't already know how to do myself.