Oregon Ballet: A Gadfly's View

I've been sitting on this post for three days for two reasons: (1) Not enough time to refine my thinking and edit the damn thing; and, (2) Reluctance to risk apostasy among my art advocate colleagues by raising uncomfortable questions. Here goes anyway.

If you've already read the Oregon Ballet Theater (OBT) story Barry Johnson broke on Portland Art Watch last week, you have my permission to skip this quick recap:

OBT has said that it must raise $750,000 by the end of June if it is going to keep its doors open. The company has fallen short of budget targets for the year. To blame are the snows of Christmas that buried sales to the Nutcracker and a precipitous drop in contributions. The drop in revenue has emptied the OBT coffers and left a long list of past due bills. Despite efforts to trim the budget midstream, the Ballet has come up short at the end of the year. More specifically, it appears that it has run out of cash, with no reserve funds and no access to a line of credit. Welcome to the Great Recession. I know OBT is not alone, locally or nationally (see Culture Jock's report from earlier this morning). By the way, this isn't just a nonprofit arts problem; this kind of cash crunch is also killing off plenty of for-profit businesses that would otherwise have sustainable business plans).

With Gandalf-like guidance from George Thorn, everybody's favorite arts consultant, OBT has reportedly pared its budget for the upcoming season by 28%, including trimming staff positions and pay, reducing the number of dancers, curtailing live music for most of its program, etc. That budget is conservative in its assumptions (theoretically) and, to use Portland's favorite word-of-the-moment, "sustainable." The problem is that OBT needs help to get from here to there. It needs a quick cash infusion to finish out this dismal year so it can start afresh in July. The call for help has been issued far and wide, so consider going here to give what you will.

When the Oregonian ran Barry Johnson's column on the front page of the print edition and the OregonLive home page, the story incited a flurry of nasty comments (134 to date) from the booboisie, including one from this paragon of reason: "In a town like Portland with so many strip clubs- why would ANYONE want to watch girls in leotards dance?"

Those opposed to doing anything for OBT mount several arguments: (1) Ballet is a dying, elitist art form with no value to the community; (2) Ballet bores me, so it should die; (3) The marketplace has rendered its judgment on the value of ballet; (4) OBT deserves to close because it has been grossly mismanaged by overpaid people; (5) Everybody is suffering in this recession so why should OBT catch a break? Clearly, we have a lot of education and advocacy to do.

Many strong counterarguments have been made in support of saving OBT. Rather than repeat those, I refer you to Jamey Hampton at BodyVox, Bob Hicks at Art Scatter, and Barry Johnson at Portland Art Watch. I also just listened to a compelling interview with OBT's Artistic Director, Christopher Stowell on a podcast from Metroscope PDX (Entercom).

Before going further, let me be perfectly clear in saying that I like OBT and think it deserves to live. However, there are a few questions I think need to be answered. The community is being asked to pony up to save the company, but have been given scant financial information upon which a reasoned (as opposed to an impassioned) decision can be made. In all the public reporting, very little has been explained about the company’s financial status, other than coupling the need for $750,000 with a threat of closing the doors. Here are the questions I think prospective donors should ask:

(1) What portion of the $750k is needed just to pay current bills?

(2) How much will be left to pay past due accounts?

(3) Will there be enough cash left to continue paying current bills until new cash starts to come in the door?

(4) Is there a middle ground? What if OBT manages to raise only half of the target?

(5) Would a bridge loan provide the infusion of capital OBT needs to get over this hump?

While OBT’s new budget may be conservative and balanced, cash does not typically flow in and out of an arts organization on an even schedule. Many count on spring subscription sales to provide the cash to keep afloat until the season gets underway in autumn and single ticket sales and contributions start flowing in. OBT's immediate problem appears to be a cash crisis, not a budget issue. Even if next year's budget is sound and sustainable, will the company have enough cash to pay the bills over the next few months?

If I were a major donor, I’d want answers to those questions before I invest in OBT's future by writing a big check. I presume that major donors are already asking these questions and getting honest answers from OBT. So what about everyone else? I posted my questions as a comment on Portland Art Watch, and Barry said he'd check with OBT for some answers. I'll let you know what comes back.

The more I think about this topic, I realize that OBT is just an example of a bigger issue. I'm more interested in questions of transparency, information sharing and the relationship between an organization and its public. I'm interested in hearing more honest dialogue, rather than spin.

I understand why nonprofits want and need to cultivate positive, confidence-building public images. Who wants to buy a subscription if you think the company might fold before you can use your tickets? Who wants to make a contribution if the money is just going to pay off creditors before the doors are shut anyway? It's hard to sell tickets and garner contributions when doubts about one's viability exist.

Of course, we can't be expected to air our dirty laundry all the time. But I keep hearing that in this age of instant communication and social networking we need to be ratchet up our transparency and information sharing. We have to cede some control over our image and our secrets, including being willing to show signs of weakness or failure. When you've declared that you are on the verge of closing the doors of an important institution, I think it's time to lay the books bare. On the other hand, maybe I'm just trying to satisfy my personal curiosity and satisfy a latent urge towards schadenfreude.

Would the loss of OBT diminish Portland? Yes.

Can OBT be saved? I don't know. I just don't know.


cynseattle said...

This is a welcome, deeper-discussion-provoking piece, MTC. It has sent my brain several directions at once, and I will corral those thoughts soon for sharing...but wanted to give instant kudos for the use of one of my top five words: "schadenfreude." Thank you!

Unknown said...

MTC, I think these are all good, honest questions that deserve answering. And I think you're right -- potential deep-pocket donors are getting these answers, privately. The rest of us deserve them, too. Let's watch for Barry's reporting and get things as transparent as possible: My suspicion is that OBT has nothing to hide, so let's make that clear.

My immediate reaction is, whatever mistakes might have occurred (and we don't know that there are any besides the tanking economy -- we DO know the company has a large and enthusiastic audience -- this is a one of the best performing groups in town, and it's in trouble, and we need to help it survive. At the level I'm able to give it's OK to give first and fill in the details later. But, yes, we DO need to know the details. Thanks for not letting this get lost in the rush of the fire engines.

Stephen said...

What a thought provoking post.
I am not a real fan of ballet (although I remain a fan of modern dance), but I realize what an important contribution this company makes to the greater Portland community & I admire OBT's international reputation. I have seen OBT in concert & I was very impressed. Do art institutions that put out an SOS & announce that they will perish without our much needed emergency money, need to disclose how that money will be immediatly used? I sorta think so.

MightyToyCannon said...

I'm not thinking that mistakes were made at OBT -- unless optimism is a mistake these days. I suspect they decided to take a risk that investing in their product (for example, by increasing the commitment to live music) would pay off in increased ticket sales and, more importantly, a leap in donations. Then the recession gave them a bitch slap (sorry to be crude).

On an unrelated note (not really) I just had drinks at the rooftop bar of The Nines hotel. That's another organization that took the "build it and they will come" risk and is now unable to make loan payments for awhile (and BTW, received hefty public subsidies to create an upscale spot catering mostly to the well-heeled). Oh, we had drinks with a friend whose hours working for Cascade AIDS have been cut back because of the economy, but she is lucky because she didn't get laid off like some co-workers. If you can afford to be charitable to OBT or any organization whose mission you support, this would be a good time to dig deep.