Big split at OBT: Stowell calls it quits

A board shift in priorities is behind the departure of the man who gave the ballet company a national profile

Michael Linsmeier in William Forsythe’s “The Second Detail,” from OBT’s fall program “Body Beautiful.” An artistic success, the program was a disappointment at the box office. Photo: Blaine Truitt Covert

Christopher Stowell resigned Tuesday night as artistic director of Oregon Ballet Theatre.

His resignation is effective December 31.

The move, little more than a week before the opening of the company’s annual production of George Balanchine’s “The Nutcracker,” sent a shock through Portland’s arts community, where Stowell is a major figure who has positioned his company as a national player.

Christopher Stowell choreographs his ‘The Rite of Spring’ in 2009./Photo by Blaine Truitt Covert courtesy of OBT

Since he arrived in 2003 after a 15-year-career as a dancer for the San Francisco Ballet, Stowell has elevated the company’s standards remarkably and almost completely reinvented it. During his tenure the company has added more than 50 works to its repertoire, more than 20 of them world premieres. He also, like his predecessor, James Canfield, dealt with a fragile financial organization. The company came perilously close to folding in 2009, and although it got back on its feet its financial health has never been strong. Houses were noticeably light for the company’s fall concert series, part of a pattern of light attendance this fall across the city. The company fell roughly $50,000 short of projections for that series of concerts.

A board move toward belt-tightening appears to have played a crucial role in Stowell’s departure. He has always pushed doggedly for the primacy of the artistic product, even when other voices were calling for pullbacks because of tight budgets.  “OBT’s Board of Trustees has determined that the organization must adopt a new business model,” Stowell said in a prepared statement, “and, after much thought, I have come to the conclusion that I am not the best candidate to lead OBT into that future.”

Oregon Ballet Theatre has 26 dancers this season, plus six apprentices, which makes it not big by New York City Ballet or San Francisco Ballet standards, and also smaller than Seattle’s Pacific Northwest Ballet, which Stowell’s parents, Kent Stowell  and Francia Russell, led for many years. But under Stowell’s leadership OBT has grown to a size and level of talent that it can handle large-scale traditional story ballets with relative ease: If there’s such a category nationally, OBT has become a small major company. If budgetary cutbacks were to include a drop in the number of dancers – and it’s difficult to believe that isn’t a strong possibility – it would mean a shift in the kinds of ballets that could be performed (or at least the variety) and almost certainly, as a result, a shift in style as well. A leaner, meaner OBT might look very different from the one Stowell has so painstakingly created.

What will OBT’s new business model look like? Right now, the answer’s up in the air. But it almost certainly would include much stricter show-by-show budgeting. It’s very early in the process, and nothing’s yet been set, Stowell stressed in a  telephone conversation Wednesday morning. But he said the board is right to consider changes. “What is the right structure, size, aesthetic for the community right now? It needs to be asked.”

The board was neither hoping nor expecting Stowell to step down, vice chairman Harold Goldstein said in a telephone interview Wednesday night: “I think it’s just a shame. He’s done great work.” Goldstein, who was OBT’s board chairman for two seasons before this one and also chairs the board of Portland Playhouse theater company, said the company had managed to end the past two seasons in the black, but finances took a nosedive this fall. The board got very worried, he said: “It’s a pretty big gap and it looked like it was growing.”

****

Since Stowell arrived at OBT in 2003 the company has undergone an almost total personality transplant. Only one dancer, Alison Roper, remains from the pre-Stowell years. More than that, Stowell radically reset the company’s compass, away from the pop orientation of founding artistic director Canfield and toward a neoclassical impulse that has included, in addition to Stowell’s own pieces, contemporary choreographers such as Christopher Wheeldon and Yuri Possokhov but also 20th century icons such as George Balanchine and Jerome Robbins. As the White Bird dance series has brought more contemporary dance voices to the city on a regular basis, OBT has represented the deep and rich traditions of the art form.

All of this has come in the face of daunting budgetary realities. “Yes, we’re facing financial challenges,” Stowell said on the phone. “A lot of organizations are.” Part of the trouble at OBT may have come from administrative instability. Part is a natural result of the country’s long economic recession. A good share is a result of Portland’s traditional approach to arts funding, which has long lagged behind the work itself: Even “big” organizations such as Portland Center Stage, Portland Opera and the Portland Art Museum operate under relatively shoestring budgets considering their size and importance. As Stowell put it: “The quality of the arts scene here is incredibly high, and it’s hard to keep that level of quality with the level of resources that are available here.”

Like symphonic music and opera, dance – and especially ballet – is an inherently expensive art form that can’t even begin to pay its expenses from its box office receipts. Such art forms have ravenous financial appetites and must be fed constantly from outside sources – governmental, corporate, foundation and individual donations. Poor finances had a good deal to do with the downfall of the Canfield-era company, and not just financially but also artistically: In his latter couple of years, when Canfield had to choreograph most of the company’s work himself and so became overextended, the work as a whole naturally suffered.

Things came to a head in 2009 when Oregon Ballet Theatre nearly went bankrupt. It found itself in an immediate $750,000 hole, not counting longer-term shortfalls. A massive save-the-ballet campaign remarkably raised more than $900,000, part of it from a Dance United benefit concert for which Stowell called on his many friendships in the national ballet world and got first-string guest dancers from across the country to perform. General manager Jon Ulsh lost his job in the aftermath, and although the immediate crisis passed, the company was still fragile. Live orchestral music was eliminated (it gradually made a return), a significant endowment never came about, a new executive director, Diane Syrcle, was hired but left after two years for the Oregon Symphony, and development remained to a great extent a board responsibility.

“(N)o arts group can hope to thrive in the long term without some deep-pocket supporters,” I wrote in 2009 in an analysis of OBT’s emergency for Art Scatter. “Where are OBT’s deep pockets? And if they don’t exist, why not?” The questions are still pertinent.

If OBT’s financial situation is lean, it doesn’t appear to be life-threatening. The Oregonian reported this morning: “In an audit of its 2011 fiscal year, the company saw increased revenue, lower debt, and more than a $134,000 surplus against a budget of $5.48 million.” Things have shifted since then, however, and the board decided that steps needed to be taken to avert another severe financial crisis. Last season ended in the black partly because of an end-of-season push that raised about $600,000. “People stepped up and gave a lot,” the board’s Goldstein said. That success made the board optimistic heading into the new season. But some of the donors to that campaign appear to have considered that their big gift to OBT and haven’t followed through with additional giving this season, which has hurt this year’s funding campaign. Ticket sales and subscriptions are down, as well. And “Body Beautiful,” the fall program for which the company had high projections, instead sold poorly and lost money.

Goldstein said that while the company’s new business model hasn’t been fully worked out, it would include a shift from setting a budget goal for the entire season to budgeting more tightly for each show. “We want to know what each ballet is going to cost and how we’re going to cover that cost,” he said. “So, for example, how much is it going to cost to do ‘Swan Lake,’ and can this community support it?” Such an approach, he added, “requires a whole different level of oversight.” Another crucial aspect of the evolving plan is to cut costs for next season by at least 1.5 percent from this year’s levels so the company can establish a reserve fund: “For prudent budgeting you have to have a reserve.”

Would the new realities mean reducing the number of dancers or cutting the orchestra? “To be honest? I don’t know,” Goldstein said. “Because we never got to that point.” He laid out some hypothetical possibilities: The size of the dancing company could vary during the season, according to the needs of specific ballets; certain works might be accompanied by piano and violin rather than full orchestra. He stressed that the board had no intention of telling Stowell what artistic decisions he should make. But artistic decisions would need to be made with an understanding of the amount of money available.

Meanwhile, Goldstein said, “Everything’s on the table.” The board has been in contact with artistic leaders from elsewhere but hasn’t set a timeline for replacing Stowell, or even decided what its process will be. And so far, he added, the breakup has been largely amiable: “I was telling Christopher, ‘It’s a little bit like for the dancers their parents are getting divorced.”

Stowell said that plans for the remainder of the current season are well-set, and staff members are fully capable of carrying them out. He’ll remain available for consultation. In the meantime, Oregon Ballet Theatre now must find a new leader, quickly, and is in the uncomfortable position of no longer knowing who or what it is. This company has become to a remarkable extent a reflection of its artistic director. And in a month, Stowell will be gone. He was hired, he said, to carry out a specific vision. With that vision likely changing – and quite possibly necessarily – he added, “I’m just not the right person to lead that.” What the board now needs, he said, is someone who can look at the new realities with a fresh eye, and create something new based on that new, so far unformed, vision. Stay tuned.

In the meantime, Stowell for the first time in a long time is preparing to take a deep breath and see what happens. Chances are extremely high that he’ll end up leaving Portland, simply because that’s the way the dance market works. And he has a lot of connections nationally. “I’m excited about returning to the larger world and seeing what’s out there and getting on with the next step of my career,” he said.

****

Board chairman Ken Hick released this statement Wednesday morning in a press release:

“The Board of Trustees of Oregon Ballet Theatre is greatly appreciative of Christopher Stowell’s superb artistic leadership for almost a decade. He has created a ballet company that represents our community in its highest and brightest light. During Christopher’s tenure, OBT has become a company of national renown and international reach. Never one to rest on past accomplishments, Christopher has always pushed the limits of his own abilities and has been a model to all our dancers of how to reach higher in every performance. The Board is excited for Christopher’s next step and wish him success in all his future endeavors.”

****

Stowell released this personal statement on Wenesday morning:

“After careful consideration and thoughtful reflection, I have submitted my resignation as Artistic Director of Oregon Ballet Theatre effective at the end of December. OBT’s Board of Trustees has determined that the organization must adopt a new business model and, after much thought, I have come to the conclusion that I am not the best candidate to lead OBT into that future.

“I was hired by OBT’s Board in 2003 to implement and lead a specific vision for the organization. I am very proud of the work we have accomplished to that end. Now that OBT is entering a new chapter in its history, it is imperative to find the right
leader.

“To our dedicated audiences, I want to say thank you for your support of my work during my time at OBT. I believe that classical ballet, as an art form, has a great deal to offer this community and hope that you will continue to support OBT as an
audience member and donor for many years to come.

“To our funders and donors, I also extend my thanks for your many years of support. Your generosity has enabled OBT to create beauty for our audiences, given access to ballet to thousands of people and helped bring the joy of dance to thousands of
children. For that, you have my deep gratitude.

“I am very grateful to all the staff members who have dedicated so much of themselves to OBT over the last decade. It has been a great honor to work with everyone. I hope that what we have accomplished will contribute to the future
success of the organization.

“To OBT’s dancers I can only say thank you for everything you have done for OBT, for your colleagues, for your fans and for the art form. This organization, this community, this state and the whole of the ballet world owe you a debt of gratitude.

“It has been the greatest honor of my life to work with everyone at Oregon Ballet Theatre. This is the most talented, dedicated and passionate group of artists I have ever known. As I move on to new challenges and new frontiers, my experiences at
OBT will go with me and for that you have my thanks.”

 

73 Responses.

  1. “Where are OBT’s deep pockets? And if they don’t exist, why not?”

    They don’t exist because OBT hasn’t been particularly adept at courting them. The Dance United benefit was brilliant to say the least, but it targeted the community as a whole vs. a specific income bracket. If the OBT board were more effective they could easily support a talent and vision like Stowell provided. Unfortunately it appears it was Stowell himself who did the most work to get income through the door – like he didn’t already have enough to do.

    I sincerely hope he lands someplace where his talents are better appreciated and working with a company that understands how to operate a business.

    • Twills says:

      Amen.

    • PDX Culture says:

      Agreed. Still, there is a chance to recoup and reverse this decision. If the audience won’t support it then the board MUST find a better solution. Be vocal, write the board. Tell them to find the cuts or the money elsewhere, but retain world class ballet for Portland.

  2. Carol Shults says:

    It is perfectly obvious that the deep pockets here have shallow minds, possibly in direct proportion. It would be naive to blame the current board, who are certainly doing the best with what they don’t have. We have long had a better ballet company than we deserve. This will be devastating on a very human level at OBT and my heart, for one, is broken.

    • PDX Culture says:

      Heartbroken yes, but I beg to disagree about the board and that Portland does not deserve a “better ballet company.”

  3. OBTfan says:

    This sad news certainly signals a change for OBT, but it need not signal the end. Surely Portland is big enough and sophisticated enough to appreciate and support the top-flight ballet company Christopher Stowell has built.

    To him, to the amazing artists he has nurtured and guided, to the school that has trained so many so well and worked so hard to take dance into the broader community, and to the staff that supports them all, my sincere thanks for countless hours of joy and beauty.

    May the relationship endure, whatever the future holds for OBT.

  4. Gracefulgambill says:

    I’m interested to see how the company will market a scaled back company to the dance community of Portland. Christopher Stowell has set the bar very high for OBT and it may be difficult for loyal ballet fans to see a smaller company, higher ticket prices, pre-recorded music, and fewer performances in smaller venues, all the obvious artistic areas that could be effected by belt tightening. I am curious to know if the board is considering a re-evaluation of executive salaries and administrative staff positions that may be outsized for the budget of the company. It is sad that the artistic side of the business is often where companies first turn for cuts when there are other more systemic changes in management are probable better for the longevity and growth of the company. One wonders how many times OBT and its board must address the budget before this becomes apparent.

    • PDX Culture says:

      Agreed. It is in administration and production management that the ballet must seek the dollars it is lacking. That is the place for the young and hungry to make their mark, not the artistic director’s chair. Not any more. There MUST be a better solution.

  5. PDX Culture says:

    A disaster for the company. Terpsichore preserve us from a return to “pop orientation.” If there are deep pockets out there, now is the time for them to open up to preserve world class classical ballet in Portland under world class leadership.

    Well intended as they are, the members of the board have missed the essential element of the position: to find funding to fulfill the bold vision Christopher was hired to create, not the reverse of diluting the vision to match the board’s inability. Bold action by some big donors could still retrieve this situation, retain Stowell and the core values he has brought to the company. From what I have heard of the basics of the new plan the only result can be be a precipitate slide from extraordinary to ordinary and perhaps worse. Indeed, a disaster.

  6. Brad Miller says:

    As tragic as this is for the dancers, staff and supporters of OBT and dance in Portland, let’s not start casting misplaced “blame” for what has occurred. Blaming “the Board” of OBT is simply naive. Non-profit boards are made up of hardworking and dedicated volunteers who give of both their time and pocket book because they believe in the cause.

    Those of you on this forum who blame “the Board” for either lack of vision or failure to adequately raise funds for ballet in Portland, neglect to recognize that the responsibility to recruit and support board members rests with the leadership of the organization itself.

    Through the years, OBT”s board has worked and fought hard to maintain both the quality and sustainability of ballet in Portland. To suggest otherwise demeans the efforts of so many board members who have made great sacrifices on behalf of OBT.

    • Abe says:

      Without passing judgement, this statement from Brad Miller may suggest a fundamental problem with the OBT Board —

      “Those of you on this forum who blame ‘the Board’ for either lack of vision or failure to adequately raise funds for ballet in Portland, neglect to recognize that the responsibility to recruit and support board members rests with the leadership of the organization itself.”

      I see that Mr. Miller is a past chairman of OBT but by stating the above, there appears to be a lack of understanding of the role of the board — from BoardSource.org on the Ten Basic Responsibilities of Nonprofit Boards (http://www.boardsource.org/Knowledge.asp?ID=3.368):

      “8. Build a competent board. All boards have a responsibility to articulate prerequisites for candidates, orient new members, and periodically and comprehensively evaluate their own performance.”

      Could it be OBT board members have not been trained adequately and do not understand the function of a board?

      Also, in reviewing public documents available, it appears many OBT board members (past and present) have not contributed financially to the company. If we understand the publically released bylaws correctly, the OBT board did not even make dues mandatory until recently?

      The deeper issue however may not be with the proper education of current and recent board members but with not recruiting the right board members, as this article by Rick Moyers in The Chronicle of Philanthropy suggests: http://philanthropy.com/blogs/against-the-grain/nonprofits-need-more-help-recruiting-the-right-board-members/28109

      It looks like this board needs to recruit not more people like themselves but individuals who are better than they are, that is assuming they know it’s their job to recruit for the board.

  7. Michael Wallace says:

    It would be great if all the board members of obt paid their dues. There are people on the board who have been there for years and pay nothing so much for obts dedicated board members,

    • Brad Miller says:

      Michael,

      I’m assuming that in this time of OBT’s great need for supporters that you will step up and offer to join the board and meet the time and financial commitment that is needed ?
      If so, please call me at 503 577 1300 and I will put you in touch with folks who share our mutual concern for the future of this organization.

      Brad Miller 503 577 1300

    • Brad Miller says:

      Michael,

      Seriously, I am not trying to call you out. If you want to be part of the solution please call me. Brad Miller

  8. ArtsWatcher says:

    Goodness some of you have drank the kool-aid.

    The board has finally asked for something called “fiscal responsibility” out of someone who has rarely shown it. (Sorry, panic stricken pleas for assistance and last minute fund raisers don’t count.) Like many of his ilk when told he is going to have to live on a budget, he has thrown up his hands and said he can’t work that way.

    If that is truly the case, I completely applaud the board and hope that the boards of the other arts organizations in town take notice.

    OBT will find a new AD and life will go on, hopefully with a more financially sound footing.

    • John says:

      I do have lots of respect for those board members, who are still standing there trying to help this organization, face the reality, the staff, as well as the dancers.

    • PDX Culture says:

      I’m all for responsibility. I would like to see some sound reasoning behind reversing the progress that has been made here. I also think that the board of Oregon Ballet Theatre needs to have deeper pockets who are financially dedicated to consolidating what Christopher has built. There are, I am afraid, too many of your ilk who do not think the product on the stage matters very much to the future of the organization. There MUst be a better solution.

  9. barrehopping says:

    Interesting (and largely overlooked) tidbit reported by The Oregonian two months ago when executive director Diane Syrcle resigned:

    “So, rather than find a new executive director who would report to the OBT board of directors, as Syrcle did, the board has created new positions, each responsible to Stowell.”

  10. Jack Gabel says:

    even if scaled back by half, OBT’s budget affords the company more resources than any other dance company in Oregon

    yes, all arts lovers wants world class performing arts – do Portland audiences know it when they encounter it?

    is bigger really better? 2-dozen tutus lined up next to the lake, soloists leaping down stage and a whole symphony orchestra strained through a relatively small speaker array – is this what OBT wants to give Portland audiences?

    scaling back overall forces – retaining the highest quality possible, absolutely with live music – focusing on quality not quantity – rebuild from their – why not?

    • PDX Culture says:

      Because you lose the Balanchine contract which is the cash cow. You lose the ability to work with outside choreographers of note so the ballet becomes stale and monochromatic. You lose the high draw to the school and it’s reputation. I could go on. The ballet does not need rebuilding. It needs administrative and cost analysis perhaps, but only toward the end of maintaining and building FROM the current level.
      Imagine if the Symphony had caved in to the complaints about Kalmar being too hard on the musicians. Where would it be now in fundraising and stature?

      Also, with all due respect, the resources and pay scale at OBT are inferior to a great many other companies nationwide with lower production values. Many smaller local companies here could not begin to mount credible versions of classic ballet such as are produced by OBT or leading national companies. There is a qualitative rather than merely quantitative difference. The allocation of resources is justifiable, earned, and deserved.

  11. Sarah Freeman says:

    Huge mistake! What’s next the ballet orchestra? Is that the next victim?

  12. Susan Franzen says:

    Goldstein said that while the company’s new business model hasn’t been fully worked out…

    Would the new realities mean reducing the number of dancers or cutting the orchestra? “To be honest? I don’t know,” Goldstein said. “Because we never got to that point.”

    DID THEY NOT EVEN THINK THIS THROUGH?

  13. KittyCat says:

    It is my impression that the current financial situation is the result of years of irresponsible budgeting, and that it’s possible many of the individuals who set the ball rolling in the wrong direction have long since left OBT. Unfortunately, it also appears the enormity of the crisis and a lack of available resources have prevented remaining OBT staff and board members from reaching their goals in a timely manner (an impossible situation closely paralleling the Obama administration’s clean up after Bush).

    What surprises me most about this article and the above comments is that there is absolutely no mention of the School of OBT. SOBT is one of the most well-respected classical ballet schools in the country, with over 200 students whose lives are dramatically enriched by their training. The structure and discipline classical ballet training provides not only instills in them a love of dance, but enriches their abilities to work hard, work together and contribute more effectively to their communities. Although I, too, am concerned for the future of the Company, I am more concerned with the future of these children. Sure, there are other schools in the area, but none come close to the quality of training that SOBT provides. Anyone who has attended an Annual School Performance can attest to this fact. Or the Nutcracker, for that matter. Have you enjoyed the breathtaking formations of the Flowers and Snowflakes? The majority of them are either current SOBT students or have been trained by SOBT before joining the Company. What I would like to know is: How will these changes affect the School?

    • Susan Franzen says:

      If Christopher Stowell is still the Executive Director of OBT, can he fire the Board and rehire himself?

      • Jack Gabel says:

        Chris is Artistic Director – Neville Wellman is Executive Director – the board are essentially volunteers – arts non profits are not all like banana republics – shake ups are not uncommon – cold coups are

        • Trisha Mead says:

          A point of clarification, Jack. Neville Wellman is a board member at Oregon Ballet Theatre, but he is Executive Director for Portland Playhouse. Oregon Ballet Theatre currently does not have an executive director. The organizational model was restructured in August to create two new positions who report to the Artistic Director: Vice President of Finance and Administration and Vice President of Development and Marketing. Joanne Van Ness Menashe is the Vice President of Development and Marketing. The position of Vice President of Finance and Administration has not been filled. The Artistic Director reports directly to the board in the current structure. OBT’s current Board Chair is Ken Hick.

          • Jack Gabel says:

            right – read OBT’s board-listing page a bit quickly (carelessly) – nevertheless, very little of the detail you’ve offered is posted there – my point was this: the notion of ‘firing’ the board is based on a malformed premise

    • Barry Johnson says:

      When I asked Christopher Stowell about what he was proudest of at Oregon Ballet Theatre, one of the first things he mentioned was the School. I for one consider it an integral part of what OBT does because it develops both new dancers/choreographers AND devoted audience members in addition to how it helps individual students in a multitude of ways.

      Because none of the board members we’ve talked to has mentioned any changes to the school, we don’t think any changes to the school are planned. But we’ll bring it up explicitly in future conversations. Thanks for bringing this up!

      • Season Subscriber says:

        Thank you, Barry, attention to the School is critically important and often goes unmentioned in public discussion of the fate of our ballet. The futures of the School and Company are essentially entwined. The Company provides the 250+ aspiring young dancers an endless source of inspiration in the form of the highest-caliber classical ballet and repertoire. It also demonstrates professional context and provides invaluable career-building performance opportunities on stage with the company’s extremely talented dancers. In turn, these young classical dancers contribute to the Company as frequent members of the cast, as well as to the bottom line both through their tuition dollars and the many audience members that are reliably associated with them. Some very significant proportion of the Nutcracker’s house, for example, is filled with SOBT parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles, family friends, and school teachers. In addition, SOBT families also frequently are season ticket holders, as well as organizational volunteers, donors, and all-around OBT champions and vocal advocates. The outcome of the classically focused School has very real meaning for the futures of OBT’s aspiring young professionals, yet it also has bearing on the future of the Company. As the Board moves forward with its difficult task, we hope we will learn of a plan for the preservation of both components of the organization.

      • KittyCat says:

        Thank you, Barry.

        • PDX Culture says:

          It must be considered that the health and orientation of the company and the attendant performance opportunities as a draw to the school are inextricably entwined. I have little doubt that without a strong company doing national class work the school will ultimately decline.

  14. Bennett says:

    The Oregonian should pay as much attention to OBT’s performances as it does to this crisis. Also, the city’s leaders, such as the mayor & councilmembers, ought to show up & help OBT as community leaders do in other cities on behalf of major cultural institutions.
    OBT’s budget for costumes & scenery is obviously very lean. Therefore the major item on which the board thinks Stowell spent “too much” must be the costs of rights to works by Balanchine, Forsythe, etc. But this is called building a repertoire—a capital investment for the futire of the company. Stowell not only built repertoire but has graduated students from the school into full ballet work.
    I can’t imagine what the board thinks the company ought to do for repertoire or what it imagines the school students are going to dance without repertoire.
    It was reported that the board wants to budget per show and not for the season. This is what business people do for products, and it is a sure loser for arts groups. Even the NYC Ballet might close under such a plan. Hits like The Nutcracker should support building repertoire and audience in other areas. I think the board wants to put on schlock and junk. Why don’t they try to expand and grow OBT instead?

    • Barry Johnson says:

      I think that’s the problem: The company hasn’t been able to increase its revenue reliably enough to afford the current level of expenditure. And because it has no reserves to fall back on or to invest, it’s hard to see how it can change the equation on the revenue side, so only the expense side is left.

      The biggest costs at the ballet, if I remember correctly, are salaries to dancers and administrative staff and rental of Keller Auditorium, but maybe someone from the staff can provide numbers and a correction, if I’m wrong.

      • PDX Culture says:

        Without actual numbers in my hand, I have to remark that it is my observation, not entirely uneducated, that administration costs, payrolls and Keller rental costs do run a bit fat at the ballet. Particularly in administration there is a lack of imagination in utilizing community resources (with the exception of the recent set build outreach which was a great start) and a certain balkanization of positions and responsibility. Innovation in administrative hierarchy would produce savings. I dare say as a guess that at least 1/2 of the budget amount that board wants to cut for next year could be found in other places besides cutting the company and the quality of production and without harm to the product. The product on stage, after all, is the key to the future and not cuts as you have so aptly highlighted.

  15. Papaki says:

    Great coverage, ArtsWatch, and much needed in a city where the traditional media have been completely asleep when it comes to reporting what’s happening with our important arts presenters. Keep it up!

    I think there’s a bigger story here: It’s now been four full years since all of the big arts groups in town were hit with the same financial crises at the same time. Four years of staff cuts, pay cuts, furloughs, budget cuts, shrinking programming, execs coming and going, expensive consultants being hired, worried boards and new business plans — and what’s the result? It increasingly looks like, after all of that austerity, all of the arts groups in town are in exactly the same precarious financial position they were in before all the budget cutting began.

    Why? Because despite all that pain, none of them have had any success whatsoever in getting any of the region’s big donors — businesses, foundations or individuals — to forking over any additional money to support them. So now boards like OBT’s and the symphony’s are just saying again what they said four years ago: Cut more! And they’re doing it even though they all know, as the Kennedy Center’s Michael Kaiser told them when he spoke to all of Portland’s arts leaders a couple of years ago, that it’s impossible to cut your way to health.

    • Barry Johnson says:

      An excellent point, Papaki. I agree that the situations of the city’s biggest arts groups ARE linked (though not identical) by the modest level of support they receive from big donors of various sorts. Part of this is historical: Portland never had the giant 20th consumer products company that generated great wealth in so many cities (I’m thinking of Procter and Gamble in Cincinnati, for example), and those fueled the endowments and ambitions of the local museums, symphonies and ballets (etc.).

      Portland is “wealthier” than it has ever been by most measures, but so far that hasn’t translated into major funding for the arts, big OR small.

      The foundation community has attempted to provide some baseline stability for the big organizations, but moving them beyond the subsistence level? That’s going to take some serious thinking–and giving!

    • PDX Culture says:

      A point that is worth reiterating in the strongest possible voice as it truly applies to this situation: it is impossible to cut you way to health in the arts. Forward or disaster are the choices. There MUST be a better solution.

  16. Bob Hicks says:

    The Oregonian’s Marty Hughley has added this interesting backround-and-response piece on Oregon Live: http://www.oregonlive.com/performance/index.ssf/2012/11/oregon_ballet_theatre_faces_un.html#incart_river

  17. Bob Hicks says:

    … and Gavin Larsen, recently retired OBT dancer, gives a good insider perspective in her blog on Pointe magazine. http://www.pointemagazine.com/blogs/news/christopher-stowell-leaves-obt

  18. Baby Face says:

    This whole mess seems sinister to me. OBT is being taken over by a cabal of befuddled old men.

  19. Macaroni and Cheese says:

    I have worked for non-profit arts organizations my entire career – over 16 years – and I am appalled at what I am hearing and how the board seems so disconnected from what the audience members, subscribers, donors, dancers, and staff feel. I among others really start to question the board’s true motives.

  20. emma dorrance says:

    I find it interesting how quickly misinformed people find a scapegoat. In this case, the Board. Befuddled old men? malevolent motives? Out of touch with ballet fans? Wanting schlock and junk? Really? The Board did not “force” Christopher to leave. He chose to leave because he did not want to change his artistic vision. I’m sure the Board likes that artistic vision as much as anyone. But boards must maintain fiscal responsibility. If OBT cannot afford the vision, then something must change or there will be no ballet. I wonder how many of those fans who are demanding expensive programs have been willing to pay for them. Think at least double the ticket price. That’s what would have kept Christopher here. That’s what will keep the ballet thriving. Do people think the Board can pluck money off of trees? Instead of sending accusations, why not send dollars. Or better yet, join the board. But be willing to donate many thousands of dollars and hours for the privilege. Portland will get whatever kind of company it is willing to pay for.

    • PDX Culture says:

      Balderdash. The gibbering of of the short sighted. Without an understanding and connection with the larger audience how can the board hope to craft a fiscally responsible plan. It’s a ballet not a bank, industry, or developer. Portland will surely not pay for the kind of company contemplated now, without someone of Christopher’s talent and vision. Making decisions born of the experience of the worst recession in two generations is unsound thinking. In point of fact last year was there a small surplus at OBT as I expect your know. What this is a triumph of timidity.

      Also, for the record, I would gladly serve on the board, lending my very significant expertise in production management and budgeting. However, what I think the board needs more are some civic leaders who are both well healed and financially committed to saving what has been built since Canfield left.

      • Brad Miller says:

        Mr. “PDX Culture” it must be wonderful to hide behind your pretentious but anonymous screen name and throw darts in complete and total ignorance of the facts. Can we have your name and contact information ?

        Nearly 3 month’s ago, the ballet staff’s hand picked board leadership tried to force the ballet into bankruptcy and then promptly resigned. Those who remain on the board are passionate about this company, dedicating both substantial time and money to the effort.

        My wife and I as past board members, like current board members, have given tens of thousands of dollars to support ballet in Portland – can I guess that your financial support consists of buying tickets and complaining ?

        Or perhaps you are one of those folks that Portlandia so appropriately lampoons for being pleasantly underemployed ? You certainly have plenty of time on your hands.

        I would love to direct you to the talented board selection committee of OBT but I suggest that you be prepared to commit 100’s of hours of time and $10,000 to $20,000 a year for the privilege of serving while be denigrated by folks who call themselves “PDX culture”.

        • PointeShoo says:

          A few things to remember, Mr. Miller:

          The first and most important duty of any Board member for any non-profit organization is to ensure the financial security of the organization they have agreed to serve. Given what we are hearing from the press about OBT’s ongoing financial struggles, it is simply factually accurate to say that the board has failed to meet this responsibility. Sorry if that offends your delicate sensibilities, but the facts don’t care about your opinion. The board’s #1 job is to protect the financial health of the organization. Period. Through personal donations, personal solicitations, engagement in fundraising activities and fiscal oversight. It is clear that these duties have not been fulfilled. The end.

          And…before you start jumping up and down about how expensive ballet is, remember this: The board APPROVES budgets. They review them and then APPROVE them. It is NOT the case that any Artistic Director anywhere in the world can just make up a budget, decide to spend millions of dollars more than is agreed or just fabricate numbers. A board reviews and agrees the budget…if it was a problem or an overshot, they should have said something before they voted to approve it.

          Second, Board members are not placed on boards at gun-point; they CHOOSE to join, knowing full well the expectations and responsibilities. To somehow justify a board’s inaction or poor decisions based on the argument that “being on a board is really really hard work, you lazy poor whiner” is ludicrous. If you aren’t willing to do the hard work, spend the time and give the money, then don’t freaking join! You can’t agree to join and then complain when you are asked to do what you agreed to do.

          Third, your painful attacks on PDXCulture related to his/her employment status or financial capacity to give is embarrassing. You should be ashamed of yourself. This kind of classist, egocentric dismissal is really shameful. Every single person who buys a ticket, promotes the company on Facebook, brings a child to a show or buys a tiara in the lobby is supporting the company and, for most of art’s audiences, buying a ticket IS a personally significant financial commitment to supporting the company. To suggest otherwise is offensive.

        • PDX Culture says:

          Mr Miller,
          We hear much about the unknown facts from apologists for the board’s action or inaction. What we have yet to see is any, repeat any, disclosure of what these facts are. Tell us, o’ sage, what is so dire about the situation that a complete reversal of the positive accomplishments of the company since Canfield’s departure is justified.

          Perhaps trusting to the audience at large or quantifying the problem for deep pocket donors and potential board members would produce a better solution. The only fact I find in evidence is that the company finished in the black last year.

          In light of that I must conclude that these actions are the product of faint hearts rather than dire straits. As to the bankruptcy, this is absolutely new information to the community at large as far as I can discern. Again there is no why, just a bald statement.

          While I revere the service of volunteer board members and the financial commitments entailed, that does not alter the fact that the proposed path is disastrous, as is the potential departure of Mr. Stowell. I maintain that there MUST be a better solution.

          As for myself, I can assure you that I am employed, I have significant expertise on matters concerning profitable public productions, I have served on the boards of many 501’s, and I currently contribute both my time and my money to the ballet in excess of my ability. None of which, I daresay, you can claim.

          I would gladly serve on the board, but alas the ballet is not the only wounded in the late recession and I am no longer wealthy enough to be a financially contributing board member. The board needs some quite deep pockets in my estimation; deep as in not needing to be a martyr over $20,000. I do think that my expertise would prove helpful and could make a significant contribution to the bottom line. The connections I have as a fourth generation Oregonian of of family might also help reach out to the types of donors or board members the ballet needs. On that basis I would serve, so long as it is not with you.

          As for you, by your actions I find that you are a “base, proud, shallow, beggarly, three suited, hundred pound, filthy worsted-stocking knave … and art nothing but the composition of a knave, coward, pander and son and heir of a” – oh well, it matters not. Your flame job is naught but sad.

  21. Macaroni and Cheese says:

    It seems Mr. Miller is leaking insider information…the board previously voted for bankruptcy?? Hmmm…I wonder if the press reads these blogs?

  22. KittyCat says:

    Bankruptcy??? This is certainly news. Again, I express my concern for the future of the School and its students. Has tuition been paid for in advance? Are these families in danger of losing their investment in their children’s futures? And, if bankruptcy was under serious consideration as recently as 3 months ago, and the current Board has yet to define their new business model, what’s to keep OBT from going bankrupt in the near future? What’s changed in the last 3 months? Clearly, the public is being kept in the dark.

    • PDX Culture says:

      Public kept in the dark is the recurrent theme. It’s a public charity, how about some transparency in information and decision making?

      I deeply share your concern for the school. The future direction of the company and the school are linked.

      • Barry Johnson says:

        The comments from two different board members don’t lead to the conclusion that OBT is on the verge of bankruptcy, though we have a call in to the company for clarification.

        Until we know the dimensions of the financial problem, it’s hard to second-guess either Christopher Stowell or the Board.

        • PDX Culture says:

          Your are right. We need to know the dimensions of the financial problem. I am pursuing some investigations myself on these matters.

          However, I still maintain that lacking any facts that demonstrate the impossibility of preserving the general direction of the current company, there MUST be a better solution than what is proposed.

  23. Mr. B says:

    If the current board of Oregon Ballet Theatre had an ounce of integrity they would do the entire community of Portland a service and resign!

  24. PDX Culture says:

    Found on OBT’s Facebook page:
    I am absolutely devastated by the news of Christopher’s very abrupt departure. I am a young person who is a three-time season ticket holder, who has convinced other young people to attend and fall in love with the ballet. I feel that Christopher is truly the “face” of OBT, and is one reason I have such a strong affection for the company. His vision, dedication, talent, devotion, and warmth have all made me feel welcome to all OBT performances, ballet chats, and community events. I even took an adult class at School of OBT, and was thrilled when Christopher stopped by one night and gave us all encouragement! I don’t understand why he must leave in order to better serve OBT’s grand plan, and I certainly don’t understand why he needs to leave mid season, right before Swan Lake (which was absolutely breathtaking last time around – FULL ballet with FULL orchestra! AMAZING!) Being a season ticket holder on a teacher’s salary is indeed a luxury, one that I budget for each year, and one I will probably forgo if the company declines with Christopher’s departure.

  25. PDX Culture says:

    What people are saying – found on OBT’s Facebook page:
    Devastated about the direction OBT might take now that Christopher is leaving. His ability to attract the highest caliber dancers and choreographers has made OBT one of the best ballet companies I have ever seen – and I grew up with ABT, The Joffrey and NYC ballet.

  26. PDX Culture says:

    What people are saying – Found on OBT’s Facebook page:
    I was shocked when I picked up my daughter from SOBT last night and she told me the very sad news that Christopher Stowell was leaving OBT. OBT has grown into an internationally renowned ballet company under his leadership, one of the best things about the arts in Portland. His vision with respect to the classics and his creative eye towards new, innovative pieces has been refreshing, and I cannot imagine why the Board would want to undercut the Company at a time when it is only growing in recognition, prestige, and talent. Definitely a step in the wrong direction…

  27. emma dorrance says:

    From what I understand, only Christopher feels “he must leave in order to better serve OBT’s grand plan.” The board has never said that, nor do they seem to think that. It is Christopher’s idea, and his idea to leave mid-season. No one else wants that! But we have to honor his decision. As far as I can tell, the “grand plan” is little more than becoming fiscally responsible. Belt-tightening didn’t interest Christopher. I’m sure it doesn’t interest the general public either, but it is a necessary reality. It will be important for everyone to continue to support the ballet during this time of unplanned change. Scapegoating will not move things forward. Helpful suggestions for increasing revenue will. Let’s hear them.

    • PointeShoo says:

      Emma – Little more than “becoming fiscally responsible?” The Oregonian did a great piece about the “future” of OBT with a reduced budget. Here is what OBT would look like under a significantly reduced budget (what is likely meant by “fiscal responsibility”):

      “Budgeting for a dance company isn’t a simple matter of cost-cutting. “Revenue and expenses are tied to each other. Knock one down and the other’s going to be affected.” The key, he suggests, isn’t so much budget size, but cash flow.

      Revered — but expensive — ballet classics such as “The Sleeping Beauty” might be out of OBT’s reach if it’s budget is significantly reduced.

      A prospective budget of about $4.5 million would put OBT in line with the likes of Nashville Ballet and Richmond Ballet, Jones said, companies with much smaller corps of dancers, who stage many of their performances as small-scale studio shows.

      A sharp drop in the number of dancers would make it all but impossible for OBT to stage large-scale works, such as “The Sleeping Beauty” and “Carmen.” And without adequate ranks, they might lose permission from The Balanchine Trust to perform George Balanchine works such as “The Nutcracker,” which opens Dec. 8.

      Or, for another cost-saving example, spending less on outside choreographers — as happened during the later Canfield years — would diminish variety for audiences and potentially burn out the artistic director, who would have to add more studio work to his administrative and fundraising duties.”

      So…fiscal responsibility would likely mean:

      -fewer dancers
      -smaller venues
      -no Nutcracker, Sleeping Beauty, Swan Lake, Carmen or other large-scale ballets
      -no outside choreographers
      -dimished variety for audiences
      -potentially no Balanchine ballets of any kind

      Sounds like a radically different artistic direction to me….

    • Abe says:

      “Scapegoating will not move things forward. Helpful suggestions for increasing revenue will. Let’s hear them.”

      The first step has to be for the current board to build a better board. OBT is still a nationally recognized high-value artistic organization. Capitalize on it to recruit better members to replace the current ones, before the cost-cutting turns the organization into a shadow of its current self.

      Incidentally, scapegoating is healthy, to avoid the same mistakes from repeating itself. The best organizations find fault and are relentless about it so they can become better.

  28. auntpittypat says:

    Somewhere in the middle is where we find the truth. Christopher was hired for his particular artistic vision. He has accomplished in creating his vision. The board has continually asked for budget cut after budget cut, without any clear plan for how the financial holes will be filled. An artistic director should spend 75 % of his time in the studio, or taking care of financial aspects, 25 % of their time taking care of board type duties. It was turning into a 25/70 split for Christopher. The board is promising the staff that nothing will change, when that is obviously not possible. Cut the budget- there is nowhere left to cut, save for staff salaries, and that includes dancers. Cut dancers, we can’t do the big ballets anymore. So many have crowed about how POrtland doesn’t care about the big ballets- Swan Lake, for example- but those ballets guarantee strong revenues. Things will change, most assuredly. There is no way around that. We grieve for the loss of the vision, and aesthetic, and what we built.

  29. auntpittypat says:

    I meant to say he should spend 75% of his time on the *artistic* aspect of his job, not financial. Also, I typed too quickly, obviously- he succeeded in achieving his vision.

  30. auntpittypat says:

    Oh dear lord, even my math is terrible. A 25/75 split.

  31. emma dorrance says:

    PointeShoo,
    Your points (and pointes) are well taken. If you can think of a way to raise more money to afford a larger company, please let someone at OBT know. I would guess that even with bigger and better ballets, the overall contributed income did not change much. Probably true for symphony and opera too. That’s because for a myriad of reasons, Portland just does not support the quality of art it has come to expect. If there is a way to raise more money, please pointe us in the right direction! And I will promise a grand jete.

    • Another Bill says:

      Emma, here are 3 ideas I’ve thought of. Maybe naive, but seems to me now’s a time for brainstorming.

      One, create a private school (primary through high school) for the dancers at the school of OBT. One, this would benefit the school-age dancers who have to commute daily between their schools and OBT; and two, this could generate increased profits for OBT. Win-win.

      Two, schedule OBT performances in other regional cities. Could scaled-down versions of pieces be put on in Salem, Corvallis, Eugene, Bend, Ashland (maybe join up with OSF?)…? If the demand doesn’t exist in Portland for more performances, maybe it does in these places.

      Three, given that donation revenues aren’t sufficient for the type of ballet we want to support, it seems to be time to search for a new head of development (see Bill’s reply below).

      • Abe says:

        “Three, given that donation revenues aren’t sufficient for the type of ballet we want to support, it seems to be time to search for a new head of development (see Bill’s reply below).”

        Why would a good development profession want to join an ailing organization? The best time to hire top notch staff is when the organization is on the up. This is a classic downward spiral, when an organization tries to recruit a development person when they’re in trouble. You will only attract wannabes who can’t find a job elsewhere.

        Instead, the board must step up.

        • Another Bill says:

          I disagree. Of course there are people who don’t want to join an ailing organization. But there are others who love taking on challenges for organizations they love. So I would not discount out-of-hand a search for someone to take on that challenge.

    • Abe says:

      “Scapegoating will not move things forward. Helpful suggestions for increasing revenue will. Let’s hear them.”

      The first step has to be for the current board to build a better board. OBT is still a nationally recognized high-value artistic organization. Capitalize on it to recruit better members to replace the current ones, before the cost-cutting turns the organization into a shadow of its current self.

      Incidentally, scapegoating is healthy, to avoid the same mistakes from repeating itself. The best organizations find fault and are relentless about it so they can become better.

  32. Auntpittypat says:

    2 words seem to be prevailing with the board’s current plan- which would be “magical thinking”.

  33. Bill says:

    This is a sad development. OBT has wonderful productions, and Mr. Stowell is irreplaceable. It is clear there has been incremental erosion of support and committment toward Mr. Stowell’s artistic vision.

    One example I’m familiar with in regard to he Nutcracker. This year there are only 6 orchestral performances, and no children’s choir, at all, for the snowflake dance. So the artistic evidence is, yes, things are changing. The performers and chorusmaster have worked their own artistic magic for years on this beautiful movement, and now they are silent.

    Fundraising and solictiation of charitable giving is arguably its own art form. To this end, OBT was invited years ago, amidst hints of foundational financial struggles, to seek audience of one the most accomplished arts and public radio Development Directors in the Western U.S. (see: Eugene Symphony, circa 2003). My contact within OBT told me the answer to this idea was “Uh no thanks, we have people who know how to fund raise”.

    Perhaps OBT will be a little more couragous in showing less self-confidence at the risk of less unfortunate humility such as this sad departure brings upon the community.

    Take care Christopher, and thank you!

    Bill

  34. Baby face says:

    Has anyone heard any specifics from the board of CEOs and COOS about the fate of the company and school. They sure seem to be having fun screwing with everyone’s life.

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