Bright Lights: Christopher Stowell and Chris Coleman talk Portland arts

Stowell on his time at Oregon Ballet Theatre and Coleman on the arts tax and diversity

Oregon Ballet Theatre performs Christopher Stowell's "The Rite of Spring"/Blaine Truitt Covert

Oregon Ballet Theatre performs Christopher Stowell’s “The Rite of Spring”/Blaine Truitt Covert

Last night I saw that Chris Coleman and Christopher Stowell were participating in Portland Monthly’s Bright Lights discussion series, so I hustled over to Jimmy Mak’s in time to settle in a bit before the program started.

I had a few things in mind, mostly to do with Stowell, who resigned suddenly from Oregon Ballet Theatre last November (a situation ArtsWatch’s Bob Hicks just returned to this weekend). I thought he might expand on his reasons for leaving the company he’d served as artistic director for nine years, and maybe he’s say something incendiary! Well, he was quite measured about his time at OBT and he simply reiterated what he’d said when he left: 1) he wasn’t interested in going through a radical budget reduction process, which seemed to be in the offing; and 2) he wanted to expand his professional experiences beyond Oregon Ballet Theatre.

He commented on some dance clips that moderator Randy Gragg (the magazine’s editor-in-chief) projected on the screen behind the stage, and frankly, watching Alison Roper and Kathi Martuza is always a treat. Mostly, he talked about his tenure at OBT, and how he attempted to execute the brief under which he was hired: to stick to the classical repertoire, to dance it well, to develop new work, to participate in the conversation with other ballet companies around the country, who were following a similar path.

And how did he do it? “For me the school is the most important part of the institution,” he said. It instilled the basic values of the company, not just the classical steps, but the work ethic and the spirit he wanted for the company, that OBT could work hard and “have a good time doing it.” Nine years later, 16 of the 21 dancers in the company have had at least some training in the school, and the foundation of the company is secure.

He also talked about the constant concern for keeping things under budget and the difficulty ballet companies have in adjusting to sudden budget changes (company size is determined by the largest dance in the season, in OBT’s case, “The Nutcracker”). And then he was joined onstage by Coleman, the artistic director of Portland Center Stage.

Coleman talked about the impact of the passage of Measure 26-146, the tax that will fund the teaching of art in the schools and support the city’s largest arts groups at a higher level than before. The support Center Stage will now get from the City is still small, around five percent of its budget, but Coleman said it would help the company erase an accumulated deficit, develop a rainy day fund and eventually expand education and outreach programs.

And he also talked about the City’s diversity efforts, which tie financial support to the efforts of arts organizations to reach underserved communities. Center Stage has been more active at this than just about any major arts group in town, but I wasn’t sure whether or not he thought the new attention to it by the Regional Arts & Culture Council were too onerous. “They get all of us to be really thoughtful about what the city is becoming,” Coleman said about the guidelines, adding, “We are really late to this conversation in this community.”

He also discussed how crucial the renovation of the Armory Building Annex into modern theaters was to the company as part of its outreach effort. More than 40,000 people come into the building every year who aren’t there for theater per se, and they often become part of the audience later. This was all by way of talking about the ballet and opera’s perennial complaints about Keller Auditorium, and their desire for a new space that would show off their work better.

Stowell said that the ballet has other problems, and venue might not be Number One. And he clearly understands the context in this case: A major new performing arts facility in Portland is going to have to be a community facility, used by lots of different groups for lots of different purposes.

Stowell has been here for nine years now, almost 10, and he’s learned the territory, a lot like Coleman, who arrived in 2000. And maybe that’s what I regret most about his leaving: He gets the city, the little ballet community here, the limitations and the possibilities. Here, he learned how to adjust to budget constraints and the ideas of his collaborators, how to integrate a school into a company and build the foundation for everything that follows, how to protect and develop dancers. Maybe that means he’s ready for the next challenge, sure, but it also means we won’t benefit from what he’s learned going forward.

The evening at Jimmy Mak’s ended on a happier note than that, of course, and we left through the door of the future. Stowell had foreshadowed it in one of his clips. It featured Anne Mueller, who has taken over as interim artistic director at OBT, and she was practically electric onstage. To a question about “The Nutcracker,” Stowell had answered, “It’s not my problem anymore.” It IS Mueller’s, however, and it’s somehow comforting to know she’ll be working on it with some of the tools that Stowell used.

12 Responses.

  1. ArtsWatcher says:

    Sad…. The five percent that goes to PCS could have funded an additional 8-10 teachers, but will instead go to a company that has not learned to live within its means since moving. This is like parents paying off a child’s credit card. No lesson is learned and it is only a matter of time before they are spending more than they are making again. Too bad that measure 26-146 didn’t include a requirement of longterm fiscal responsibility prior to awarding funds, there probably isn’t a large arts organization in the city that would qualify to receive money.

    • Barry Johnson says:

      Sorry, ArtsWatcher, but that’s what I call a drive-by… an anonymous, incendiary comment with no actual data to support its contention. We automatically suspect that you have an ax to grind. Do you?

      • ArtsWatcher says:

        Barry,

        No axe to grind per se, just that too many arts organizations don’t live fiscally responsible lives rather they live crisis to crisis depending on board members, public pleas and other extraordinary measures to bail them out. The facts are partially there in what is being said – You don’t accumulate deficit if you aren’t spending more than your are making. But you can also take a look at these companies 990’s and see that they go the wrong direction financially more than the right direction.

        • admin says:

          Arts groups are nonprofits, though, founded, run and supported by their specific communities of interest—the people who want to experience theater or dance or music.

          Those groups are always reaching out to their members for help, and those members understand that if it was just a matter of ticket income, very few (if any) arts groups would exist. And if an individual group loses that support from its board and dedicated fans, then it starts to spiral downward.

          At this point, no Portland art group can afford to pile up much of a deficit, because endowments and cash reserves are too small and foundation support is contingent on running without deficits. We could argue about individual financial decisions arts groups make, but we’d have to know a lot more than I know!

          For the public generally, the calculus is different. How much civic benefit do arts groups create and how does this balance with other community needs? We get to argue that out and make decisions about that at election time (at the very least).

          • ArtsWatcher says:

            I know what you mean about public financing of arts groups. Many groups ranges somewhere between 60-40 to 40-60 of donations to ticket revenue. The fact that the public must support these organizations through donations beyond normal ticket revenue is no big secret.

            My comment about board members and public pleas were in regards to the emergency fund raisers that arts organizations have to “save the company” The type that worked for the Ballet, but not as much for the Intiman.

            My point is that the arts organizations that continually accumulate deficit because they can’t stop spending more than they are making should not have their deficit problems fixed by public monies. There should be a benchmark of responsibility prior to those monies being awarded. Otherwise, it will only be a matter of time before they will dig themselves into the same hole again.

            Show me that as an organization, they have figured out how to create art on the donations and ticket revenue that is coming in the door for 3-5 years in a row and I will support them receiving public monies. Until then, that money could be far better utilized by our school districts.

            As a side note, but speaking of fiscal matters, how about an update on the status of the Armory building being paid for.

  2. Jack Gabel says:

    RE: “…the renovation of the Armory Building Annex into modern theaters was to the company as part of its outreach effort. More than 40,000 people come into the building every year who aren’t there for theater per se…”

    I can attest to this. A month ago, after another venue went south for no good reason, I was in a bind as to where to premiere DIAMETERS – an original music project funded by a number of players to whom a premiere deadline had been promised – http://tinyurl.com/btohmf5

    One call to The Gerding at the Armory resulted in an enthusiastic return call from their Education Director Kelsey Tyler, telling me, “What an inspiring project, we’d love to host it in our lobby during the Feb. First Thursday!”

    The unusual premiere – 12 duets for different orchestral instruments (on the mezzanine balcony) and 3-dozen percussion instruments (at the entry-level) – came together swiftly and a rewarding time was had by all — sample it here –

    Unfortunately Kelsey, broke his ankle shortly after we started working on this and could not attend – his colleague Sarah Mitchell took over and did great

    The Gerding Theatre at the Armory is much more than just a thespian stage – it is a commons for the arts – a model to which Portland should aspire

  3. admin says:

    Thanks for the comment, Jack.

    ArtsWatcher, I’m for prudent management of arts groups, generally, and as a prerequisite for receiving public money (even in Oregon, where the amount of public money is so small).

    I disagree with your specific proposal. Events both macro (the near collapse of the national or state economy) and micro (a snowstorm that wipes out several performances of your most popular show) can send a “prudent” company of any sort into a deficit situation for a year or two. OBT’s immediate problems in the summer of 2009 were caused by a combination of those two factors.

    In general, right now, major Portland arts groups work really hard to avoid even a small operating deficit because foundation support is contingent on a balanced budget.

    It’s also no secret that most Portland arts groups are very fragile economically, without the endowments and reserves that similar groups have in wealthier cities (or cities with wealthier pasts), and so even small upsets can send them into crisis conditions.

    At the Bright Lights event, Randy Gragg said that Center Stage still owed something more than $2 million (down from more than $9 million) on the Armory building, and Chris Coleman did not correct him. But it would be interesting to know what the total is, since the original deadline for payment is nearing.

    • ArtsWatcher says:

      I respect your disagreement with my specific proposal and I understand your point that many organizations walk a fine line between solvency and crisis. But I still believe there should be some standard prior to money being given to them.

      It is hard to believe what your saying about major arts groups working to avoid even a small operating deficit though when PCS reported a nearly 1.2 million dollar deficit on their 990 as of the end of June 2011.

      Arts organizations do run on a thin line, and money is almost always tight. I cannot argue that point. But there also seems to be a mentality that setting some aside as a reserve no matter what the economic climate will come at a cost of sacrifice to the art. I look at it the other way – That at some point that creating art with a little less now might save the art later.

      • admin says:

        You may propose any standard to RACC that you want and ask them what the current standard is, while you’re at it. You could also call the Miller Foundation and ask what standards it currently upholds. Then you won’t have to believe me a bit!

        PCS’s deficit is an accumulated one, and Coleman said it had been reduced substantially (by half, if I remember correctly). It’s really no surprise if you examine that famous 990 of yours (which is for the Fiscal Year ending 6/30/2011): donations to the company finally fell $850k that year, the company’s first big slump after the Recession hit. Of course, 990s are pretty skeletal and don’t reveal very much about thinking processes or options available or conditions encountered.

        Although it may sound that way, I’m not actually defending Center Stage, its decisions or practices, just telling you what I understand. You make these financial matters sound very easy, and I don’t think they are, but that’s just based on my own reporting over the years here.

  4. ArtsWatcher says:

    If it was possible, I would have edited my last comment to note that the deficit was accumulated as I certainly meant to. And, pardon me for being badly worded: I should have said that I do believe you that arts organizations are working to avoid deficits, but an accumulated deficit of 1.2 million does not seem to reflect well on PCS in that respect.

    You are right, 990’s are thin on the details of the reasons of profit and loss, reducing multiple decisions and conversations down to a couple of columns. But over time they can help to paint a picture of the financial health of an organization. I did note that the numbers I had were from June 2011 and I look forward to seeing if the company improved by the same point in 2012 when those forms are available.

    I don’t think these matters are easy nor do I mean to over simplify them, but I do find that many companies are often short sighted when it comes to the decisions between creating art and planning for the future.

    The reason I singled PCS out is that they seem to be the best example of a large organization to possibly be concerned about. While several other companies reported negative income during the same period, PCS is the only major company to report net assets in the red for multiple consecutive years and combined with a long term lack of a managing director it is a situation that would give me pause prior to donating to or sitting on the board of such an organization no matter who they are. But I do mean “possibly be concerned about” as without more access and insight we don’t have, it may be impossible to ever really know.

    But, that was my point. The Miller Foundation may do as it will with their funds as it is their money. But, when organizations start receiving tax money from us, we should know that it is going to a organization that has proven itself to be responsible with the money it already has, so there can be at least some faith that they will be responsible with what monies of ours they are given. Right now, from all that I can find RACC does not have such requirements.

    • Jack Gabel says:

      agreed – fiscal responsibility is a virtue – and curiously (not to build a straw man)it’s never demanded of defense contractors and rarely of mega banks – better known these days as zombie banks – and of course, not that those models are aspirational – on the contrary, they speak volumes as to the decrepit state of the empire – why, in these desperate times, the most compelling art casts in high relief the empire’s misanthropic excesses on it’s approach to an abysmal point of no return… e.g.,

  5. Mr. B says:

    I really enjoyed your article but I feel it’s worth mentioning that the Director of The School of Oregon Ballet Theatre for the past nine years and the person responsible for establishing the culture and work ethic of the school is Damara Bennett.

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