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Ballet Kelowna: Board president clarifies budget woes

Davin Luce - Contributed
Davin Luce
— image credit: Contributed

There will be $8,000 to $15,000 in the coffers for Ballet Kelowna to start anew, members will be told in a final meeting this week.

Despite significant publicity over the demise of the company, Jamie Maw, president of the Ballet Kelowna board of directors, says the fledgling society has only solicited $12,000 in donations since its financial problems became public.

It’s not nearly enough to make the $180,000 needed to pay off the company’s $80,000 deficit and begin the next year with operational funding.

“People say, well, if you put out the call to the public last September you would have gotten more. We think we might have gotten a little bit more, but not nearly what was required,” said Maw, in an interview with the Capital News heading into Wednesday evening’s final performance with Ballet Kelowna members.

“…Arts come below health, and I’m afraid to say, ballet comes toward the bottom of the arts list, especially in a recessionary economy,” he added.

A skeleton board will be struck at the meeting to bring the company to what is being terming a “safe landing,” ensuring all debts are paid.

Meeting that obligation requires the board to continue with the company’s Flower Power fundraiser, June 12, to help cover costs like the dancers’ salaries, debts to venues for performances and choreography fees owed to artistic director David LaHay.

There will be no last minute turnaround from the directors presently holding the purse; this group of volunteers is done. And it has not been a pleasant ending.

“It was pretty hard for us to take, as a board, that we were these villainous figures in suits behind the scenes pulling strings,” said Maw, noting he admits there have been some communication gaffs.

First and foremost, a meeting intended to give the arts community time to discuss the loss was ill-thought out, in his view, and unfortunately fate dealt it a difficult blow when Maw learned of a death in his family immediately beforehand and could not step forward to speak.

He asks the critics to remember that a board of directors is comprised of volunteers and, unlike a corporation, it does not have a communications team on standby for advice.

What the board did do  is consistently raise hundreds of thousands of dollars to keep the company afloat and their efforts just were no longer meeting the bar.

“We were a fundraising engine, but the engine looked like an aging four-cylinder running at 12,000 rpms about 360 days of the year,” he said.

Last year, for the first time despite several rounds of arts funding cutbacks, the society carried over a deficit of $35,000 and the help wasn’t there when the directors started trying to solicit funds.

The past year had been spent asking for donations and courting private donors who might traditionally step forward.

Even a matching funds program failed to generate much revenue.

“The (Kelowna) Rockets are down in their attendance. It’s the big unsaid thing up here. There is a malaise in the economy. People are struggling. They just don’t want to share it too widely,” said Maw.

While the symphony managed to fall $400,000 into debt a decade ago—and use government funds and private donations to dig itself out over a two-year period—this board of directors faces a different economic reality.

The company’s legal council has told them the individual directors cannot be held personally liable, should the company go bankrupt, as long as each acted in good faith. The company does have insurance, but it was not an option the directors felt comfortable risking.

“We could never go there thinking we could throw it back on our insurer,” he said. “That would just be terribly irresponsible thinking.”

Maw does see a flaw in the ballet company itself. Noting that dance is all over television and the Dancing With the Stars fundraiser locally was very successful, he suggests the organization might have learned from the restauranteurs who are reconceptualizing to meet a broader audience, or symphony director Rosemary Thomson who consistently incorporates populist elements in her programs.

Whatever the solution might have been, he said the death knell for this company really materialized late fall.

The organization’s Hot Holiday Homes, a third fundraiser added to the society’s event roster, fell $9,000 under target in only its second year.

It proved to be a clarion call going forward and one that prevented the directors from moving forward with the signature fundraiser, Pirouette, in good conscience.

Generally a $100,000 to $115,000 event, the directors knew it might not bring in the full sum either—the walls were crumbling.

Ballet Kelowna would likely qualify for the Canada Council grants and B.C. Arts Council money to eliminate the need for this level of fund-raising within a year, but the “mezzanine bridge to get from here to there was a $180,000 liability,” Maw said.

As such, come Wednesday evening, it is expected Ballet Kelowna will be put in order piece by piece and leave a giant pile of lessons for social enterprise boards and arts enthusiasts everywhere.

And the board of directors will hang up their hats after a very tumultuous final six months.

“I think the real, truthful message got away on us,” said Maw.

“…I hope that when organizing new or other arts organizations that people will realize just how difficult it is in a market this size.”

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