On Friday, Kelowna suffered a tremendous loss to its cultural life when Ballet Kelowna's board announced the company will cease operations in mid-March. In my opinion, this ballet company was the most vibrant, talented and exciting professional arts organization in the Okanagan Valley - if not the whole of the B.C. interior. We shall all be the poorer for its loss.
A non-profit charity, Ballet Kelowna is governed by a volunteer board of directors elected by the membership. While the board certainly has the authority to make a decision to wind down, a non-profit in financial trouble should think first of the communities it serves and give stakeholders an opportunity to come forward to help.
Back in 2003-04, when the Okanagan Symphony was is serious straits, many individuals and businesses, taking their cue from the City of Kelowna and Mayor Walter Gray, contributed. Today the symphony continues to serve thousands of music lovers in our region.
Government funding agencies and foundations, without which our major professional performing arts organizations could not survive, have a lot of "skin in the game" and will normally try to find a way to help artistically important organizations re-organize.
Did the board approach potential sources of short-term financial relief including the Canada Council, the B.C. Arts Council,
the City of Kelowna and perhaps the Central Okanagan Foundation?
No politician likes a plea for a bailout, but Ballet Kelowna has no history of special pleading and a proud record of service. It was worth a try to save the company another mayor used to call Kelowna's ambassadors to the world.
David LaHay, the founding artistic director and the dancers he recruited produced exciting and varied programs that often featured specially commissioned choreography that was at the forefront of Canadian classical dance.
Now, all that professional talent will no longer be available to local lovers of dance nor to the many people throughout B.C. and Alberta who, perhaps for the first time, attended a show and learned how music and movement could be combined into art that is breathtaking in its beauty and complexity.Â
It was always going to be a struggle. New performing companies, no matter how hard they work or how dedicated their volunteers, find it difficult to secure operating funding from governments.
The annual operating grant from the city has remained frozen for many years while costs went up - as costs do. Did the city lose interest? Kelowna's cultural plan for 2012-17 paid
little attention to professional performing arts in what was, charitably, a mediocre document.
The B.C. Arts Council was also not very helpful. Ballet Kelowna received funding for special commissions, but no recognition that, as the "small but mighty" dance company from the Interior, it deserved to join more established organizations that can count on an annual grant to keep the lights on and pay the rent.
Hardly surprising perhaps, since B.C. ranks last among provinces in per capita support for the arts. We can find nearly $1 billion for a convention centre that will never turn a profit and more than half a billion for a retractable roof on an underutilized stadium, but we can't find
10 per cent of Ballet Kelowna's modest budget.Â
Of course, there were other problems. The board relied too much on fundraising events - in a market over-supplied with galas - for private-sector support. As in business, diversification of revenue sources is essential.
Throughout its 10 years of existence, Ballet Kelowna struggled against long odds.
The dancers worked incredibly hard for exceedingly modest salaries. But the joy they derived from their efforts was so evident that it lifted the audience to a special level of pleasure and appreciation. I shall miss them and our region's cultural reputation will suffer.
David Bond is an author and retired bank economist.