In case you missed it, Portland’s Oregon Ballet Theatre is at risk of closing up shop at the end of this season unless they raise three quarters of a million dollars by June 30. That’s in twenty-nine days. That would leave Oregon without a full-time resident ballet company.
You should care about this because the ballet company’s future is inextricably linked to Portland’s future, too. And if OBT were to close, Portland would lose one of its most vibrant and promising arts institutions, and the city’s reputation would suffer as a result.
I could make arguments about the myriad ways our flagship dance company contributes significantly to the local economy, the thousands of school children the company serves through its school and educational programs, or the nearly 100 dance artists and administrators it attracts and employs here. And I understand it’s entirely possible that zero of this matters to you if you haven’t actually been out to see Oregon Ballet Theatre in action. Let me put it to you this way: the company is white-hot right now, and has got to be seen to be believed (it made an auspicious Kennedy Center debut last summer).
Under the guiding hand of artistic director Christopher Stowell, OBT has made enormous artistic strides over the last few years: Stowell has done nothing less than transform a ragged regional dance outfit into a sleek, head-turning twenty-first century ballet machine. Yes, there have been artistic and administrative missteps along the way: I wonder if the company doesn’t now regret pumping money into its glossy “Who’s Your Dancer” promotional campaign, or commissioning lame new ballets like Kent Stowell’s “Eden’s Gates.”
But let’s be frank: it’s some kind of crime that major Portland-based corporate philanthropy has never stepped up to sponsor the Ballet (hello, Nike! Hello, Adidas!). Now is not the time to bully those companies into doing so — if OBT does solider on, it will have to show Portland that it can get its organizational act together — but it does once more illustrate how abysmal corporate support for the arts is here. Oh yeah, and there’s no sign yet that Portland city government, headed by friend-to-all-artists mayor Sam Adams, is willing to step up with ballet bailout money, either.
Here! In idyllic, innovative, up-and-coming Portland! It sure makes me wonder about our priorities as a city. I do think OBT is the tops on the PDX arts scene, and certainly worthy of support as they lie on the brink of extinction in these troubled times. But with this latest crisis, we’re finally facing head-on an ugly and unspeakable truth: maybe Portland as a city doesn’t want or need our own full-time resident ballet company. Maybe it’s asking too much to sustain OBT — or for that matter, the Oregon Symphony, which faces its own financial woes, though on a smaller scale — in the way it wants to be sustained.
For those who want to see Portland continue to blossom as a city to be taken seriously, I say this: stick a crowbar in your wallet, people. Pony up already, Portland corporations. Whether we can sustain fine arts institutions like OBT is one major indicator of what will ultimately distinguish us from Memphis or Detroit. It’s what will set us apart from San Diego or Miami.
Portland is at a crossroads. It can be the kind of city where a homegrown, innovative young ballet company flourishes — or fails. Part of the onus is on OBT: to emerge from this crisis a better and smarter arts institution; one as sustainable as the city that supports it. But part of the onus is on us, Portland.
Oregon Ballet Theatre presents “Dance United,” a benefit performance for the company, on Friday, June 12 at Keller Auditorium. Tickets have just gone on sale, and are available online here, or by calling 503-2-BALLET.