Will pirouette for food

Among the many stories in my home town (which happens to be the capitol of California, which happens to be teetering on the brink of insolvency and governmental chaos), one must include the plight of the Sacramento Ballet, which is our only art company with resident artists. Sure, there is worse suffering in town, but when you see ballerinas standing out in the cold like some sort of surreal church carwash (not in costume, thank God) you know something serious is going on.

As I nearly always do when confronted with this sort of news, I asked myself “how could a co-op help this?”

Believe it or not, there is a precedent for such a hare-brained idea: The Louisiana Philharmonic Orchestra.

Now, I suppose I need a little reality check: This sort of thing would be additionally complicated by the overhead of a ballet company (in contrast, an orchestra could really just dress up in their Sunday best and rent a Grange hall). Of course, ballet doesn’t have to be extravagant, and in hard times people might be more interested in a company that operates on a shoestring budget in order to provide the highest quality dancing for the lowest price possible.

Another objection would be that getting a bunch of 13-year-old girls to invest in and govern a company would be challenging, to say the least. However, what we’re really talking about here is the resident dancers who would be the core of the operation. Unfortunately, there are only 20 such dancers and the company reportedly needs about $500,000 to pull through. I’m guessing that most of them don’t have $25K in their mattress.

The good news is that the average year’s Nutcracker production (the company’s cash cow, which brings in about half of its annual income) involves 500 children dancers, whose parents might conceivably be convinced to invest in the opportunity to keep their little darlings dancing. So let’s say that each of these comes up with $100 for their share; that provides $100,000, leaving about $20K per professional dancer. This is still well outside the budget of most dancers. Alas.

Fortunately, co-ops often face this sort of situation of needing more capitalization per member than the average member can hope to invest. They often address this through nonvoting preferred shares, which provide a modest return on investment and do not carry a vote (preserving the democratic nature of the organization).

These could be made available to the purchasers of the 36,000 tickets for the annual Nutcracker run, as well as to parents who are extra-enthusiastic and able to help out beyond the base investment. Let’s say that one in ten attendees buys just one $100 share. That means that we could raise an additional $360,000, which brings us well within range, by the time we add in the investments of dancers and parents.

It would also be possible to set up a cooperative that has multiple classes of owners, both resident dancers and parents. I don’t know any reason why you couldn’t add a third class of season ticket-holders. Or just have the ticket holders be the owners. Heck, something a bit like that worked for the Green Bay Packers. Why not the Sacramento Ballet?

There are obviously a great many questions to answer about this, but I’m just trying to show that this is not outside the realm of possibility. Of course, the time constraints faced by the company and the very real issue of a smaller and cheaper (but just as artistically strong) operation being preferable in the current economic climate means that this might not be the most sensible path forward.

Ultimately, we are going to have some hard choices. This is clear from the recent 10% cut in hours for most state employees and the sudden screeching halt of most public construction projects. Maybe we can’t afford a big fancy ballet company like we’ve been used to having. But even in the worst of times, we still need cultural events.

Actually, scratch that, we need cultural events especially in the worst of times.

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