Ominous rumblings from the Saratoga Performing Arts Center indicate the future of the New York City Ballet there is again in jeopardy.
William Dake, speaking at his last meeting as SPAC board chairman, said the ballet is proposing a $200,000 increase in the annual fee it will charge SPAC, which would be the second hefty increase in a row. Consideration is being given to cutting the city ballet season from two weeks to one. Were that to happen, many people would see it as a step toward eliminating NYCB altogether from SPAC, and substituting a cheaper — and almost certainly inferior — dance company.
While it would be helpful for NYCB to restrain its costs and fees, its recent record is not as extravagant as SPAC representatives imply. NYCB did increase its fee from $1,429,558 in 2010 to $1,566,327 in 2011. But it lowered its fee the previous year: NYCB charged SPAC $1,540,683 in 2009. And that was down from 2008, when the fee was $1,845,000 — the ballet’s last three-week season. What SPAC lists as “support costs” went from $468,311 in 2008 to $429,923 in 2011.
NYCB Executive Director Kathy Brown told the Gazette that the company has been trying to reduce its longtime losses at SPAC, which were about $1.2 million a year before the season was reduced, and still exceed $500,000 annually. She said the NYCB and SPAC agreed in 2010 to a three-year fee increase to reduce NYCB’s losses, but that SPAC now won’t meet its commitment.
SPAC President Marcia White has a different perspective, saying it cannot afford to absorb all of the ballet company’s losses in Saratoga. She acknowledged the tentative 2010 agreement to raise the fee charged by NYCB, but said SPAC has lost a major sponsor since then (HSBC Bank), and needs to find ways to cut expenses. White said NYCB must make further efforts to reduce costs, for example on lighting and, especially, on overtime and other staffing.
The ballet and the even more expensive Philadelphia Orchestra are a financial burden, perennially tempting SPAC management to contemplate how much easier life would be without them. But, as SPAC leaders are well aware, the ballet and orchestra are also the reason the facility was built with public money and has continued to get occasional capital subsidies over the years.
SPAC was founded to support and showcase the arts, with NYCB founder and artistic director George Balanchine involved in its construction. It is supposed to be primarily a forum for high culture, as demonstrated by the city ballet backed by its own live orchestra. If it ceases to be such a forum, then it will no longer be worthy of public subsidy.
The Capital Region is doing better economically than most of New York state, which is doing better than most of the country. And Saratoga County has long been the fastest growing part of the region, with a plethora of wealthy tourists and summer people around SPAC’s home of Saratoga Springs. The county’s growth is accelerated by the new Global Foundries computer chip plant in nearby Malta, and SPAC and the ballet help attract that kind of investment by enhancing the region’s quality of life. The national recession is easing. There should now be scope for increased fund-raising and audience-building — and it’s worth bearing in mind that members of the public buying tickets are a key part of the solution.
There also needs to be a spirit of continued goodwill and compromise between these two worthy institutions, so that the New York City Ballet can remain in permanent residence at Saratoga with no further diminishment of its season.