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    Dance Victoria’s Stephen White explains how COVID-19-induced problems for small businesses ripple out to arts organizations


    Leslie Campbell

    This is the first in a series of interviews with Victoria businesses and non-profits about how they are weathering the pandemic.


     

    DESPITE STEPHEN WHITE’S WELL-ROUNDED, long-time experience working in arts organizations, he’s never experienced anything quite like the shake-up caused by COVID-19. 

    For 20 years, White has headed up Dance Victoria, a dynamic non-profit which brings world-renowned dance companies to Victoria. The organization also supports the development of dance through commissioning new works, puts on a 10-day dance festival offering free dance classes, and rents out dance studios.

     

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    Dance Victoria’s Executive Producer Stephen White

     

    The five-member management team at Dance Victoria has been holding daily morning meetings, online of course, for the past couple of weeks. To begin with, White tells me, the focus was primarily to make sure everyone in the organization was safe through the end of June. “Our General Manager Bernard Sauvé has been building the budget so we can retain all core staff.”

    While the last performance of the season, Ballet BC’s Romeo & Juliet in mid-March, was cancelled, virtually all those who had bought tickets donated the value back to the company, for which White and crew feel incredibly grateful.

    His greatest anxiety is around Victoria’s small business community. “We’ve been really fortunate to have a lot of sponsorship from the small business community—they’re having the biggest struggle now so our sponsorship campaign is up in the air,” says White. “We’ve never really been successful at getting large corporations as sponsors, so we’ve always been really happy to have so many small businesses as cash sponsors.”

    Small business sponsorships have also helped grow DV’s audience. Tickets provided to sponsors have enabled business owners to invite clients and friends. “Once people have been introduced to live dance performance, they’re likely to return—so it’s been an effective audience development tool,” says White.

    DV also relies on donations. With the volatility in the market, White can’t help but wonder if those who rely on investment income will as readily donate to Dance Victoria in the future.

    Such individual patrons and small business sponsorship together normally constitute about 25-30 percent of DV’s revenues. About 50 percent comes from ticket sales; 15 percent from government; and another 10 percent from studio rentals—which have gone to zero since the “stay home” orders.

    But when one’s back is against the wall,” notes White, “it’s time to innovate…it’s causing all of us to rethink our business models,” which he feels is a good exercise.

    White admits to concern over a possible “residual reluctance for people to gather in large groups, even after we get a green light and restrictions are lifted.” Yet he still feels the work DV has done to build an audience for dance in Victoria will work in their favour.

    I am feeling really grateful for the strength of that community, how engaged they are with dance,” says White, noting that visiting dance companies regularly express how impressed they are with the engagement of the local audience.

    White and crew are now focusing on their next season, feeling some relief that it doesn’t start till November (with Compagnie Hervé Koubi). However, one of DV’s major fundraisers, Cherish: A Glamorous Evening of Fashion and Philanthropy, happens in October. Last year it provided $80,000 in revenues shared equally with Victoria Women’s Transition Centre. Because it relied on scores of cash donations from small businesses, plus silent auction contributions, the team is re-thinking options. Says White, “We are wondering how we can return the loyalty of the small business community.”

     

    Leslie Campbell is the founding editor of Focus—a 32-year-old small business and media outlet in Victoria. She, too, has never experienced anything like this pandemic.

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