Australian Ballet loses millions in box office takings as lockdown furthers pain

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The Australian Ballet forfeited $32 million in ticket revenue in 2020, a pandemic blow that it has only survived thanks to an outpouring of community and government support, plus a decision to raid its reserves and sell off investments.

The news comes as Victoria’s latest lockdown forced the company to cancel the Melbourne opening night of its hotly-anticipated New York Dialects, which had been due to run June 3-12. Ticket sales for the entire season have been suspended and the company is considering cancelling or rescheduling the show, due to the difficulty in rehearsing during lockdown.

The company’s annual report, released on Friday, reports a $2.4m operational loss for the year, on a net cash outflow of $6.6m, after it lost more than half its usual annual income.

Dancers from The Australian Ballet perform the dress rehearsal for New York Dialects earlier this year.Credit:James Brickwood

It bucks the trend of many other major arts organisations including Victorian Opera, Melbourne Symphony Orchestra and Sydney Symphony Orchestra which chalked up pandemic profits on the back of continued government funding without the costs of performance.

In a joint statement in the report, chair Craig Dunn and executive director Libby Christie said the closure of theatres last year created immense challenges.

Under lockdown, the company “prioritised keeping our company together and in good shape, in every sense”.

They said they were “most fortunate” to be able to draw on reserves built up “through prudent management and generous philanthropic support over many years”.

The report also reveals the Ballet took out a $15m, two-year loan as an emergency draw-down fund, secured by a mortgage over its Southbank headquarters. However, the organisation is confident it will survive 2021, thanks to a hefty $77.1m in financial assets, including $17m it can use for general purposes. The Australian Ballet drew down $7.3m from those resources in 2020, selling investments that would otherwise have generated income in future years.

In 2019, the company took more than $34m in box office revenue. But that was down to less than $2 million in 2020, as the pandemic closed shows and made touring impossible. The company delivered only nine of its 155 planned mainstage performances.

The loss was compensated by more than $6m from the federal JobKeeper program, which helped the company keep all staff and performers employed. A decision to reduce staff hours and wages saved the company another $3m.

The company was also buoyed by $3.4m from 4500 subscribers and ticket-holders for cancelled shows who decided to donate their value rather than take a refund.

And it saw a surge in philanthropic support, with $5m in gifts, bequests and endowments. The company’s philanthropy director Kenneth Watkins said the year “revealed the true heart and soul of our special ballet community and the depth of their passion as they helped to keep the company alive”.

“Our community’s collective generosity enabled us to keep all our artists, artistic support staff and artisans employed, and to make sure the health and wellbeing of our dancers were prioritised through a comprehensive at-home support program,” he said. “I will be forever grateful.”

Meanwhile, NGV has confirmed that its French Impressionists blockbuster, scheduled to start June 4, will open as soon as restrictions lift, as the gallery finished installing the exhibition before the lockdown.

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