In yet another example of the recession putting a squeeze on state arts organizations, the Maryland Ballet has laid off its 12 dancers for at least 45 days and canceled three performances scheduled for this weekend at the Baltimore Museum of Art.
The five-year-old company decided to go on "hiatus" at an emergency board meeting last week after realizing it had several outstanding bills even after receiving some $80,000 in box-office receipts from holiday performances of the "The Nutcracker," officials said yesterday.
Board president John I. Kohler II said the ballet needed $60,000 to continue operating this year and was moving up a planned February fund-raiser to acquire the money.
He said he hopes to have the funds in hand by the middle of next month, and expects the ballet to resume performing after that. The next scheduled performances are March 1-3 at the BMA.
Raising the $60,000 would be the first step of a previously announced drive to raise $325,000, which Mr. Kohler said last month would give the company "breathing space" and allow it to accept an expected invitation to this year's Spoleto Festival in Charleston, S.C.
The operation of the company's dance school, which has classes for about 100 students, has not been affected by the layoffs, said artistic director Phillip Carman.
Mr. Kohler portrayed the ballet's decision to suspend its performance operations as a desire to avoid the kind of spiraling deficits that forced the Baltimore Opera Company to mount a do-or-die fund-raising campaign last fall to avoid bankruptcy.
"We want to have money in the till before we go ahead [with the season]," he said.
The decision was spurred by a delay in the expected receipt of a substantial contribution from a regular corporate donor and rejection of a $40,000 grant request from the National Endowment for the Arts, he added.
NEA spokesman Josh Dare said it was agency policy not to divulge publicly reasons grant applications are rejected. The NEA gave $6 million in grants to 124 different companies last year, with most of the grants in the $10,000 to $20,000 range, he said.
The funding shortfall became apparent, Mr. Kohler added, when the company's finances were re-evaluated following the unexpected resignation recently of general manager Alexander Holzer.
What Mr. Kohler termed "sacred money" has been set aside for ticket holders who desire refunds for this weekend's performances.
The Maryland Ballet is the latest Maryland arts organization to experience financial difficulties.
Although the opera late last month met its $1 million fund-raising goal, its 1991-92 season will be cut from four to three productions to assure the BOC's operation on a break-even basis.
Also last month, the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra canceled its 1992 tour of Europe because it was unable to raise the necessary $500,000 in corporate underwriting.
The Maryland Ballet -- which has an annual operating budget of $325,000, about a third of which comes from ticket sales -- began operating as the Harbor City Ballet five years ago, shortly after the Baltimore Ballet went bankrupt.
Mr. Carman, who is also the ballet's co-founder, said he considered the layoffs and cancellations "our first major setback" and expressed concern about the impact on the company's quality.
"When you lay dancers off for this long, there's no guarantee they'll be around when you're ready to pick up their contracts," he said.
Company officials would not disclose the dancers' salaries, but most are believed to make between $300 and $400 per week.
Although Mr. Carman said he is "excited" about the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre's residency here, he speculated that competition from a foundation set up to support that arrangement might hurt the ballet's fund-raising efforts.
Those involved in dance locally lamented the ballet's troubles.
"I find it upsetting," said Kathy Wildberger, artistic director of the Path modern dance company, who has run her troupe on a shoe-string budget for a dozen years. "Nothing seems to grow here."