Editor’s Note: From time to time we like to take a little deeper dive on stories or trends happening here in the Twincy Arts & Culture scene. And with the ever-changing character of our hometown changing even more this year and last than usual, we asked writer Anthony Iverson if he’d be so kind to ask around on the topic of arts institutions going through major transitions—some even going on hiatus next year or for good.

The artistic landscape of MPLS + STPL spans broad and deep. It’s flush with legacy mainstays and DIY hustlers, frequented by art-lovers young and old, experienced and curious, routine and casual.

Word of mouth in this environment can to spread like wildfire. Well-kept secrets last about as long as the summers around here, as carefully hidden gems suddenly bloom into full-blown institutions, and novices quickly become experts. 

The same, unfortunately, can be said about the dissolution of some of these artistic entities, something that seems to be appearing more and more frequently in headlines: “Red Eye Theater says goodbye to its space of nearly 30 years;” “In the Heart of the Beast Mayday Theatre celebration taking a year off;” “Facing revenue shortfall, St. Paul Chamber Orchestra cuts Liquid Music Series;” “Northern Lights.mn to Take a Year Off from the Northern Spark Festival in 2020 to Plan for the Future.” These headlines, along with many others, have all appeared in the past year, seemingly indicating a shift in interest, funding, capacity or a combination of all three.

These institutions—the likes of Intermedia Arts, In the Heart of the Beast, Red Eye Theater, Patrick’s Cabaret, the Liquid Music Series and the recently resurrected Soap Factory—have nestled their way into the fabric of the Twin Cities arts community over the years in one way or another. 

So what’s the deal? Why is the established support of these organizations evaporating at what feels like all at once? It turns out it’s a complicated confluence of factors related to space, funding and resources.

For something like In the Heart of the Beast, it can be a complex combination of funding and capacity. HOBT’s Mayday Parade was such a hit for decades that the bar of success kept rising year after year to the point where it became unsustainable. The event itself simply outgrew HOBT’s capacity. Unable to source additional funding, HOBT has now announced that they will forego hosting the Mayday Parade next year in order to plan ahead for May 2, 2021.

From HOBT’s September 11, 2019 press release:

“Over the last four months, we, the HOBT Leadership Team, have heard from more than 500 community members and artists about their dreams for the future of HOBT’s MayDay. Themes drawn from this feedback support what we have known for years but have only now documented: MayDay in its current form is not only unsustainable financially and logistically, the creation process systematically marginalizes and appropriates the work of artists of color. This cannot be allowed to continue.”

But the funding and capacity issue isn’t unique to HOBT. Herman Milligan, who has consulted for struggling arts institutions like Intermedia Arts and the Soap Factory, views this sort of thing as imbedded in the tumultuous relationship between art and business. Milligan has established himself as an authority figure of sorts in both of these worlds, serving on numerous arts boards over the years (including Artspace Projects, Juxtaposition Arts and Soo Visual Arts Center, to name a few) while also making a name for himself in the business world by focusing on things like market research and competitive intelligence.

“Organizations need to understand their capacity,” he says. “Don’t exceed what you can do. If it means scaling back, you scale back. If you bite off more than you can chew, it may come back to haunt you in a big way.”

A major aspect of the struggle facing arts organizations is tied to the trend of corporations like Target and Wells Fargo yanking funding from arts and social services nonprofits. The former recently announced its plans to reallocate a large swath of its grant funding toward efforts serving equity throughout the community. However commendable an effort this may be, it doesn’t account for the fact that this now creates a vacuum of funds for arts organizations that have become dependent on that support.

Target isn’t amending sponsorships for art enterprises like the Minneapolis Institute of Art, the Walker Art Center or the Children’s Theater, but what’s to say of those DIY hustlers that might exist because of this kind of funding—like, say, Liquid Music? Those funds can be the life and death of a nonprofit arts organization, and taking that away can abruptly leave talented, dedicated people out of work.

“I’m seeing many Twin Cities arts institutions in holding patterns due in part to the decrease in local corporate support,” says Kate Nordstrum, executive producer and curator for the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra’s Liquid Music program.

Fresh off a speaking engagement at a convention in France focused on arts funding, Nordstrum notes that the United States doesn’t offer arts presenters governmental support like countries in Europe or Asia do, which ultimately puts much more pressure on things like ticket sales, individual donations and corporate funding.

“What we often lose in the corporate withdrawal of support is a willingness by arts organizations to take risks and explore new ground,” she says. “The hard part is that risk-taking and new ventures require investment to get to stability.”

Despite this being the final Liquid Music season, she adds that she is actively looking to stay in Minneapolis because of family and her ties to the local arts scene, despite job offers from around the country.

“For a community that prides itself as artistically progressive and ahead of the curve, we are vulnerable when those who love making work happen here get more serious attention from arts employers outside of town,” she says. “There is always a way to work around the system though—and that’s what you have to find. It is interesting to see what emerges when you don’t rely on the obvious path.”

Artists, Space, Growth and the Murky Nexus of Gentrification

Another incoming threat to smaller arts institutions around the area is quite literally looming over all of us. It certainly feels like Minneapolis-St. Paul is headed straight toward a housing bubble in 2019, and you don’t have to look far to find artists that have already been affected by rising rents and towering apartment complexes.

Gamut Gallery felt the early ramifications of the housing boom that is now bulldozing everything in its path back in 2015. Their initial downtown location was demolished and eventually replaced by condominiums, displacing what was then an important artspace for downtown Minneapolis.

“It was a tumultuous, trying experience,” says Cassie Garner, co-owner and director of Gamut Gallery.

After scrambling to find a new space, the gallery eventually landed in Elliot Park, a few blocks south of where U.S. Bank Stadium now resides. But even after four successful years in a space Garner describes as even better than its predecessor, the gallery still can’t escape the ominous sprawl taking over all parts of Minneapolis. Just down the block from Gamut Gallery yet another super condo has popped up.

“So what does that mean for us?” asks Garner. “Does it mean we’re going to get foot traffic? That’s the question I’m trying to figure out. We have all these condos popping up all over Minneapolis, and we have all these people moving into them. But where are they engaging? What community are they establishing themselves into?”

The threat of being squeezed out of a community at any given time is something many arts organizations face when they don’t own the building they operate in, which Milligan estimates is no more than 30 percent nationally. And they face that problem at a time when corporations are withdrawing support and international developers are bulldozing the community surrounding them.

Ownership as a means of survival is something the new owners of the Parkway Theater hope will protect them from the urban sprawl taking over the area. The Parkway is a prime example of a longstanding institution—one that is nearly 90 years old—that seemed to bite the dust, but that is now back and better than ever.

For Parkway Theater co-owner Eddie Landenberger, a real estate broker and developer, owning the building you operate in serves as a first line of defense against volatile urban development.

“Real estate and arts groups—it’s as old as time. Artists make a space and they become popular and then things get developed and rents go up,” he says. “We wouldn’t have [resurrected the Parkway] without being able to control our own destiny in the real estate.”

“Artists are great at coming in and helping communities turn around,” says Milligan. “There’s research that says it’s not the artists’ fault. It’s not their fault that they come in, they innovate and make it cool, and all of a sudden they get moved out. That’s a global phenomenon.”

Both Landenberger and Milligan touch on the importance of artists working with people who have experience on the business side of things, particularly in today’s tumultuous real estate and funding environment.

“Artists shouldn’t all have to become real estate developers to do their art,” says Landenberger. “It’s a technical field that involves financing and architecture and regulations and building codes.”

Milligan describes consulting with some arts organizations that are hesitant to treat their work as a business for fear of “selling out.” But he poses a similar point as Landenberger: now is not the time to go it alone.

“Developing those kinds of business skills doesn’t happen overnight. And if you’re going to take that risk [by doing that part on your own], you better be able to manage that risk in case those projections don’t come out in your favor so you don’t sink the boat,” he says. “Organizations have to be smarter about not taking risks that will put them in jeopardy. Part of it is the learning around how organizations should work and market themselves.”

But it isn’t all bad news for the local arts scene. If you look at the Minneapolis Creative Index of 2018, you’ll see that Minneapolis ranks eighth in the nation in CVI value, a metric designed to calculate a combination of community arts participation and occupational employment in the arts, resulting in an estimated $5 billion pumped into the Minneapolis economy alone.

“If we start to get really serious about the number side of it—the analytical side—there is a lot of stuff happening [in Minneapolis],” Milligan says.

What Gives? And When Will It Give?

It seems to be a combination of these various factors occurring simultaneously. Funding may be drifting away from the arts, but consumers are still purchasing art and tickets to shows. Gentrification may be imposing a serious threat on galleries and theaters, but people are still frequenting those spaces.

Perhaps it’s just a matter of continuing to think of new ways to present and market art. Maybe reexamining the parameters by which we judge and define an artist’s success is the key to capturing a better picture of the broader scene’s drawbacks and accomplishments.

“The redefinition of space is also happening,” says Landenberger. “Do you need a permanent gallery space? What does that actually give you? It’s a big conversation to tackle. We sometimes make the mistake of thinking that having a building makes an institution.”

Milligan points to a prime example of this in many artists adapting a digital-first approach to marketing their work, as well as something like Mark Schoening and Dawn England’s Porch Gallery, where they turn their living room into a homemade, street-facing art gallery.

For Garner, the survival of the broader arts scene lies in local quid-pro-quo collaboration.

“Networking and building each other up is going to be beneficial for everybody in the art scene,” she says. “And a lot of the galleries we talk to, we’re all on the same page—we always recommend one another. When people come in to visit Gamut who may be from out of town, I’m always sending them to other galleries throughout the city.”

Luckily that sort of communal collaboration and neighborly solidarity isn’t hard to find. And despite the funding shifts and changing landscapes, while some of the longstanding arts institutions shift in major ways, the vibrancy of the MPLS + STPL arts scene continues to rise alongside the gaudy condos and the Cities’ creative spirits.

by Anthony Iverson