Sightlines: What Does it Mean to be Human in this Place & Time?

Article by Corrie Zoll

Corrie Zoll brings an entirely different perspective to our work this month.  He has served as an arts administrator for a number of local arts organizations including Pillsbury House Theatre, and is currently the Executive Director of In the Heart of the Beast Puppet & Mask Theatre.  He writes a thought provoking piece on the dilemmas facing arts organizations attempting to restructure themselves. - Mike Wangen

September marks one year since I joined the staff at In the Heart of the Beast Puppet and Mask Theatre as Executive Director. I’m not too proud to say this is the toughest job I’ve ever taken on. At the same time, more than any other time in my life, I feel I am doing exactly the work I was meant to do. I am privileged to be there.

It’s been two years since HOBT narrowly survived an almost complete financial collapse. HOBT’s money crisis was not unlike those weathered by more than a handful of our esteemed peers in the arts community over the past decade. Producing vital artwork is always a challenge, and continually adapting to a shifting nonprofit economic environment that supports the work adds further risk.

As with our peers, HOBT managed this crisis by cutting back on programming and making appeals to longtime supporters, but (and I'll assume this is true of our peers), the most critical part of survival was the heroic efforts of the staff and artists who stuck around, worked harder, and got paid less. I am grateful for these people and their work, but not proud that the instability of the nonprofit arts sector is so heavily borne by artists who often can least afford it.

HOBT has passed out of that most recent crisis. In August 2016, we finished a second consecutive year on budget, and have plans for aggressive growth. But there should be no doubt that, even two years from this low point of the crisis, we are still rebuilding. In August we hired a Development Director and a Marketing Coordinator, and added capacity for a volunteer coordinator. These are jobs that haven’t been adequately staffed for years. We have still other areas where more capacity is needed, and it will be at least another year until we get there.

In managing a nonprofit turnaround like this, I am often confronted with a choice between rebuilding something that was lost or starting with something completely different. My son told me about a Project Success workshop he attended when he was at South High School. If I remember the story correctly, the teaching artist led an activity in which students built a structure out of popsicle sticks to represent their goals in life. When they were done, they showed off their sculptures. Then, one at a time, the teaching artist placed each of the sculptures into a bag and smashed it to bits. This is when the students were told they were learning a lesson about what sometimes happens with your best laid plans.

The students were then instructed to rebuild something interesting with what they had to work with. When things get smashed up, the only way forward is to start rebuilding. My son told me that the second set of sculptures was without exception more fun to make, and made for more engaging art when they were done, with bits of the original intention showing through in wild, new ways. With popsicle sticks, it’s easy to see that there’s no point in trying to make things look just the way they did before they were crumpled. But, evidently, that is harder to see from within an organization experiencing a turnaround.

In the midst HOBT’s turnaround, I find I need to remind myself – and others – to pay attention to the things we need to restore, while acknowledging that some things will be more solid if they are built, as we say at HOBT, from scratch. HOBT has been through many business models over four decades, starting out with federal CETA funds, passing through the Ford Era, repeatedly reinventing itself through programs like Bush Foundation’s RADP program and implementing tools like the Benevon model. Each of those periods in HOBT history had their value, but they’re gone, and they won’t be back. 

At the same time, the ability to loop back in time is critical. Through various funding and management eras and after repeated boom and bust cycles, at HOBT we see the value in reaching back through these decades to root ourselves in our mission and values. Aside from our mission statement, at HOBT we identify a central question that we ask ourselves. What does it mean to be human in this place and time? It’s a question that withstands a lot of shifting context.

Other Twin Cities arts organizations are doing some very interesting rebuilding with their popsicle sticks. The Southern Theater saved their building by creating a new model for owning and sharing a theater space. Penumbra turned their recovery into a leadership transition and the building of a whole new area of work. And so, as HOBT’s recovery begins to gain speed, what will we build and rebuild?

The most visible question for HOBT is our building. HOBT owns the Avalon Theater at 15th and Lake in South Minneapolis. The Avalon was a 1920s Art Deco movie house, a porn theater in the 1960s and 1970s, and a decaying, abandoned eyesore in the 1980s. When HOBT took over the building in the late 1980s, it was already a distressed building. HOBTs loving renovation made it into what was called a “Puppet Paradise”, but that building is now almost 30 years older, only marginally physically accessible, and has challenges with air quality and safety. The organization has accepted the reality that the status quo is not an option, and that the ongoing future of the organization depends on making a preliminary decision in the coming months about moving toward a solution within the next 2-5 years.

Owning a building has been a challenge for many great Twin Cities arts organizations. Crises at the Southern Theater, the Soap Factory, Bedlam Theatre, Theatre de la Jeune Lune, Patrick’s Cabaret, and others have been heavily influenced by issues of real estate, and for some of these organizations, more than once. HOBT experimented with co-ownership of a second building, and that could not be sustained. Personally, I think we need to move past the trite question about whether an organization with an arts-based mission should also be an expert in property management – as if this were different for a shoe store or any other business. The question is finding the right model to keep arts programming grounded in place for the next decades. Again, multiple arts organizations in the Twin Cities are experimenting with new approaches, with mixed results, some of which are very promising. I feel lucky to have such an interesting pile of popsicle sticks to work with, and am excited to see what we build.