Save The Southern

28 Apr

Ever since the news of the financial troubles at the Southern Theater broke two weeks ago, we’ve been stewing over it, brainstem twitching and occasionally frothing at the mouth in indignation a bit. When, after several days of colossal silence, the e-mail went out last Thursday asking for $400,000 to keep going, the audacity of that request seemed mind-boggling. After swinging to and fro on the subject like an over-wound pendulum clock, we’re finally just going to write something about it, to get it all out of our bloody system. Yes, the Southern is an amazing space to both see shows and perform. Yes, it would feel like another soul-crushing defeat of artistry and freedom in the face of cold capitalist calculations to see the availability of the space disappear. It may well be as shocking and as torturous a blow as the loss of Jeune Lune as a producing theater space. It is certainly on that scale. The potential loss also demands that we take a hard look, as artists and supporters of the arts, at our structures, and take some real lessons from this entire debacle. To whit, here are the thoughts that keep us from wholly lamenting or throwing ourselves forcefully into the Southern’s fundraising efforts.

1) Get your Board on board. When we say “Save The Southern” who or what are we talking about here? The space, sure, but which people and why? The disclosure of the Southern’s financial woes came after a series of emergency meetings of the Southern’s board that saw a whole bunch of turnover. It probably got ugly in those meetings but this is the same board, which, during the ouster of longtime Artistic Director Jeff Bartlett in 2008 came off as petty and insular and who faltered with the failed appointment of Patricia Speelman. After the emergency meetings, five board members resigned and Susan Lach, former chair of the board was ousted. She is quoted in the Star Tribune as saying “I feel betrayed by this coup, for that’s what it is,” which is nice for her to say after being in charge of a board that has lead an arts organization into a deep hole. Betrayed? Please, get over yourself. A good board can be an invigorating force for an arts organization, a bad board can be dysfunctional and deadly, and if artists want to control their space and activity, taking a measured look at our dependence on boards would be a good take-away. The fact that the current board members are having to conduct an audit to even try and figure out where the finances are seems to point to everyone being in the dark over there for a long time. Try some measure of transparency, at least with yourselves if not with the public, please. Otherwise, this just gets embarrassing.

2) Keep with the changes. Here is the most astounding sentence, from the second point of their belatedly-posted FAQ: “More recently, we have not updated our operating plan for more than four years.” SERIOUSLY? That means you have been operating at 2007, pre-housing bubble collapse levels for the last 4 years? How immeasurably stupid and irresponsible is that? I mean, astounding, glaring, bright neon sign stupid. Art organizations, boards, individuals, please, take heed! Re-evaluate at all times. Assumption, to turn a phrase, is mother of all fuck-ups and thou art wedded to calamity and affliction is enamored of thy parts if you just carry on without checking to see if the ground is still there.

3) Don’t turn your assets into liabilities. Here’s where the frothing really kicks in. The Southern borrowed from grant money intended for artists to pay general operating costs, which is just mind-blowingly stupid, not to mention morally unconscionable for an arts organization. If you look at the budget for any collecting arts organization like the Walker Art Center or the Minneapolis Institute of Arts, there is money set aside for acquisition and upkeep of art, and a whole separate budget for general operating costs, and ne’er the twain shall meet. NEVER. In recessions and times of difficulty when income dips, it is the general operating monies that suffer and lead to hard choices like layoffs (as both the Walker and MIA have since the economy went south in 2008). That standard has been set for visual art institutions and should be no different for performing arts organizations. The explanation proffered that it pre-dates current Executive Director Gary Peterson’s tenure is, frankly, pathetic. If there are any other arts organizations borrowing against money intended for artists to pay general costs, stop it now, get right and fix your ship, otherwise we will come down there and ream you out personally, and you will see your best assets and community building tools turn into liabilities and mistrust.

4) Know your audience and know the margins. The Southern touts a diversity of programming, which it has, but it also means that their audience is more spread out and less consistent. In a post criticizing the upcoming 2011-2012 Guthrie season, Ben Gansky (who, as part of the 1419 collective knows a thing or two about the difficulties of running a creative shared arts space) points out the lack of diversity in the play choices, “Eleven plays by white dudes, directed by white dudes,” in his words. Which is true, but in playing it safe and close to the chest, Joe Dowling has also staked out how he plans on getting butts into the seats to keep the lights on in the Big Blue Box. The Southern, with its scattered programming, has to do more to keep their costs down and get more people in to the space. Yes, we love the space, but we also find them over-priced, both in terms of ticket prices and rental, for the most part, and that makes them unapproachable and distant. So take a look at that. It may seem counter-intuitive, but cutting prices can raise volume and have an aggregate increase in money taken in at the door. You aren’t going to make all your money there, but you may get people more consistently through the door, and those are people you can ask for a couple bucks.

In the end, we can’t be petty and say, “Well, it serves them right”, just to prove a capitalist, free-market point. As others have pointed out, if the Southern were a bank, it would have gotten a bailout, and the process of making art is not a solely an economic function, as this pretty brilliant post from the Bruce High Quality Foundation makes clear. But when the shit hit the fan for Intermedia Arts in 2008, they cut back staff and hours and figured out how to stay open and continue serving their audience as a vital arts organization. When Bedlam Theatre lost their beloved space last summer it didn’t signal an end of the organization or their spirit. Even if the Southern doesn’t raise their $400K, they aren’t talking about shuttering the space immediately. In their FAQ they write:

“If we are not able to raise these funds, we will not be able to have a full season of curated work for 2011-2012. Instead, we will be required to terminate staff, maintaining only one or two critical positions. We will try to present 3-4 performances curated by a contracted curator complimented by the establishment of a commercial and nonprofit rental for the Theater. This plan would keep activity in the Theater following the spirit of our mission while bringing in revenues to help pay down our debt and build our funding base.”

Which is to say, to do what everyone else had to three years ago. Welcome to the times, keep up with them, would you? We like you and want to keep you around. So much so, that if we had $125 lying around, we would go to Southern Exposure on Saturday, which is when everything comes down to the wire. That better be one hell of a party.

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