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Commonweal thrives despite tough economy

The tough economy has prompted arts organizations in Minnesota to refocus their efforts. Dropping ticket sales and smaller grants from foundations hit by the downturn have led some to explore collaborations and think in new ways.

In Lanesboro, a coordinated effort to build on the combined attractions of the Root River Trail and area artists has paid off. The Commonweal Theater, which set a record for ticket sales last year, could do better this year.

Artistic Director Hall Cropp said the theater doesn't just rely on its location in a popular tourist destination. In July 2007 it opened a new theater.

"People have found that it's a pleasant place to come," he said.

Cropp said the Commonweal philosophy declares anyone coming through the door is to be treated like a member of the family. They even call everyone who has come to a show within a week.


"We don't ask them for money, we don't ask them to come again," he says. "We just say, 'Thanks for coming, we hope you had a good time.' Let them tell us whatever they want to tell us about their time, and that's the end of the conversation. That has indeed reinforced people's attendance at the theater."

Cropp also credits the Commonweal's success to maintaining high artistic standards and diversifying funding sources to avoid reliance in one in particular.

The broad approach is essential in the current economic climate, said Sheila Smith, executive director of Minnesota Citizens for the Arts.

She points to research from the National Association of State Arts Agencies that only 16 percent of arts organizations expect to end fiscal year 2010 with an operating surplus. Worse, 65 percent of arts organizations have three months or less of cash on hand, which Smith said, "is pretty scary."

"What's been unique about this recession is that all of the different funding sources for arts organizations are being reduced at the same time," Smith said.

For arts organizations, broadening the audience is key.

"A lot of them are also expanding the geographies that they serve, so that they are reaching larger groups of people, which is kind of the opposite of what you would think would happen in terms of an economy," Smith said. "But I think they are trying to build their supporter base by reaching out further."

There is a sense in the arts community that this recession has changed the game. Even as the economy bounces back companies will be leaner and meaner. Many predict a big increase in collaborations of all kinds as organizations not only explore issues of shared interest, but also try to spin funding further.


In Minneapolis, Walker Art Center Director Olga Viso said it's clear arts institutions are thinking in new ways.

"It's a different future. It's a future we may not have imagined," she said. "But I think the challenges are, I think, in propelling a new kind of creativity and ways of working together."

In Duluth, Zeitgeist Arts is trying a different model — one that ties everything together. It recently opened a blackbox theater, a restaurant and two arthouse movie theaters on Superior Street.

"We're six months into all three venues being open, and we are out of the gate strong," said Kat Eldred, CEO of Zeitgeist Arts, and co-executive director of the Zeppa Family Foundation. "We have exceeded expectations."

The foundation owns the building which houses the venues, and provides offices for several other arts non-profits. It sometimes even gives money to outside groups wanting to rent one of the theaters.

Eldred says the downturn hurt the foundation’s funding just as building work was due to begin. However she said that led to creative problem solving using local businesses to offset costs while creating local jobs.

Zeitgeist now has a reputation as an upscale arts destination, at affordable prices, Eldred said.

"Our cafe looks upscale and fancy but you can get a burger here the same here as at any other place in town," she said.


There could be another long-term impact of the recession.

With many Minnesota Arts organizations led by aging baby boomers, the hard times may convince a fair number to step aside, said Neil Cuthbert, vice president of the McKnight Foundation.

"I think there is going to be some interesting stirring of leadership and the opportunity for new leaders, new artists, kind of another generation to start having a greater profile, which I think would be great," he said.

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