Whither Southern?

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For the past thirty years the Southern Theater stage has been home to more dance concerts than any other stage in the Twin Cities.

Ten days ago the Southern Theater’s board and administrative staff named tonight as its deadline for raising $400,000, a sum they said was necessary to keep the theater running without major layoffs and programming changes.

So I went to the Southern Theater’s annual fundraiser “Southern Exposure” – the culminating event in the ten-day campaign – in the hopes of gaining a better understanding of just what the organization is going through, and just what are its chances of pulling through.

BTW – there are two stories you should read if you haven’t already to better understand the background on this story. Rohan Preston writes about the financial mismanagement that led to the McKnight Foundation pulling its support of the theater here.And Sheila Regan outlines the historical context – which in part led to the Southern’s most recent financial crisis – here.

What both those articles show, in short, is that the Southern Theater is in a financial mess, and that this situation is nothing new. It has simply gotten worse.

And perhaps that is why fundraising over the past ten days hasn’t been more successful.

As of 5:30pm today, according to Executive Director Gary Peterson, approximately 350 individual donations had come in. But there wasn’t much to show for in terms of substantial donations from corporations or foundations.

According to Peterson, one New York foundation had made a promise of $50,000 if it could be matched in the Twin Cities. To date, no local corporation or foundation has made such a contribution.

Tonight’s event could have been better attended, as well. According to Southern staffer Kate Nordstrom, they sold approximately 150-170 tickets for the event, at $125 per seat. The theater seats 213, and according to its website, can comfortable host up to 290. Many of those who showed up were artists who perform at the Southern – Adam Levy, Ananya Chatterjea, and Dominique Serrand, among others: not the sort of people who can offer up thousands of dollars at the drop of a hat.

With its silent and live auctions and various other games designed to part people from their money, the party raised well over $20,000 – we’ll learn the final numbers early next week. But that is just a fraction of what the institution needs to remain viable.

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According to Board Chair Anne Baker, the Southern had already raised more than $50,000 in individual contributions by the party’s start (although she wouldn’t specify how much). Speaking at the beginning of the evening, Baker said the Southern set out to raise $400,000 in part “to be accountable for past mistakes and to move forward allowing the Southern to continue presenting its work while building a sustainable business model.”

But frankly, it is a transparent explanation of past errors, and a clear path toward future financial responsibility that has so far been missing from the Southern’s story. While the Southern management put out a sort of question and answer sheet on its website, many of the statements left me with further questions.

We have not updated our operating plan for more than four years. Why?

We did not conduct an appropriate amount of fundraising to pay down the amount of the borrowed funds. Again, why?

It is our belief that no individual personally benefited directly from the borrowing against McKnight programming funds and that no embezzlement of funds occurred.

“Belief?” How can you not know?

I asked Gary Peterson, how is it that amidst a recession, and with a history of financial problems, the Southern Theater did not tighten its belt like other organizations, but instead launched more ambitious and costly programming, including bringing in cutting-edge musicians from New York and elsewhere?

His response: “We pushed our programming specifically to get the community more engaged and invested in the Southern. Did we do too much, too fast? Maybe.”

Talking with people mingling on the Southern stage, I found a myriad of opinions about the state of the Southern.

Dominique Serrand, who lived through the demise of his own company Theatre de la Jeune Lune, blamed the hypocrisy around arts funding:

“In this country if you want to survive as an arts organization, there are days you have to take money from the right drawer and put it in the left [referring to the Southern's commingling of funds]. Really, for any arts organization to survive in this climate is a miracle.”

Patrick Scully, of Patrick’s Cabaret, who got his start performing on the Southern stage, blames the 501(c)(3) non-profit structure:

“The whole framework is not sustainable. Boards of directors are made up of volunteers, and the staff have to give their blood, sweat and tears to keep an organization alive. It’s a very difficult system to keep going.”

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But David O’Fallon, head of the Minnesota Humanities Commission, and longtime arts education leader, places equal blame on the Southern’s leadership.

“They’ve had a board in crisis for 3-4 years now. It’s not a question of the artistic quality of what goes on here, it’s the management.”

When asked what he thinks of the explanation that the current Southern board inherited a legacy of financial mismanagement, O’Fallon responds “Bulls**t.”

“If after three years you’re still saying ‘we’re dealing with a legacy of mismanagement’ – well that means you really haven’t been dealing with it, have you?”

Still, O’Fallon was there tonight to support the Southern, because, as many people said throughout the evening, the performing arts venue plays a key role within the broader arts ecosystem.

It’s doubtful that the Southern reached its goal tonight of $400,000, but that doesn’t mean the 101-year-old venue will shut its doors. Kate Nordstrom says early in the coming week there will be updates on the theater’s financial situation. Some possible deals are in their early stages, and so we’ll only learn the details as they are made available.

And perhaps that is the greatest frustration with this story; we are only given bits and pieces to muddle over, and never a clear view of the whole.

  • http://3minuteegg.org Matt Peiken

    Marianne, another unasked “why” — Why would anyone donate a penny to the Southern right now under its current leadership?

    Explanations have been vague and almost dismissive about what happened, and there’s no language coming from the Southern about what, exactly, the board and management plan to do about the situation. There’s been no admission of wrong-doing, no plan for correcting the course and no vision for how anything would be different if, under some gift from the moneyed gods, the Southern can raise enough money to remain open as anything other than a rental house.

    I’m a supporter of the Southern, its staffers and the artists who perform there — hey, why doesn’t the money raised last weekend go to the artists the Southern has stiffed? — but I don’t see the good in a bailout if the same captains are to continue steering the ship.