Artists respond to the close of the Loring Theater

Last week the folks who run the Loring Theater announced they would be shutting their doors on December 31.

Such announcements often spark debates in the arts community. What went wrong? Could it have been avoided? And what does this mean for the rest of us?

I asked folks in the business to share their thoughts on the Loring’s situation – here are some of the responses I got:

Dean J Seal, writer, performer and previous Fringe Festival director, blames the location of the Loring Theater, formerly known as “The Music Box:”

The Music Box is a venue with location and parking problems. It is a great space, but off the beaten track, and has no lot immediately adjacent to the space. Minnesotans hate walking. I am guessing they loaded up with staffing overhead and couldn’t make the nut every single week. It was used successfully by the MN Fringe for 2 years, but that was as part of a festival, with a crowd that liked walking, in the summer, with a couple hit shows. Longer term programming would need a hook of some kind that could overcome the natural geographic difficulties of the space. It was built before a freeway cut the neighborhood in half, so the problems weren’t inherent to the space initially. But it’s a dead zone now.

Actor Steve Hendrickson thinks the space itself is the issue:

I believe part of the Loring Theatre problem is the renovation the facility underwent in the mid-90s after the Cricket Theatre was kicked to the curb. It’s no longer a useful venue for conventional theatre production. The auditorium is now deep and narrow, making it a hard venue for intimate productions. At the same time, the stage has little wing and fly-space making it unsuitable for larger (musical) productions. It can be a great space for concerts and specialty events like “Triple Espresso” but there may not be enough of these to keep the facility in the black.

Paul Wilson, a former full-time artist who now sits until recently sat on the board of the group Cantus and works in the financial sector, wonders if the theater was a bad fit for the organization:

As harsh as it may sound, I think this may be a great opportunity for another up-and-coming arts organization to come in and make something amazing out of that space. If The Directors, LLP couldn’t get butts in seats, there was clearly a disconnect between their artistic model and their business model. Maybe a 200-seat venue would have been more appropriate for them – one with lower fixed costs.

Gallery owner Stephen Sugarman thinks there aren’t enough people locally to fill the audiences of the numerous venues all over the Twin Cities:

Really we just dont have the population say like Atlanta , NY , LA Miami to fully support such a large and diverse arts community -anbd I belive that is the state of the arts in MN -the big question how do we change the M.O. of this community for the better in near and in the distant future. If MN realy belives that the arts are important to our culture -and in my case, I’m talking visual arts – then we are going to need to bring the buyer/the market to MN.

For some, news of the Loring also brought up memories about the collapse of the Southern and the closing of Theatre de la Jeune Lune.

Dancer John Munger worries that such closings speak to the loss of “the middle class” of the arts.

It is a grave concern because the “99% vs 1% dynamic” moves so many things closer and closer to a polarization where big theaters –arts palaces — win, the alternative such as scruffy small venues like Bryant Lake Bowl (Which I love and where I choose mostly to produce and perform) or Patrick’s Cabaret survive anyway because they’re tough, inexpensive and the nobles in the castle don’t really care what the villagers do. But I argue that, just as in the economic picture, there needs to be a middle class in the performance world. It is a grave concern if a mid-level venue like The Loring is another victim of the endlessly ferocious war between various opposing political and economic persuasions.

Christine Chernis Brandt worries about the health of non-profit boards:

I have been in nonprofit arts management all my life, mainly in other communities, and I find repeatedly that boards do NOT understand their fiscal responsibility. Few raise funds appropropriately and support their artists correctly.

Robin Gillette, Director of the Minnesota Fringe Festival, argues that business skills need to be an inherent part of the arts:

I’d argue that the skills necessary to operate a building are different (and more business-oriented) than the skills necessary to create art – when people with skills in one area assume that that gives them skills in the other area, there’s often trouble. Without complete government subsidy of the arts (which I’m NOT lobbying for), I think there does need to be an element of “business” in art to keep the lights on.

John Munger was not alone when he questioned the amount of media time and money invested in sports compared to the arts:

Consider, for example, the Vikings. They might put 45,000 in the Metrodome. But they only do it eight times. Every weekend of the year at least one and as many as dozens of theaters are presenting work. That’s not just eight times nor even 52 times. A Thursday-Fri-Sat run pumps one single 52 week theater to about 156 presentations. And how many theaters are there? And so forth. I keep going with the simple arithmetic, but the point becomes compelling once one stops to think.

Finally playwright Dan Pinkerton wonders if it’s simply natural for an organization to close its doors:

Can’t we ever accept failure? Can’t we ever mourn a loss without launching a screed against everyone else? It’s a shame the Loring Theatre closed, but we still have a LOT of theatres in the Twin Cities, and a very exciting, diverse group they are.

What do you think? Share your thoughts in the comments section.