The historic Southern Theater, which nearly collapsed in bankruptcy in 2011, is undergoing a rebirth that will make it into a home for 15 resident companies.
The Southern Theater is more than a century old. Its elegantly aging walls have echoed with the sound of drama, music, and the whisper and squeak of dancer's feet. But in recent years the theater, which has achieved financial solvency only as a barebones rental operation, has been a far cry artistically from its heyday.
But that could change soon. Executive Director Damon Runnals said he and the theater's board launched discussions two years ago to find a new business model to serve the interests of artists, audiences, and the Southern itself. The result is ARTshare, which combines artistic residencies, and revenue sharing with audience memberships.
For $18 a month, members will be able to catch any show. Memberships go on sale on July 22, when the Southern throws a kick-off party from 2 to 6 p.m. at the neighboring Town Hall Brewery.
"They are going to be able to show up any night they want to, if there is something happening at the Southern," Runnals said. "They show their member card. They walk in. They take a seat. It's that simple."
With 200 seats, the Southern is a perfect size for smaller companies to stage new work. It long acted as a producer, serving both local acts and visiting artists. But in 2011 disaster struck. The theater was mired in debt and McKnight Foundation officials accused then-theater managers of mishandling $300,000 in dance grants, mixing the money with the theater's general fund.
Facing a storm of criticism from the arts community, the Southern laid off all but then-Production Manager Runnals and became a rental venue.
"When I took over in 2011 there were two concurrent factors I had to deal with," said Runnals, who became executive director last year.
First, he had to get the theater working well as a rental facility and look for ways to retire outstanding debts. His second challenge was to find a way forward for the Southern.
Runnals said last week that he and the McKnight Foundation have resolved their financial dispute with a confidential agreement. A McKnight Foundation representative confirmed the settlement.
With that out of the way, the theater can turn its attention to selling 2,100 ARTshare memberships. Runnals is confident they will sell out. He compares ARTshare to Netflix, and the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra's successful membership plan.
He said there will be single tickets available for shows, but members will receive priority.
The 15 resident companies at the Southern under ARTshare will primarily be small theaters and dance groups.
"They are here for three years," Runnals said. "Each year they get a single production that is rent-free and then they get a monthly payment through the membership program."
If memberships sell out, each group will receive $11,000 a year - a steady revenue stream that is unusual for small companies. Unlike grant money, which is usually tied to specific projects, they will be able to use it as they like.
Runnals said the Southern will be able to fund the entire program through memberships, even though receives no support from foundations. He said foundations have told him they like the program but want to see it succeed before putting any money behind it.
The theater will give resident companies 10 nights a year for their productions, but the groups will pay production costs.
What's in it for the Southern? That's easy, Runnals said. "ARTshare is a program that will give the Southern permanent art in its space."
Runnals said it's been an easy sell to the companies that have signed up.
"People would look at me and go 'It's a joke right? Like, this is magical Christmas land," said Jessica Briggs, coordinator of the Independent Movement Group dance company. "There's got to be catch somewhere,'" she said. "Well the catch is that you're the guinea pig."
The Independent Movement Group, consists of four choreographers. Briggs, who coordinates their work, said it's an enormous luxury just to know where and when her company will perform for the next three years.
Jason Ballweber, artistic director of the Four Humors company, agreed. He also said as a potential audience member ARTshare makes it much more convenient to see something new.
"I feel like I am more willing to say, 'Oh yeah, I'll go see a dance show, I've already paid for my ticket,'" he said. "If you don't like it you didn't waste any more time you would seeing a crappy movie."
Ballweber, however, predicts people are going to like what they see.
Resident companies involved in ARTshare
• TigerLion Arts
• Swandive Theatre
• Theatre Novi Most
• Main Street School of Performing Arts
• Savage Umbrella
• Blue Water Theatre Company
• Live Action Set
• Black Label Movement
• Theatre Forever
• Four Humors Theater
• Independent Movement Group: Gadu DouShin, Justin Jones
• Kaleena Miller, Pramila Vasudevan
• Sandbox Theatre
• Workhaus Collective
• Sossy Mechanics
• Mathew Janczewski's ARENA DANCES