Minneapolis' May Day parade searches for a path forward

Nell Nere of St. Paul patches up a paper mache frog puppet.
Nell Nere of St. Paul patches up a paper mache frog puppet on Thursday for In the Heart of the Beast Puppet and Mask Theatre's annual May Day parade and festival. "It's a fun, community event," said Nere, who has taken part for 11 years.
Christine T. Nguyen | MPR News

For 45 years, the May Day parade has ranked up there with robins and daffodils as a sign of spring's arrival in the Powderhorn neighborhood of south Minneapolis. But now, financial setbacks have made the parade's future uncertain.

Volunteers at In the Heart of the Beast Puppet and Mask Theatre are hard at work preparing for this year's parade, despite the setbacks. Executive Director Corrie Zoll explained that, most years, the parade operates at a loss.

"I think we approximately broke even and made it two years ago," Zoll said. "I think near as I can tell, it's been at least a decade, and quite possibly multiple decades, that this has been an event that In the Heart of the Beast ... subsidizes to make possible."

The May Day Parade started out as a gift from a scrappy, struggling arts organization to the scrappy, struggling community it lived in. But over the years the event has grown dramatically. Last year, 60,000 people thronged to the Powderhorn neighborhood to take part in the May Day festivities.

Between city permits, security and staffing, the parade now costs approximately $200,000 to put on. Meanwhile, In the Heart of the Beast has experienced some of the same funding pressures afflicting other arts groups.

Community volunteers come together to build puppets during workshops.
Artists and community volunteers come together to build the puppets for In the Heart of the Beast's annual May Day parade during a public workshop on Thursday. Around 60,000 people attended the annual festivities in the Powderhorn community.
Christine T. Nguyen | MPR News

Last year, some of the theater's regular funders chose not to renew their commitments, eliminating $130,000 in funding. Zoll described the situation as dire, but not unusual. He pointed to other mid-sized arts nonprofits that have closed in the past few years — Bedlam, Patrick's Cabaret, Intermedia Arts. Several more have all but closed: the Soap Factory, Red Eye Theater, Zenon Dance.

"And those are all small to mid-sized arts organizations that have been around for at least 25 years," he said. "The business model that is used for mid-sized arts organization and has been relied upon by mid-sized arts organizations in Minnesota for a generation or two just doesn't work anymore."

Zoll said some local foundations have stopped giving general operating grants to arts nonprofits. On top of that, he said, given the current political climate, individual donors feel more compelled to give money to immigration reform or the environment than to a puppet theater. With this new reality, Zoll said, In the Heart of the Beast simply can't put on the May Day parade by itself anymore. So he's looking for other organizations to partner with.

A paper mache frog and dragonfly are hung up to dry.
A paper mache frog and dragonfly are hung up to dry Thursday at In the Heart of the Beast Puppet and Mask Theatre in Minneapolis. This year's May Day festivities theme is "Beloved Community."
Christine T. Nguyen | MPR News

At a recent parade workshop, volunteers and staff artists brainstormed ideas to turn May Day into a more sustainable celebration. May Day parade founder and artistic director Sandy Spieler watched and listened. More than a year ago, she told staff she was planning to make this the last May Day parade she led. She wanted to make way for new leadership.

"And so then when the theater became so fragile, then the public story became really different," she said. "And people picked it up, like 'Oh, this is the last May Day,' and then suddenly it seems like me stepping back is connected to that."

In light of the dire financial news, In the Heart of the Beast's board decided to drastically cut back staff. By the end of May approximately 75 percent of the staff will have been laid off, including Spieler. It's not how she wanted to end her career at In the Heart of the Beast, she said, but she recognizes that this is a time of transition.

"I hope May Day thrives and survives and I hope that the generations coming forward can find the joy in the forms of building and being on the street together," she said.

Younger generations of artists are coming forward. Junauda Petrus is one who testified before the Legislature, arguing the May Day parade should get funding through Minnesota's Legacy Amendment.

Petrus grew up in south Minneapolis and loved going to May Day. Later she worked as an artist on the parade; she created a section that alternately took on issues like Black Lives Matter, queer identity and the death of Prince.

The May Day Parade heads down Bloomington Ave.
Each year the May Day Parade has a different theme in recognition of current events. The theme for the 2019 parade is "Beloved Community." As part of the parade, the Minnesota DNR is donating more than a thousand trees which attendees can take home to plant.
Courtney Perry for MPR News 2014

"It was like beautiful and magical and it's like the best thing," she said. "It's like giving birth to the most beautiful parade."

Petrus wants to see May Day continue, but she said it needs to change significantly in order to be truly equitable and sustainable: Artists need to be paid a living wage; the leadership needs to reflect the diversity of the community, and the city and state should step up to support what has become a cultural gem.

Corrie Zoll agrees. He's just not sure what the path forward looks like.

Large-scale puppets represent the sky, woods, prairie and river.
Large-scale puppets representing the sky, woods, prairie and river are displayed at In the Heart of the Beast Theatre on Thursday.
Christine T. Nguyen | MPR News

"We are not broke," he said. "We will get through our fiscal year with a little bit of cash left in the bank. The payroll is running on time. We're paying our bills on time.

"But when we look out as far as May Day 2020, we can see that there just isn't enough support there. I do think in the end it will be about the people of Minnesota."

May Day 2019 takes place on Sunday, May 5. In the Heart of the Beast is still taking volunteers and donations.

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