Artistry in crisis: Arts organization struggles to recover from financial shortfall
Updated: 10:22 a.m. Tuesday, Jan. 10. Posted: Jan. 9
Vanessa Brooke Agnes was excited to be directing “Godspell” at Artistry Theater in Bloomington, Minn. She had prepared a team of designers and had already cast the show.
“We had been having several production meetings, talking to designers, developing what we wanted the look and feel of the show to be,” Agnes said.
A few days before rehearsals were set to begin early September, Agnes and her production team were told that Artistry was in a budget shortfall. They would have to postpone the show for a year.
“It was a sudden shock to me and to all of us,” Agnes said. “We hadn't really had any indication that artistry was struggling financially.”
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Initially, only “Godspell” was postponed for the season. But as months went on, the severity of Artistry’s financial woes became clear.
Artistry is an arts organization that is more than 50 years old, but in November it announced that it had laid off most of its staff and was postponing and canceling several shows and community education programs.
Those who bought tickets to “Godspell” are in limbo. Artistry’s interim executive director Kelli Foster Warder says refunds are currently not an option. Patrons may consider donating the funds, or possibly transfer them to a future show.
“On all of the tickets — this is at Artistry and many other theaters — [it says] right on the tickets that they are non-refundable,” said Foster Warder. “To be totally honest, the situation we are in ... we don’t have the money.”
The uncertainty chilled production.
Artistry hired C. Ryan Shipley to produce his original musical “Holidays with Bing.” He says Artistry’s communication with him about budget and contracts was minimal. He ultimately decided not to do the show.
“I felt a lot of anger and frustration,” Shipley said.
Tyler Michaels King was set to direct “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee” for Artistry this spring, another production that, like “Godspell,” is slated to be postponed.
“Being known locally, most[ly] as a performer, and wanting to expand into direction, it would have been a huge opportunity for me,” Michaels King said.
Among the staff members laid off is Erin Holt, Artistry’s former manager of community partnership. Holt believes Artistry’s board should have stepped in sooner, but she attributes the organization’s initial financial issues to “a series of unlucky situations” and mistakes.
“It's not just, you know, kind of gross negligence or anything,” Holt said.
In late 2021, Artistry’s long-time accountant retired, followed by a revolving door of replacements. A lower-than-expected return of audiences from COVID-19 also contributed to the estimated $600,000 to $700,000 shortfall, according to Board President Patrick Milan.
“The things that we needed to pay off were things like royalty fees, licensing fees for shows that we've done,” Milan said. He also said credit card debt needs to be paid.
Milan said that the board became aware of the weight of the situation in mid-August.
“We didn't have a dashboard, financially, to look at,” Milan said. “That's on us. We own it, and we're having to deal with it.”
Although the board became more active in August, former employee Erin Holt says that staff had been aware something was amiss for a while.
“I can tell you for months ... [we] knew that there were financial issues,” said Holt.
Former Executive Director Kevin Ramach, who declined MPR News’ requests for comment, resigned from his position on Sept. 7. That same week, a new team of artistic directors took over and began to discover the scope of the financial shortfall.
Artistry had hoped to keep staff through grants from the city of Bloomington. But after the theater received $150,000 from the city council, the organization claimed it needed $750,000 more to survive. The city denied an initial loan proposal.
Interim Executive Director Kelli Forest Warder said that Artistry has since consulted with Propel Nonprofits, an organization that helps non-profits facing financial issues and offers training for non-profit board members.
Artistry has a new plan and a $250,000 grant request before the Bloomington City Council. They expect to hear a final decision Monday.
If Artistry can’t continue, theater makers say the fallout would extend beyond Bloomington.
“It's a place where people can develop their skills,” Shipley said. “It's also a place where you can continue to grow within the same organization.”
Foster Warder, who has been working pro bono for Artistry since taking over as interim executive director, said the process to find solutions has been difficult. She acknowledged that bridges need to be mended:
“I'm sorry, on behalf of the organization, because it has harmed people. We're doing everything we can so that an Artistry that survives is an Artistry everyone can be proud of.”
Correction (Jan. 9, 2023): An earlier version of this story misstated C. Ryan Shipley’s involvement with the musical “Holidays with Bing.” The story has been updated.