Back from the brink

Intermedia Arts is recovering from a financial crisis

THE WEDGE — Last December, when a budget shortfall forced Intermedia Arts to lay off staff and close its galleries, the community arts organization appeared to be on the brink.

During a hastily organized Dec. 19 town hall meeting, Board of Directors Chair Jim Farstad described a sudden and significant drop-off in income. Corporate and foundation supporters, slammed by The Great Recession, had cut back or delayed funding.

“We need you to help us now,” Farstad said, issuing his plea for donations to a theater packed with about 200 supporters.

A year later, the 36-year-old nonprofit has turned a corner. That is thanks, in part, to its multi-faceted response to a financial crisis, said Laura Zabel, executive director of Springboard for the Arts, a St. Paul-based consulting group.

“I feel they tested all of the things that people recommend: sharing space, mergers, new programs, different staffing structure,” Zabel said. “They’re really pushing it on all fronts, which is why I think they were able to bounce back as quickly as they have.”

Farstad described a year when emotions veered from fear to resolve to, now, hope. Full-time staff, slashed from seven positions to one, was back up to four in November.

“It feels like we’re succeeding today,” he said. “We have not resolved all of our open issues, we have not implemented all of our ideas, but we have made huge progress in a short amount of time.”

New roommates

This past year, Intermedia Arts tested a number of approaches to balancing corporate and foundation giving with increased earned revenue and individual donations. Not all were successful.

Art-house DVD rental store Cinema Revolution leased space in Intermedia Arts’ Lyndale Avenue building to open a new retail location, its fifth in six years. It quickly closed.

In August, the new Cinema Revolution Society incorporated as a nonprofit. A partner organization to Intermedia Arts, the two will collaborate to present the Dance Film Project Dec. 11–12 at Intermedia.

Other tenants proved a better match for the space. Lyndale United Church of Christ and Salem English Lutheran Church signed an 18-month lease for use of office space, the 120-seat theater and galleries in April.

Farstad called the churches — temporarily homeless while renovations are made to the former Salem site — “great roommates.” The rental income covered about half the monthly expenses for the Intermedia building, making it possible to reopen the galleries for four days a week.

Intermedia Executive Director Theresa Sweetland said Intermedia would explore a “co-working” model in coming months, allowing the self-employed to set up shop in the building for a fee — another source of much-needed earned income.

A merger

In October, Intermedia announced a merger with Phillips Community Television (PCTV), a 15-year-old nonprofit that teaches media skills to Minneapolis teens. Combining the organizations returned Intermedia to its roots; it was founded on the West Bank in 1973 as University Community Video.

PCTV Program Director Michael Hay said the two organizations served similar communities, which could have put them in competition for arts grants and donations. With corporate and foundation giving still far reduced from pre-recession levels, the benefits of a merger were obvious to leaders of both organizations.

“It doesn’t make sense anymore for us to be so fragmented,” Hay said.

Zabel said other small and mid-sized arts organizations came to similar conclusions in recent months, whether that means simply sharing a space, merging two entities or both.

In St. Paul, two arts education organizations, COMPAS and Young Audiences of Minnesota, merged over summer. Rosalux Gallery recently announced plans to move into Soo Visual Arts Center, a nonprofit gallery located just down the street from Intermedia.

Silver lining

The past two years have been a tumultuous time for arts organizations across the country. Locally, big institutions like the Minneapolis Institute of Arts and Walker Art Center announced cuts; some smaller organizations, like the Minnesota Center for Photography and Theatre de la Jeune Lune closed.

Zabel said a recession — even a very deep one — was rarely the root problem for organizations that struggled or closed.

“It’s something that can stress existing problems to the breaking point,” she said.

Intermedia’s leadership took that lesson to heart, refocusing on core programs that serve the community and artists in the community. They plan to turn their building, once a burden on the budget, into a source of revenue.

During this rebuilding phase, Sweetland said Intermedia would “foster” some programs it can’t fully support now at other local arts organizations. The Naked Stages theater series, for example, moved intact to Pillsbury House Theatre for its upcoming season, and Hamline University took over the GLBT Reading Series.

Farstad said they were careful not to simply “lob off” programs, and that the re-focusing on Intermedia’s core mission was the “silver lining” to the past year’s storm clouds.

“It’s no secret that if you want to build loyal supporters and you want to build solid audiences, that’s not where cost cutting leads to success,” he said. “That’s where great programming leads to success.”

 

‘Video, Victual and Vows’

Intermedia Arts and Phillips Community Television celebrate their recent merger with “3V: Video, Victuals and Vows,” 6 p.m.–9 p.m. Dec. 3 at Intermedia, 2822 Lyndale Ave. S. $25 suggested donation.

For more information or to RSVP, call 871-4444 or email info@intermediaarts.org, or purchase tickets online at brownpapertickets.com/event/88830.