Folding Chair

Five years ago Joel Sisson's blend of art, social work, and lawn furniture was the talk of the town. Now the founder of the Green Chair Project is sitting on a pile of dreams and unpaid bills.

In the summer of '98, it became apparent that many of those associated with the Green Chair Project were growing tired of the constant clashes. The organization had barely gotten its own 501(c)/3 designation when Becker decided to stop his involvement. Somerville resigned from the board in August. Williams had left her job in June, when it became clear the organization could no longer afford her. Last month Williams started working as a consultant with the Green Chair Workshop.

PPL's Steve Cramer also looked north for stability. Cramer met with Louis King in December to see whether the Green Chair Workshop could take over the storefront on Chicago Avenue--as a paying tenant. They could, so Cramer told Sisson that his crew would have to move out by late January. "It's not about taking sides for me," Cramer says. "It's about what's going to work and what's going to be sustainable--and, frankly, what's going to get us off the hook for paying for that building."

Sisson clearly struggles to maintain his composure as he arrives at this point in the story. "At least Steve came down in person to tell us that he'd made a deal with Summit," he says, then adds: "It felt really screwed up. People will go by next year and see a chair organization and think that it's us."

 

It's quiet at the Green Chair Project on a mid-January afternoon. The day's crew consists of three teenagers, all in baggy pants speckled with Symbolic Green: 17-year-old Ge and two 16-year-olds, Jenny and Flora, both students at the Minnesota Center for Arts Education in Golden Valley. An 11-year-old neighbor named Michael has also wandered in: Sisson often pays him a few bucks here and there to help out or sweep up. Today it's just a social visit, but Michael wants credit anyway. "Put Michael T. in your article," he advises, "because we got two Michaels."

Ge says the workshop's casual atmosphere is part of its appeal. He's been working at the shop on and off since 1997. "It's relaxing--takes off a lot of stress to come here, where everyone's happy." Jenny nods, setting in motion a mop of short hair sticking out in all directions. She has known about the project nearly half of her life. "I lived at 33rd and Pillsbury, near where Joel started," she says, "and I always knew that if I had to have a job, I wanted to work here." Her family now lives three blocks from the Chicago Avenue storefront, so the new Nicollet Island site will be much more of a schlep.

Sisson--in work pants and a tucked-in mustard-colored shirt--listlessly tidies up the space. He says the crew has been "cleaning and inventorying like crazy," and that he's finding lots of papers in the office he thought were lost for good. Yet nothing about the shop's interior suggests the project is about to pack up; when pressed, Sisson admits he's still not convinced it will have to. "I'm hoping for some major magic on the weekend of the 22nd," he grins.

Back in his office, Sisson rifles through a drawer, pulls out some old budget figures, then sits back to mess with his ponytail. "I remember when we got our first dumpster for this place," he says. "It was super exciting. Mike [Hoyt] and I were sitting there thinking, 'We're going to have a permanent space." He glances toward the workshop and adds: "It has been a shame to have this space only running three days a week. We haven't been able to work with as many kids as I would have liked. I'm hoping that we can share a space with another group and share equipment, administration, maybe a grant writer."

The Green Chair Project's current state looks familiar to Diane Espaldon, a consultant at the St. Paul-based Stevens Group, which teaches theories about business life-cycles to nonprofits nationwide. Espaldon says that unlike for-profit businesses, nonprofits frequently refuse to die even when they're up to their ears in debt: "Typically, in business, the final cycle is termination, you close your doors. But if there's a life-cycle of a nonprofit, the last stage is like 'lights on, nobody home.' There might be a few staff members. They've been bankrupt for several years, and they go on and on.

"Usually it's almost like they're eating up their own reserves, taking advantage of the staff's time and health. It's an incredibly stressed-out time for the organization. They might get a grant here or there. But the money doesn't go toward any future vision. It's for keeping the doors open."

Yet, Espaldon says, paralysis is not always the end: "If they're in the termination stage and take an aggressive stance, they can be turned around, just like a business can be turned around."

FORECAST's Jack Becker says he's convinced Sisson won't be able to give up on the project. And, he says, maybe it can be saved. "It could go back to hibernating for the winter. But it would have to be by plan, like theaters have their season. It can't be by the seat of their pants." Scaling back, adds Cynthia Williams, might even liberate Sisson's imagination: "He saw business normalization as selling out, being slick. I think Joel needed the organization to be loose and free and really hit-and-run. Maybe the Green Chair Project needs to go back on the street where it really belongs."

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