Theater of the Absurd

When the Shubert inched down Hennepin Avenue a year ago, Minneapolis politicos promised a bright future for the historic theater. They didn't mention stingy legislators, taxpayer bailouts, or the specter of the wrecking ball.

Among city officials, Artspace has a reputation for putting together creative financing packages to renovate buildings that would otherwise languish. According to vice president Thomas Nordyke, that financing generally comes from a mix of historic tax credits, federal low-income-housing credits, private donations, and foundation grants. "We make it up as we go along," he says half-jokingly. "You literally just try everything."

Artspace's offices are located on the fourth floor of the Hennepin Center for the Arts, separated from the Shubert by a narrow gap that under the renovation plan will one day be filled with a glass atrium. But for the Block E view and some large abstract paintings on the walls, Artspace's suite--recently redone in tasteful blond wood and outfitted with translucent iMacs--is hardly distinguishable from the quarters of any other local nonprofit.

So too the group's chief, Kelley Lindquist, looks every bit the part of the savvy arts manager. Dressed in a red sweater and exuding amiability (he bears more than a passing resemblance to Garrison Keillor), he settles with several co-workers around a plate of cookies and begins to explain his serendipitous entrée into the real estate development business.

"The reality is, I was working as a facilities manager at the Guthrie and my mentor over there told me, 'Kelley, you're the type of guy who deserves to run an arts organization.' At that point, it was between that and a job in the Forestry Service at Glacier National Park. I've always had a tremendous interest in camping and the environment, and at the time I considered that my greater calling."

A month after he took the job at the then-embryonic Artspace--he was the sole full-time employee--Lindquist got a call from the National Park Service offering him a cabin in the mountains if he would agree to check fishing licenses and "watch out for grizzly bears." "I went in to the head of the board and told them I was going," he recalls. "She convinced me that that was a greater calling I could pursue in my later years. She also said, 'This is a chance to develop a family.' I was always kind of a loner--my father lived here, but we weren't really close at the time--so that really caught me."

The first addition to Lindquist's new family was Nordyke, then fresh out of the University of Minnesota's Carlson School of Management. "I'm not any financial whiz--far from it," Lindquist explains. "What's refreshing about the people here, though, is if something doesn't work at first, we don't hit a wall. A lot of people we work with tell us it's refreshing after having done business with developers who just pick up their toys and go home when things don't work out."

Doping out the nuts and bolts of financing falls to vice president Wendy Holmes Nelson--a veteran of the Science Museum's hugely successful $100 million fundraising campaign--and Nordyke, now Lindquist's younger, quieter lieutenant. Perhaps Artspace's shrewdest innovation, Nordyke ventures, has been the use of federal low-income-housing credits to develop apartments for artists. "You have to accept artists as a subset of the low-income population before you can really be comfortable with that," he explains, thoughtfully leaning back in his chair. "Like janitors, they're really always going to be low-income based on what they do for a living."

The notion that Artspace ought to act as an advocate for bohemian enclaves runs through much of the developer's rhetoric. It is also a constant source of worry when projects falter. "The Traffic Zone [building] almost killed us," Lindquist sighs. "Our for-profit partner went bankrupt almost right of the gate and it looked like the artists who supported the project were going to get thrown out. At the time, our major funders were quietly telling us we were taking on too much. It was painful to walk in there and have the secret feeling in my soul that I couldn't do this."

Lindquist evinces no such tremors with regard to the Shubert. Yet he and Nordyke concede that funding the project may be Artspace's greatest challenge to date. According to Nordyke, the organization's largest fundraising campaign has been for a loft renovation in Galveston, Texas, that cost $3.3 million--one-seventh the estimated cost of the Shubert. In addition, he notes, the theater project differs from Artspace's previous endeavors primarily because neither low-income-housing nor historic tax credits are applicable.

Difficult as it may prove, however, Lindquist says he is convinced that the Shubert is worth fighting for. It was there, the 46-year-old recalls, that he first saw Easy Rider and Around the World in 80 Days. "The city should realize that Hennepin is their arts avenue," he says. "This is where to pour your interests. [Hennepin] is where the heart-line of the city is, and has always been. Now you get a sterile sense, at best, when you walk around here."

Asked what he pictures seeing from this spot five years hence, he replies wryly, "Hopefully, the Shubert." Three or four sets of knuckles rap simultaneously on the wood surface of the conference table.

 

Certainly, Artspace is no neophyte developer. Since Lindquist's arrival in 1987, the organization's annual budget has grown from less than $40,000 to $2.6 million in 1998; the group now has 13 employees, engages in redevelopment and consulting in cities around the nation, and garners more than $1 million in contributions annually. The board of directors is stacked with local heavy hitters, including Peggy Lucas, a principal in Minneapolis-based Brighton Development, and Rebecca Yanisch, the former MCDA head now running for Rod Grams's U.S. Senate seat. Artspace also has close ties to city council president Cherryhomes: One employee is her former campaign manager. Another is her sister.

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