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.

Artspace's relationship with the city is a point of concern for at least one city council member, First Ward representative Paul Ostrow, who suggests that the developer's "stranglehold" on arts-related development projects may ultimately prove detrimental. "It would be much healthier if there were some competitors," he says. "We need to find creative developers in the arts world who can do cost-effective rehabs. We need some new entries into the market."

Cherryhomes, who has championed a number of Artspace projects, disagrees, saying the organization simply fills a void. "It's like no one else is doing this," she explains. We would welcome anyone else if anyone else were taking on these sorts of projects."

Ostrow worries, however, that Artspace is taking on much more than it can handle. Lindquist and company will not be able to raise the necessary funds, he fears, and thus will "inevitably" come back to the city looking for more money--at which point, he maintains, the council will be forced to choose between demolition and a substantial refinancing arrangement.

Artspace's Lindquist insists that the group has no intention of making such an entreaty. But he acknowledges that the Shubert project "is, and should be, a challenge for us." According to the proposal Artspace submitted to the MCDA, the developer has captured $7 million in grant support since 1987. For the Shubert project to succeed, it would have to raise thrice that amount in the next three years. Lindquist maintains that the projections are realistic and points to $2.1 million in donations from two anonymous philanthropists as evidence of public support.

Yet Moir, who reviewed Artspace's feasibility study, contends that the developer's goals are "wildly optimistic." "It is highly unlikely that Artspace will be successful in its fundraising objectives," he wrote in an August 1998 memo to the city council. "It is reasonable to assume that the City would be asked to 'save the Shubert Theater' again in three years [by] assuming a significant portion or all of the renovation costs."

And that was not all, Moir noted: Chances were taxpayers would have to subsidize the Shubert's operations after it was restored. In Artspace's vision, the Shubert would lean heavily toward dance, identified as an underserved segment of the local arts community in feasibility studies commissioned by the developer. But a 1998 report compiled for the MCDA by local consulting firm Maxfield Research Inc. predicted that the Shubert would not attract as many dance performances as expected and would have to "vigorously pursue local theater uses"--making it a potential competitor with the city-owned State and Orpheum theaters.

Artspace's Nordyke acknowledges that lack of cohesion among local dance troupes is "the big catch-22" in the Shubert project. "From the need standpoint, it's a relatively easy sell," he explains. "Yet, historically, because the dance community doesn't have that kind of organization, the resources aren't there." Even with both balconies closed, the Shubert's auditorium is more than twice the size of the Southern Theater, which only a few local troupes can sell out on a regular basis.

"It's a strange thing in this town, as culturally active as it is, that dance has been the poor stepchild of theater in getting attention and audiences," offers Twin Cities-based arts consultant Bradley Morison, who worked on the Maxfield study. In his view, the Shubert could become "a kind of showcase for the dance community"--but not without substantial public subsidies.

Indeed, Artspace's proposal to the city forecasts that a reopened Shubert could generate operating deficits of up to $3.35 million over the first five years. "That's a problem," Moir notes dryly. "They proposed that their fundraising campaign would create an ongoing endowment to subsidize their operating deficit. If that doesn't happen, we'll have a worst-case situation where, by the terms of the agreement with the city, they would apply for a demolition permit."

Given that the city council would probably be uncomfortable throwing $5 million "out the window," the finance director continues, it only makes sense to expect a push for the city to assume financial responsibility for the renovation.

And it would be a hard push to resist, admits 13th Ward city council member Barret Lane, who was elected after the council decided to move the Shubert. "I probably wouldn't have voted for it on my watch," he avers. "But now it would behoove us to recoup as much of our investment as possible. My quandary is that I don't want to see the city's investment increase, but we're in a situation now where if we're in for a penny, we're in for a pound."

The Tenth Ward's McDonald is less circumspect on the possibility of a city bailout. "I don't want to end up owning the damn thing," she says. "We need another piece of real estate like we need a hole in the head."

If, as Moir speculates, the city were to eventually pay to keep the wrecking ball away, Minneapolis could end up financing four theaters within a three-block radius: Taxpayers have already paid for rehabbing the Orpheum and State theaters (to the tune of $11.3 million and $12.3 million, respectively). The city acquired the nearby Mann Theater for $1.3 million in 1998 and is considering a plan to renovate it for an additional $11.2 million. According to the MCDA, if the council proceeds as planned, the Mann could accrue operating deficits of up to $267,000 a year.

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