Nightmare on Oak Street

Minnesota Film Arts downsizes its festival, prepares to sell off its screen

The other, he says, involves a "$3 to $5 million plan to buy the property next to us, the old Lotus Cafe, and tear down the theater and the cafe and build a three-screen, state-of-the-art film theater, with a skyway to the parking lot."

Grady admits that he hasn't found partners for this project, and that the board is unprepared for a capital campaign. When informed of the idea, Cowgill scoffs. "I think it's in bad faith what these guys are doing now," says Cowgill. "It's become a real estate deal."

Beyond putting his money into MFA, Grady also co-programmed last year's M-SPIFF himself. But Grady is also the owner of a cycling supply and media company in St. Paul, and other commitments have forced him to pare down his involvement this year. He's attempted to recapitalize the organization, he says, pointing to a mail fundraiser that raised some $20,000. Grady estimates that with another $150,000 in grants, MFA could cover needed improvements at the Oak Street, such as new projection equipment.

With its creaky projection system and feeble heat, this once proud art house is now a fixer-upper
Jane Sherman
With its creaky projection system and feeble heat, this once proud art house is now a fixer-upper

But last year, the organization lost out on a key McKnight Foundation grant—the one that helped Oak Street Arts secure a mortgage on the theater in the first place. "Someone on the board told McKnight we're going to sell the Oak," says Milgrom. "So McKnight says, 'Why should we back a lame horse?'"

"The problem with McKnight was, we need an executive director," says Grady. "I don't think any proper foundation would put money into an organization without a staff. This is why we're concerned about going forward and asking people for money. What are they really supporting?"

When this year's film festival finally rolls around, local audiences may be asking themselves the same thing.

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