The 45th annual MayDay Parade and Festival on May 5 marks the end of an era for In the Heart of the Beast Puppet and Mask Theatre.
Today, the south Minneapolis theater announced that after this year it will no longer produce the annual celebration of puppetry and community on its own.
Why is HOBT ending its signature event?
“It's complicated,” says Corrie Zoll, HOBT's executive director. Zoll notes that 60,000 people attended MayDay in 2018, according to Minneapolis Police and park police estimates. “It's too large of a thing for HOBT as an organization to coordinate on our own for multiple reasons,” he says. “We simply don't have the infrastructure to put on an event of that size.”
MayDay brings in $150,000 in income for the organization, but costs between $180,000-$200,000 to produce. Since Zoll assumed the role of executive director three and a half years ago, he has tried to think of different scenarios that would cut down the cost of putting on MayDay, but has come up short. Costs like safety and having enough bathrooms aren't flexible numbers.
“The only place that my budget felt flexible was paying artists, who were already being paid very little,” he says.
If this sounds familiar, perhaps it’s because the nonprofit Art Shanties Project has faced this very predicament as well. That wildly popular organization brought 40,000 people to Lake Harriet in 2018, but was unable to raise enough funds through grants and donations to put the festival on this year (they plan to return in 2020).
Many small and mid-sized Twin Cities arts nonprofits have closed over the past few years or are in dire straits. Patrick's Cabaret, Intermedia Arts, and VSA Minnesota have all closed, the Soap Factory is in an extremely precarious situation right now, and Red Eye Theater was bumped from its long-held home last year.
It sure seems like a terrible time for arts organizations that aren't in the top tier, even when the economy is supposedly doing well.
“What we can see across the sectors is that arts organizations have fewer operating grant dollars available, that grant funding is increasingly competitive and has more strings attached, and individual donor trends are changing,” Zoll says.
That, and space is really, really expensive.
HOBT is lucky that they own their own building, but as with other old buildings owned by arts nonprofits, that asset can sometimes be an albatross. Zoll says that HOBT's building, the Avalon, is worth somewhere between half a million and a million dollars, and costs about $100,000 a year to keep it up.
HOBT hasn't moved, however, because renting an office and studio space with a third of the square feet they currently have would cost roughly the same amount.
Zoll says HOBT did try to figure out if a capital campaign would cover the $5 million to renovate the building to be everything they would want. The consultant they hired found the organization would be successful in raising about $1.5 million, which wasn't even close to what they would need.
“We just don't have the really big individual donors that other organizations have,” Zoll says. “We have more individual donors but with smaller average gift size. We were unable to identify an anchor donor that could give a seven-figure donation.”
So is this the end of MayDay forever? Yes and no. Zoll says he can imagine HOBT being part of a larger effort to continue MayDay in the future -- they just can't do it alone.
“I would love to see a much more decentralized model,” Zoll says. There are a number of cultural festivals that happen nearby around the same time, including a labor-specific May Day parade, Cinco De Mayo celebrations, a Norwegian Independence Day parade, and the American Indian Month parade that happens on the first of the month. Zoll says the organization is open to partnering with another event.
“There are so many people that feel ownership of MayDay; the next stage for us is to listen to our neighbors and figure out what other people think are the most important pieces of MayDay to carry forward,” he says. “It doesn't matter how clever my idea is, it has to be what other members of the community care about going forward.”
According to HOBT's announcement, if no changes had been made the organization would have run out of cash and would have had to close permanently as soon as June of 2019. To address this issue, the organization will also cut back staff and programming in the coming months.
However, they still plan to present Puppet Lab performances in March, and will offer residencies in schools, places of worship, and other communities. They will also continue to rent the venue out for guest performances.