Uncertainty looms at the Soap Factory


What’s going on at the Soap Factory? An alarming news story published last Friday by MPR with the headline “Soap Factory to close its doors at the end of December” rattled the Twin Cities arts community, leaving more questions than answers about the future of one of Minnesota’s most beloved arts institutions.

To sum it up: The Soap Factory, which just celebrated its 25th anniversary last year, will continue its programming for the duration of 2015, though staff will all go to part-time. Two board members have quit. (One, Kristin Midelfort, says her decision was for personal reasons, and the other, Katie O’Neal, couldn’t be reached for comment.) Beth Loraine Bowman's position was terminated last week.

In a letter to the advisory board and other stakeholders Megan Leafblad, chair of the board at the Soap Factory, wrote that while the board was aware of the costs of the debt necessary to do maintenance and upgrades to the gallery’s building, it discovered that before June of this year that “the financial statements provided to the Board didn’t meaningfully reflect the organization’s financial position.”

“The work done to the Soap Factory was work that we had to do,” says former executive director Ben Heywood, who left the organization in June. 

Due to the cash-flow uncertainty, the organization plans to “go dark” for the beginning of 2016. Starting in January, the Soap will contract hourly with staff, who will work mainly on the "Artist on the Verge" exhibition, scheduled for March.

“This 'going dark' period is something that has been historical to the organization,” Leafblad tells City Pages. “In the past, it has created a container for ideas. We’re really looking at this time period as an exciting place for conversations to happen.”

“Going dark” is hardly a new for the Soap; in the not too distant past the gallery would close during the winter due to the lack of heat. More troubling, perhaps, is the a sudden loss of a $150,000 grant from the Andy Warhol Foundation, whose policy is to not fund organizations in transition.

"[The Warhol Foundation Grant was] very open, and recently helped support the Hand in Glove conference,” says Leafblad. “But they don’t fund organizations in transition. They would want a director in that had a full plan. Even if we had someone two weeks after Ben left, that would not have mattered to them.”

Ben Heywood announced his departure after nearly 13 years from the Soap Factory last June to pursue a promising new career opportunity in Seattle with tech billionaire Paul Allen’s new art venture, Pivot Art + Culture. At this point, there is no date set for when a new executive director will be put into place.

Cheryl Wilgren Clyne, who curated the latest Minnesota Biennial at the Soap Factory, “superusted,” which closed on Sunday, says she was concerned about the organization prior to last week’s announcement.

“When Ben gave notice, there was a long pause before anyone released a press release or made a decision,” she says. “I contacted the board saying this is something that really is important to get out, because funders and grants can go away because a lapse in time. You have to be transparent when you are a nonprofit.”

The Soap Factory hired a part-time interim director, David Fey, in July. But the uncertainty of leadership put the Soap Factory into a precarious state. (Fey could not be reached for comment in time for this article.)

“We didn’t want to rush into posting Ben’s position,” Leafblad says. “We wanted to take a step back and not try to find the position that

had grown with Ben but find what the Soap Factory needed.” 

Bowman, who started her position as associate director in December of last year, says that in her short time with the organization, there were missed opportunities to gain revenue. For example, Common Roots Catering was granted a three-year RFP contract to do events in the space, but often when weddings or other rentals came up, the Soap Factory wasn’t available because the dates conflicted with programming. “We had to turn business away,” she says.

“It’s very crucial when you serve on a board that you understand all the governance and responsibility that holds," Bowman says. “Being an ambassador and fundraising are crucial parts of being an arts nonprofit.”

Since she was terminated last Monday, Bowman says she’s already been contacted from brokers who were interested in the property.

“I would say anything is in the realm of possibility," says Leafblad when also asked if selling the building is a possibility. 

The Soap Factory is hardly the first Twin Cities arts institution to suspend programming for a short time while it regroups. In the Heart of the Beast, Bedlam Theater, and Intermedia Arts have all needed to take breaks at various times because of financial reasons (or in Bedlams’ case, because they lost their space). Will the Soap Factory be able to regroup and continue? 

Tim Carroll, a longtime volunteer and artist associated with the Soap Factory, says he’s still left with a lot of questions. For years, Carroll was one of the artists who had studio spaces on the second and third floors of the Soap Factory. For that privilege, each put in 10 hours a month of labor performing tasks like scrubbing toilets, sitting at the gallery desk, cleaning, and doing other maintenance. Because the studio program ceased in June of 2014 due to the renovation, Carroll and other artists haven’t been putting in as many volunteer hours.

Carroll is also anxious to find out how the board will involve the larger Soap Factory community in any decisions it makes. “The community is the solution to this,” he says, and not the board. "So many people are invested in that place, and would step up if that’s what’s needed.”