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Continued: The fixers

  • Article by: GRAYDON ROYCE , Star Tribune
  • Last update: April 30, 2011 - 5:11 PM

One rescued her organization from financial collapse. Another took a middling agency and built it into a national model. A third has been honored for creating high-visibility arts within the Hmong community. One more is hoping that her golden touch extends to a new service that could transform Minnesota theater.

These four women -- part of the new arts generation -- have revitalized institutions that provide the fuel for artists to flourish, and in the process they have shown that leadership can make a difference.

THERESA SWEETLAND

INTERMEDIA ARTS

Founded: 1973. • Mission: Empower artists and nurture arts-based approaches to address community issues.

"We were a little stuck," is how Theresa Sweetland described Intermedia Arts when she became its executive director in December 2007. That's a generous assessment and it mirrors Sweetland's manner.

She received a B.A. in anthropology and a masters in urban planning -- thoughtful, even visionary pursuits that fit Intermedia's mission but not the model of a tough executive. By October 2008, Sweetland needed to cut six people from her staff of seven. Only she remained, and it seemed likely the organization in Minneapolis' Lyn-Lake neighborhood would cease to exist. The fiscal 2009 budget showed a deficit of $300,000.

Sweetland, 35, is a Wisconsin native but betrays a heavy dose of Minnesota Nice as she describes the drastic and swift action necessary to keep Intermedia afloat.

A business plan envisioned as unfolding in three to five years needed to be instituted in three to five months. Programs were stripped down, thrown overboard or refocused. Every transaction was scrutinized. Intermedia invited 200 arts groups to talk about the challenges and use the crisis for a moment of clarity. Some of the changes actually resulted in short-term losses in revenue but Sweetland understood the necessity of getting back to the mission and building long-term capacity.

A retooled Intermedia has rebuilt its staff, increased its earned income and eliminated short-term debt. Leveraging its building, Intermedia rented space to nearby Salem Lutheran Church, which needed congregation room during a building project. Other organizations also use Intermedia, creating an arts hub.

The refocused mission also has attracted new grantmakers. The Kresge Foundation, which hadn't funded Intermedia in 15 years, came back. Blue Cross and Blue Shield made Intermedia the only arts group to receive grants -- aimed at specific initiatives around health care. And the group is contracting with Hennepin County to provide services for library programs that sponsor artists.

Business needs addressed, Intermedia has gotten back to fostering artists trying to solve social and community issues. "We're paying attention to the numbers, through the lens of our mission," said board chairman James Farstad.

LAURA ZABEL

SPRINGBOARD FOR THE ARTS

Founded: 1991. • Mission: Connect artists with the skills, contacts, information and services they need to make a living and a life.

"Springboard was in a bad place," said Laura Zabel, 36. "My first month here, I had to hold my check because we didn't have the funds."

Six years later, Springboard has a $1 million balance sheet and is the subject of national attention for its work supporting artists and organizations.

Even though she's been on the job since 2005, Zabel says "I still feel like I'm the new executive director," as if she can't believe she's in charge. Her passion was theater, and organizing people around causes. She laughs, recalling her most recent foray into exercising her acting chops as a "reluctant witness in an improv demo tape for a continuing legal-education program." The organizing bug, though, comes into play every day.

Zabel's St. Paul-based agency helps artists but considers itself an economic-development organization. She recalls proudly when Xcel Energy urged her to withdraw a grant application submitted under the arts category and to reapply under economic sustainability.

"We are about economic development, and to get that affirmation from them was so good," she said. "We don't do presenting and producing, and it took us a while to figure that out, but it was a real relief."

Zabel has tripled Springboard's budget and staff during her tenure -- to $800,000 and nine respectively. The agency may help individual artists find rental space, write a grant or get affordable health care. It also can provide fiscal sponsorship for groups that don't want to be encumbered by infrastructure. Last week, the McKnight Foundation chose Springboard to administer a big dance-fellowship program .

Zabel has overseen such entrepreneurial efforts as Community Supported Art -- a takeoff on Community Supported Agriculture, whereby a patron pays a fee and gets a box of food (see story on page E1). Springboard promised its patrons a box of art -- pottery, a limited-edition vinyl recording, visual art. Two "stock offerings" have quickly sold out.

Zabel's next goal is to replicate Springboard programs for communities that want to build a creative class. She mentioned Fergus Falls, Grand Marais and New York Mills as examples of Minnesota towns that have used the arts to draw people and create economic energy.

National observers have taken note. Social Venture Partners, which invests in social entrepreneurs, honored Springboard with a $20,000 award. And Zabel has a partnership in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, with Legion Arts, an economic-development arm mobilizing artists to build a creative district.

KATHY MOUACHEUPAO

CENTER FOR HMONG ARTS AND TALENT (CHAT)

Founded: 1998. • Mission: Strengthen the Hmong community through the arts.

Kathy Mouacheupao, 32, was not terribly interested in working for CHAT when the opportunity arose in 2003. She felt she was doing important work with Asian Women United, a community group aimed at reducing domestic violence in the Hmong community.

A single experience changed her mind. Asked to speak at a post-show discussion of CHAT's performance of "Hush, Hush," Mouacheupao was impressed by the audience that stayed to talk about the issues of abuse raised in the play. The group was far larger than any she had reached through Asian Women United.

"It was pivotal to me to see how the arts can be used to address social issues," she said.

Mouacheupao is friendly, yet serious about her work. On her Facebook page, she posts a quote from Atmosphere: "The only guarantee in life, is a life worth dying for."

She plunged into youth programs at CHAT and eventually took over the executive post from founder Lee Vang in 2005, raising both Hmong participation in arts and the visibility of those efforts. She recently received an Initiative honor at the Ordway Center's Sally Awards.

"There is this hidden treasure of jewels," she said of Hmong artists, many of whom weren't even known within their own community.

Mouacheupao promoted an open-mike program for spoken-word artists. Under her push, an annual arts festival has grown from about 500 attendees to 3,000; a Youth Leadership Program has grown and CHAT continues developing a theater program.

"WTF," by CHAT staff member Katie Ka Vang, was produced this winter by Mu Performing Arts. Mouacheupao now says she wants to produce a play using entirely Hmong artists -- from actors to directors, designers and technicians.

By far the brightest gem has been "Fresh Traditions," a runway fashion show that exploded in popularity since its 2007 debut.

"Hmong designers from Los Angeles and New York have said this is great because it lets them design specifically for their community," Mouacheupao said.

Her next goal is financial growth and focusing on social justice. "We can do a lot of things with little budget," she said. "But we aren't just trying to create art and entertainment. There is a greater cause."

LEAH COOPER

MINNESOTA THEATER ALLIANCE

Founded: 2010. • Mission: Provide audience development, marketing, scheduling and professional services for local theater.

Leah Cooper, 42, was looking for a job where she could work part-time, be in charge ("I'm kind of bossy") and build something from scratch. The Theater Alliance was looking for someone who wouldn't need a lot of money and had a track record of making things happen. Kismet.

Cooper is sort of bossy -- and methodical, wise, friendly and whip-smart. You can ask a dozen people in the theater community what they foresee for the Theater Alliance and a dozen people will say, "I'm not sure, but Leah will figure it out."

As is her analytical style, Cooper started this venture by gathering information. She held 35 meetings around the state with theater producers and presenters and found that collectively, "they know everything." Individually, there are knowledge gaps, so she's collected the wisdom into one spot, where it can be shared.

While other theater communities have large service organizations -- for instance, Bay Area Theater Alliance in San Francisco has an $8 million budget and a staff of 25 -- Cooper, a staff of one, wants to keep the Minnesota Alliance small so it doesn't rob resources from other arts groups.

"I want to be a convener, not a competitor," she said.

Cooper is working on four programs. First is an audience development plan that actually develops new audiences rather than feeding free tickets to bargain hunters; second is a system to share resources and tools, such as software that eases box office management. Third, she wants theaters to convene every other month to learn from one another about specific topics. "Take touring," she said. "Producers want to tour but don't have the experience. Presenters want to present but they aren't sure what's available. How can we make matches?"

Lastly, she wants to form loose associations with existing organizations -- galvanizing expertise and programs rather than creating something that already exists. Among her projects is helping theaters schedule productions so they don't all open shows on the same Friday.

It's not terribly sexy, but Cooper understands how important details can be. She ran the Minnesota Fringe Festival from 2001 to 2006, pulling it out of a deficit crisis, nearly doubling its annual budget and raising attendance by 72 percent. In recent years, she and playwright Alan Berks have established Minnesota Playlist, a website for and about the performing arts. It has become an essential platform for actors, designers, directors and writers.

"We are the last theater community or state of this size that does not have an alliance," she said. She's changing that.

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