The Minnesota Center for Photography (MCP) is permanently closing its doors today after 18 years, a victim of tough financial times and staff departures.

Founded above an auto repair shop on Lyndale Avenue in Minneapolis, the nonprofit organization grew into one of the Twin Cities' most important showcases for photography, especially by Minnesota artists.

Four years ago it moved from dingy basement digs in Uptown to a sunny, renovated building in northeast Minneapolis -- a move that signaled the emergence of Northeast as a gallery mecca not seen since the Warehouse District's heydays in the 1980s.

As recently as January, MCP had a staff of five and a projected annual budget of $970,000. But its finances deteriorated in the past seven months as the board pared the budget to $650,000, executive director George Slade resigned, staff members left for other jobs, and one was laid off.

"It was sort of a perfect storm" of trouble, said Mark Wilson, co-chair of MCP's board of directors. The board voted Monday evening to close. The remaining two staffers were informed Tuesday.

"We did everything in our power to keep the organization alive," Wilson said. "The most distressing thing is that there is such a passion for the organization's mission in the community. It got to the point where we didn't see long-term sustainability and didn't think it was appropriate to solicit more funds."

The organization owes a small line of credit but has "no institutional debt," he said.

News of the closing startled but did not surprise members of the art community, where rumors of financial difficulties had circulated for months.

"It's always had to struggle, but it's brought a tremendous amount of photography programming to the Twin Cities, and it's going to be missed," said Gary Hallman, a University of Minnesota photo professor who exhibited at the organization in its early years when it was called pARTs Photographic Arts, under the idiosyncratic but visionary leadership of founder Vance Gellert.

Recent shows have ranged from Chinese photographs of the Three Gorges dam project to a quasi-sociological study of teenage American girls and a retrospective by the influential Jerome Liebling.

Corporate and foundation support remained stable at about $100,000 a year, Wilson said, but individual support plummeted following a three-year expansion campaign that ended last summer. That raised $460,000, which went into programming, education efforts and the renovation of the present quarters at 165 13th Av. NE.

"I don't want to blame anybody," Wilson said. "We had a good run and a lot of people did a lot of really good things for us."

Mary Abbe • 612-673-4431