DULUTH – With a restaurant, theater, gallery space and a two-screen cinema, Zeitgeist in downtown Duluth is normally a bustling cultural hub.
But the pandemic pulled down the curtains on movies and shows in March, and in August the virus delivered another cruel blow to the beloved arts institution when the Zeitgeist Arts Cafe closed its doors indefinitely due to “financial implications and safety concerns.”
With revenue down more than 50% and 30 people laid off, mainly at the restaurant, Zeitgeist now finds itself in the same situation as countless arts organizations in Minnesota and around the country — asking for help.
“Zeitgeist is going to come through this one way or another,” said Executive Director Tony Cuneo as his organization heads into the biggest fundraiser of the year, if not in the organization’s history. “No matter what changes we need to get through COVID, we exist to build on the values of inclusivity and sustainability.”
The annual fundraiser, Spirit of the Times, goes live online Thursday and comes as many groups ask for community support as they are unable to hold performances to pay the bills.
The Minnesota Council of Nonprofits said in a July report that arts organizations have faced the highest level of disruption due to the pandemic.
“Nonprofit managers are increasingly concerned that government agencies and private philanthropies will not have the resources to carry through on funding commitments in an upcoming recession,” the report said.
Founded in 2005 by the A.H. Zeppa Family Foundation, the Zeitgeist Center for Arts & Community today operates as an independent nonprofit that focuses on active transportation, health policy and food security in addition to arts programming. It also addresses community development in the Central Hillside neighborhood, which is among the city’s poorest and also has a higher percentage of Black and Indigenous residents than the city as a whole.
“In some ways our work is more important than it has ever been,” Cuneo said. “The impact of COVID is particularly strong among underrepresented communities.”
Zeitgeist’s revenue was $2.1 million in 2018, the most recent year federal tax data is available, though expenses were $1 million higher. More than half of that year’s revenue came from the restaurant, and about a third from donations and grants.
Other than office space, the building on Superior Street is currently only used for theater rentals.
“I love the restaurant, and it was a tough choice to make,” Cuneo said. “It made sense to take a pause and see if there are alternative ways to use that space during COVID, and ultimately we look forward to launching it again.”
Cuneo said struggles among arts organizations are widespread.
“I do look across the country and I see in the Twin Cities a lot of really iconic, unique restaurants are closing their doors and a lot are talking long-term — and not just restaurants but music venues, art galleries, places where people share ideas and come together,” Cuneo said.
Bills like the Save Our Stages Act would go a long way to keeping those venues from further eroding, he said. The bill would provide $10 billion in grants to help small venues over the next six months.
“I really hope Congress helps keep those cultural institutions from being decimated through COVID,” Cuneo said.