The Southern Theater, a hotbed of inventive music, dance and theater in the Twin Cities, says it must raise $400,000 by April 30, or shut its doors.

An "urgent" appeal, sent to artists and patrons and posted on the theater's website, says that the financial crisis has "reached a state of emergency ... that ... threatens the very existence of the Southern."

The Southern has been rocked in recent weeks by rapidly deteriorating finances and by a management upheaval in which the board chairwoman was ousted and nearly a third of its members resigned.

The Southern recently lost its major backer, the McKnight Foundation, after grants intended for individual artists were commingled and used for theater operating expenses. The fellowship-winning dancers and choreographers are still waiting for money that was due to them in January.

Who is responsible for the Southern's financial meltdown?

"The collective 'we' are accountable," Executive Director Gary Peterson said Friday. "The process of running deficits goes back years. A lot of people have had their beliefs and confidence in the theater shaken or destroyed. All of us are very sorry about that."

Peterson, who took over at the Southern in January 2010, blamed the crisis on chronic undercapitalization. The economic downturn has hit the venue especially hard, he added, with attendance down sharply.

"Nearly every show this season has come in under projections," Peterson said. "We're $100,000 short of where we expected to be in terms of ticket sales." A show by Arena Dances was the only one he could recall off the top of his head that exceeded expectations.

If the Southern's challenges seem to have burst into public view suddenly, it's because its leadership has "made a decision recently to be transparent," Peterson said. "The board said it's time to draw a line in the sand and come clean with the community."

The theater's immediate fundraising goal includes $85,000 for bills and operating expenses as well as money to hire a development person and to cover the $300,000 that the Southern must repay the McKnight, according to theater officials. The foundation had been a pillar of support for the theater.

The $400,000 goal is a steep one, but one that seems doable when broken into small parts, said Peterson: "It's 800 people giving $500, 3,200 people giving $125. If we don't make the effort, we know the outcome."

Peterson signed the appeal along with board chairwoman Anne Baker and board member Brian Sostek.

The Southern faces its crisis at a time when arts organizations big and small are struggling across the country. The Philadelphia Orchestra filed for bankruptcy last Saturday. In Seattle, the Tony Award-winning Intiman Theatre, one of that city's three biggest companies, recently canceled the remainder of its 2011 season and laid off employees as it struggles with a reported $2.3 million debt.

"We're doing the best that we can, taking it day by day in our best effort to preserve this community asset," said Peterson.

Rohan Preston • 612-673-4390