– Federal SOS Act injects $165 million into Minnesota’s return to the performing arts –

The Save Our Stages (SOS) Act is receiving a standing ovation from the performing arts organizations in the Twin Cities that have benefited from the federal legislation. Introduced by U.S. Senator Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota, the measure is providing much-needed financial support through its Shuttered Venue Operator Grants (SVOG).

SVOG provided $16 billion for arts organizations and entertainment venues nationwide that suffered through the COVID-19 shutdowns of 2020 and 2021, including $165 million in Minnesota. However, the relief afforded by the grants did not come without stress. The application process was complex, and there were processing delays, but the grants were finally distributed last month.

“Performing arts organizations, especially those that have a facility, have really been brutalized,” said Gremlin Theatre artistic director Peter Christian Hansen. “It takes a lot of determination to do theater, and it has taken a lot of determination to survive this past year. By setting the stage for our return, this grant will help us and other theaters grow and heal together and continue to contribute to what makes the Twin Cities so special.

“It was touch and go for us at several points (over the past 18 months),” said Hansen, who lives in Merriam Park, not far from the Gremlin’s stage at 550 N. Vandalia St. “But we made some shrewd decisions, had some good luck and were sustained at crucial times by supporters.”

Gremlin’s grant was for $60,289, Hansen said. Its annual operating budget is typically between $150,000 and $200,000. The theater will use the grant to offset rental payments and the expenses of maintaining its facility as well as some personnel costs. “Easing this financial burden means we’ll be able to direct our resources toward a return to programming, not just staying alive,” Hansen said. “It gives us financial security and will allow us to thrive once we come out of COVID.”

For TU Dance, 2121 University Ave., the COVID shutdown meant the cancellation of its spring 2020 season and the payment of a severance package to company members for the remaining six weeks. In addition, TU’s dance school became virtual.

Gremlin Theatre
Gremlin Theatre artistic director Peter Christian Hansen kicks back in his Vandalia Towers playhouse, assessing its future with the help of a federal Save Our Stages grant. Photo by Brad Stauffer

“Once some COVID restrictions were lifted, we created a hybrid model with a limited number of students attending in person and others attending virtually when the students enrolled exceeded the studio’s capacity,” said TU executive director Abdo Sayegh Rodriguez. “We were determined to continue our operations and provide our services while keeping all 55 of our teaching artists and accompanists working.”

The $110,902 grant will be of tremendous value as TU reopens, according to Sayegh Rodriguez. “Our annual budget was severely impacted,” he said. “We went from $1.2 million to about $700,000 per year.”

“I wasn’t worried,” said TU Dance founder and artistic director Toni Pierce-Sands. “I was thinking (the shutdown) may be an opportunity to take a moment to reimagine what TU Dance and the artists and the field as a whole will do moving forward.

“It wasn’t just the pandemic that was happening,” Pierce-Sands said. “There also was the killing of George Floyd. TU Dance needed to continue to be a space where our staff, teaching artists, students and families could share in the difficulties and well-being of the community. I’m looking forward to what TU Dance will create out of yet another challenging moment in our history.”

For Dreamland Arts, 677 N. Hamline Ave., the $23,544 grant will help prevent permanent closure, according to Zaraawar Mistry, who with his wife Leslye Orr has owned and operated the 40-seat theater since 2006. Dreamland Arts presents plays, music and dance concerts, poetry readings, puppet shows and films. “It’s a privately owned LLC,” Mistry said. “We rely primarily on income from ticket sales and space rental, rather than on grants and donations.

“The financial strain was severe in the early stages of the shutdown,” Mistry said. “We received two small grants from the city of Saint Paul and a larger low-interest loan from the federal Small Business Administration that helped us get through 2020 and early 2021.”

Judging from the experience of arts organizations in other countries that had to shut down during the COVID-19 pandemic, “it might take two to three years to regrow our audiences to pre-pandemic levels,” Taykalo said. “That makes the safety net of the grants even more critical.”

With an annual operating budget of between $50,000-$60,000, Mistry said, the federal grant will help Dreamland Arts weather the months until live performances can begin again. “The grant will be used exclusively to cover our infrastructure costs—rent, mortgage, utilities and office administration,” he said. “Unfortunately, it isn’t large enough for anything more than that. For us, it’s more about survive than revive or thrive. But survival is much to be grateful for.”

Other local organizations receiving grants include Actors Theatre of Minnesota, $100,000; Ballet Minnesota, $62,500; the Schubert Club, $110,000; the Twin City Model Railroad Museum, $110,000; Take-Up Productions (Trylon Cinema), $111,000; Parkway Theater, $525,800; and Palace Theatre Operations, $2,339,000.

Millions granted to downtown venues

The Ordway Center is extremely grateful for the $5,075,909 SVOG grant it received, according to interim president and CEO Christine Sagstetter. The Ordway lost $4.6 million in revenue and depreciation in fiscal year 2020 and over $2 million in fiscal year 2021, she said.

“The shutdown had an immediate and hard impact,” Sagstetter said. “It isn’t as though nonprofits had a large treasury to draw from before the pandemic. And in our case, we didn’t have a remote workforce or IT department to call on. But everyone here worked hard to keep the Ordway alive.”

For partners Park Square Theatre and SteppingStone Theatre, the grants were “a critical life line that will help us reopen and replace much of the revenue we would have earned in 2020 if we had been operating,” said Christopher Taykalo, interim director of finance and operations for the two organizations.

Park Square received a $592,028 grant in support of a pandemic-year budget of $2.3 million. That compares to an annual operating budget of $3.3 million before the pandemic. SteppingStone’s grant was for $228,990 in support of a pandemic-year budget of $900,000, which was down from $1.1 million in the year before the pandemic.

“The funding will help us pay for staff expenses and production costs and make critical repairs and updates to our venue, which hasn’t been in use for 15 months,” Taykalo said. “During normal operations, about 50 percent of the revenue for those costs would come from ticket sales.”

Judging from the experience of arts organizations in other countries that had to shut down during the COVID-19 pandemic, “it might take two to three years to regrow our audiences to pre-pandemic levels,” Taykalo said. “That makes the safety net of the grants even more critical.”

— Anne Murphy

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