Friday, February 27, 2009

Preview: Coming to the Guthrie

Minneapolis, Minnesota

Follow this link to a YouTube conversation between Galen Treuer and Ellen Swanson about "My Father's Bookshelf," the new Live Action Set production premiering June 18 at The Guthrie's Dowling Studio in Minneapolis.

[Live Action Set website] [Live Action Set Facebook] [Related Minnesota Mist post.]

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Stories with brains

Minneapolis, Minnesota

Faced with an apparent underwhelming choice of candidates for the U.S. senate in 2008 (incumbent Norm Coleman-R, and challengers Al Franken-DFL and Dean Barkley-I), Minnesota voters contrived to choose none of them for as long as possible.

The proceedings surrounding the re-count of an election too-close-to-call, certification by the State Canvassing Board, and the (so far) month-long trial initiated by Coleman have resulted in not seating one of two senators to which Minnesota is entitled. Today's tally has Franken ahead by fewer than 300 votes, but stay tuned. Eventually, either Coleman or Franken will assume the office, with neither possessing a mandate from a majority of the voters.

I appreciate the collective wisdom of this expression by the electorate, although I know that many do not. Possibly, if we could have forced a do-over with a new slate of candidates, we would have done so. That is not in the legal deck of cards.

Would that it were so, however, for such sterling public servants as Jack Kingston, the representative for Georgia's 1st Congressional District. Before voting against the recent stimulus package, Kingston raised a fuss about including $50 million for the National Endowment for the Arts because the money would not be spent on real jobs for real people. That kind of talk riled some of us arts and culture types. Especially since Kingston's own website touts his district as something of "a literary haven" and the background setting for filming of Academy Award-winning movies.

Kingston's wisdom aside, artists and members of their support system believe themselves to be very real people. In fact, I believe one segment of artists – dancers – are among the most intelligent people on the planet.

Coinciding with the conversation in Washington about the reality of the arts was the appearance in Minneapolis of an essay by Melodie Bahan, director of communications at the Guthrie Theater. Bahan, who says she likes well-written reviews, thinks that readers of daily newspapers would be served better by a focus on "actual journalistic coverage of the arts."

Insisting that journalists are storytellers and that thousands of stories are not being written, Bahan says "Stop writing reviews and start writing news."

Oh, honey!

Surely you at least thought twice about such a position after the Star Tribune newspaper reported last month about the $682,300 salary and benefits that were paid to Guthrie Director Joe Dowling in 2007. (That is less than 3% of the Guthrie's budget, by the way.) Even though an editorial noted that Dowling and others had earlier taken 20% cuts, and even though a reader observed the sum is less than 5% that paid to three roster members of the Minnesota Twins, I would bet that you and your colleagues did not welcome the writing of such news. Nor the discussion that has reverberated since.

Nonetheless, let us assume that the arts are somehow as real as the rest of the world, that they are created and sustained by real people, that they impart meaning and value to other real people, and that they should be subject to real journalism. What real, or surreal, stories would then be written, and with what timing?

Relative to Dowling, we would have read in 2003 that he and others took 20% pay cuts to tide over a rough patch in the Guthrie's finances. That would have been as laudable then as was last week's welcome news that Jeff Immelt, CEO of General Electric, opted to forego a 2008 performance bonus of $11.7 million after the company's stock price tanked by 56%. As noted by Forbes, this action by Immelt and GE set an example both of good governance and good public relations. The example stands in contrast to the more than $3 billion in bonuses approved for employees of Merrill Lynch by former CEO John Thain following 4th quarter losses in 2008 of multi-millions of dollars.

We would read, as we did last week, that the New York City Ballet would not renew the contracts of 11 of 101 dancers next year; that senior staff already had taken 10% salary reductions; that junior staff will take 5% reductions next year; that ticket sales and donations are down 6-8%; that this year's deficit of $5.5 million will equal 8.8% of the $62.3 million budget; that next year's deficit is projected at $2-3 million; and that the endowment has dropped from $187 million to $138 million. We would read, as we have not, how the company intends to finance multiple years of deficits totalling multi-millions of dollars. We would read, as we have not, why the company believes it cannot institute balanced budgets for the current and succeeding years.

Such stories would juxtapose nicely with today's congressional testimony by Chesley Sullenberger, the US Airways pilot who landed Flight 1549 safely in the Hudson River, not far from City Ballet's headquarters at Lincoln Center. Sullenberger told the aviation subcommittee of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee that his pay has been cut 40% in recent years and his pension terminated. He has started a consulting business to augment his pilot's pay and works seven days a week to make ends meet.

We would continue to be outraged by news such as that greeting us this morning: (1) After investing $150 billion in American International Group (aka A.I.G., the insurance giant that is "too big to fail") where the collective we now own 80% of the company, they tell us they need tens of billions of dollars more. (2) After investing $45 billion in Citigroup, we need to give them more, raising our ownership stake to 40%. (3) General Motors and Chrysler need $22 billion on top of the $17 billion we already have lent. No doubt, some top staff people at these outfits would continue to complain about the government's salary compensation caps because they have contrived a lifestyle for themselves that does not work with less than seven figures.

(You read it here first: I can and will run any company into the ground for $500,000 a year. I will bring along my own cronies to help me do it. Where do I sign my contract?)

An age of real-arts-news-not-reviews would continue to include hard facts in stories such as appeared in the New York Times nine days ago (Sun., Feb. 15, 2009, AR5). Writer Kate Taylor reported on the viral fund-raising efforts by the Magic Theatre in San Francisco to raise $350,000 to avoid closing for good after 40 years. The theater has enjoyed a national reputation for its creation and production of new plays.

Basically, as reported by Taylor, a former artistic director drove the subscription audience away with crappy work that even the board of directors did not like. Still, the staff and board let the budget (i.e., expense budget) double to $2 million while debts mounted. After a $75,000 shortfall in this season's subscriptions "the board took a closer look at the balance sheets....The theater had maxed out its $300,000 line of credit and had $300,000 in other debts."

I have been looking for a new gig in the arts, am up for a challenge, and saw that the Magic had a leadership position posted. So, I started digging deeper to find out more of the back story on $600,000 of debt – representing 30% of the budget. A Dec. 31 story in the San Francisco Chronicle quoted the artistic director as saying "There was a lot of debt we didn't realize we had....This situation is the result of years and years of mismanagement."

A Jan. 19 Chronicle story related a combination of causes and quoted the board chair thusly: "The reports we were getting at the finance committee level and at the board level were not thorough enough for us to fully understand the mounting accounts payable....That's our fault." The future of the Magic Theatre remains in doubt.


Rep. Kingston down in Georgia should take comfort in the knowledge that mindless risk-taking and financial mismanagement are traits shared by incompetents in for-profit and non-profit enterprises.

Ms. Bahan is right: there are a lot of stories not being written. Some of them could include the tales of mismanagement and poor governance within organizations in Minnesota that pre-date the current economic downturn. To be fair, however, many organizations do have their acts together, and we should read about those also.

Just as I read this morning about many of Minnesota's good "Banks That Had a Brain" in a laudatory essay by Minnesota's solo senator, Amy Klobuchar. Not all banks lost their heads and ran off to the land of Oz, Klobuchar writes. "They did well, both for themselves and for the people they serve."

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Signs of it

Minneapolis, Minnesota

The air retains a chill, but this morning's clear sky reflects a deeper shade of blue here in Twins Territory. Meanwhile, members of the Minnesota Twins baseball team began convening in Fort Myers, Florida, this week for the start of spring training. Opening day at the Metrodome in Minneapolis is seven weeks away: Monday, Apr. 6, 7:10pm, hosting the Seattle Mariners.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009


Minneapolis, Minnesota

Kate Barr is one of the stars in the firmament of nonprofit organizations in Minnesota – or, anywhere, for that matter. I have known her for years, first for her appreciation of the arts, particularly dance, but also for her stellar leadership of the Nonprofits Assistance Fund. As a former senior banker, Kate is versed in the "can't-argue-with-certain-basics" that should underpin all nonprofit organizations. Her background has given her expertise in how to use the tools of finance and good management to make things happen and get things done.

I wish often that I could channel Kate's wisdom which she shares periodically and succinctly in her blog. The best I can do is link to her posts in the column to the left. Her latest offering, "Who Said Leadership Was Fun?" sums up a great deal in a small space. Some excerpts:

The Minnesota Council on Foundations invited Judith Alnes from MAP for Nonprofits and me to contribute an article for their current issue of Giving Forum.... When I read the article in print today, this statement in the conclusion really jumped out for me:

Those of us in leadership roles should remember that this time will be judged by the actions we take or the actions we fail to take.

That’s a lot of weight being carried by leaders of nonprofits....

Sometimes, being a leader requires you to take responsibility for tough problems and be held accountable for the results.... If you’re the one who has to stare at the budget column or read the letter informing you of a funding reduction you know what this feels like....

This is a time to learn a new leadership approach or adapt well developed leadership practices. I have some ideas about what needs to change and I hope that you will weigh in as well.... [Read the whole post.]

• • •

My two cents: Who was it that said “Know thyself”? This seems particularly necessary in a time when so many organizations are dealing with existential issues and fighting/hoping for survival. When we cannot change the world, we only can change our perceptions of and reactions to it. I always have found that when I make myself vulnerable and open to the worst possible outcome I find great strength and energy. Still, it can be challenging to maintain a posture of openness in the presence of inertia or the absence of reciprocity. One needs an immersion and grounding in the realities of his/her organization’s “numbers” and in the limits of one’s individual capabilities, knowing at all times what is the bottom line. With and without other people, I ask two questions: What is the worst thing that could happen? If it happened, can I live with that? If the answer to the second question is “yes,” then anything short of the worst is a gift, and I can live with it. GP

Sunday, February 8, 2009


Minneapolis, Minnesota

The Minnesota Orchestra presented the world premiere of its commission, "Oboe Concerto," by composer Christopher Rouse this week. A thoroughly pleasant work, it was given a fine reading by Basil Reeve and his colleagues under the baton of Osmo Vänskä. Along with other works, the program also included Tchaikovsky's "Pathétique." I have not heard this symphony live since Eiji Oue led the Orchestra. As conducted by Vänskä, the work had more energy and nuance than one hears on many recordings.

• • •

Why do some Republicans insist on speaking about real Virginians, real Americans, and now real people?

Michael Kranish reported in the Boston Globe last week about criticism of the economic stimulus bill moving through Congress. The House version – passed without a single Republican vote – contains $50 million for the National Endowment for the Arts. The funds are not in the current draft of the yet-to-be-passed Senate version.
Kranish cited Rep. Eric Cantor of Virginia, the third-ranking Republican in the House, "who has urged Obama to 'get the pork barrel spending out,'" and Rep. Jack Kingston, a Georgia Republican, who wants to transfer the proposed NEA funding to highway construction. "We have real people out of work right now and putting $50 million in the NEA and pretending that's going to save jobs as opposed to putting $50 million in a road project is disingenuous," Kingston said [emphasis added].

Michael Steele, the newly-elected GOP chairman, shares that line of thought. Speaking on ABC's This Week with George Stephanopoulos this morning, Steele said "What this administration is talking about is making work. It is creating work.... It's not a job."

It makes one wonder what is real.

• • •

The Minneapolis Convention Center stands four blocks from my house and serves as the portal to the downtown skyway system – enclosed bridges that span streets to connect buildings on the second level. Over the years I have observed and overheard the buzz of many convenings, including those of varied religious organizations. For three days last week, nearly 1,400 pastors swarmed the hallways and skyways leading to the Hilton Hotel for the "Desiring God" conference. According to their literature and website, this is a Baptist-related group that follows the ministry of John Piper, a senior pastor at Bethlehem Baptist Church in Minneapolis. Piper's congregation has played a positive role in its community, including as an advocate for affordable housing. Nonetheless, it was a bit startling to understand how divergent are some of its perspectives from one's own. To-wit, this answer to a question about the Desiring God conference:

Can Pastor's Wives Attend? We intentionally seek to foster a male fraternity because it is rare and uniquely refreshing for pastors to fellowship with men who carry similar burdens and to counsel one another with the kind of frankness that is awkward to do in mixed company. However, we do not prohibit wives from attending, knowing that there are circumstances where it is the best choice for marriage or ministry

This is startling because I have become used to churches where women serve as full partners in ministry and whatever burdens come with it.

Saturday, February 7, 2009

Food, glorious food!

Minneapolis, Minnesota

You can help alleviate hunger in Minnesota by buying and eating loads of bananas.

Through a mechanism of recovery and donation, the empty cartons in which the Chiquita company ships bananas to wholesale grocers and retail stores find their way to a 65,000 sq. ft. warehouse in New Hope, a suburban community of Minneapolis. There, an army of volunteers packs 35-40 pounds of food into each box for distribution to a network of 200 foodshelves and relief programs in 35 Minnesota counties.

This distribution process is the centerpiece of the programs operated by the Emergency Foodshelf Network, a nonprofit foodbank founded in 1976
to collect, warehouse, and distribute high quality food and provide essential support services.

The foodbank system can be reduced to numbers, each number ultimately representing individual people in the system.

EFN's warehouse itself would be a performing artist's dream facility. The second floor of the Hennepin Center for the Arts in downtown Minneapolis has two, freespan dance studios – each two stories high – and accompanying office space that occupy roughly 7,500 sq. ft. The EFN space is larger by more than 8-1/2 times!

Volunteers provided EFN with more than 200,000 hours of service last year, worth $3.9 million. Nearly 75 hours were donated today by 27 members of the Twin Cities Gay Men's Chorus in an outing organized by Jason Schuck, the chorus president.

The day's efforts were inspired by the theme of the chorus's March concert performances: "Food, Glorious Food!" Songs with a culinary flavor will be accented by advice from guest food diva Lynne Rosetto Kasper, host of The Splendid Table® on American Public Media.

Under the direction of Volunteer Coordinator Sarah Cobb, 17 guys sorted through tons of donated canned and packaged goods for 2-1/2 hours, discarding a motley variety of paper bags and boxes while checking expiration dates. For present purposes, all peanut butter items, a considerable number, were set aside. T
hen, they assembled a balanced collection of foodstuffs into the Chiquita cartons – whose ratio of tops to bottoms was duly noted by some to be equal. Packed cartons were stacked on pallets, three deep, three wide, and five high. Just shy of eight pallets were stacked containing nearly 13,000 pounds of food.

Ten other men re-packed meat into 365 "mega-meat packages," each providing servings for an average family unit of four.

Once the statistics are entered into the tracking system, EFN will send an email to its member agencies telling them it has 13,000 pounds of food ready for distribution. Agencies will then order what they need, either for delivery by EFN or pickup by the agency. Approximately 4,900 people will eat food from today's packaging.

The average foodshelf site in EFN's network receives 800 pounds of free food per month, equal to 50 bags of groceries. On average, this translates into a distribution of one bag of food per person, per family.

According to EFN's website, for each individual, corporate, foundation, and government dollar donated, 92¢ is expended directly on programs. The agency does not charge its members fees of any kind for its services, and operates with a lean staff of 27 and a fleet of five vehicles. In addition to distributing free food, EFN makes bulk purchases at discount to resell without markup to its members.

The United States does not lack for sufficient food to feed its people. What is lacking is the capacity of individuals to purchase what is needed. A recent survey by Hormel Foods reported that one in four Minnesotans said they or a family member had visited a food shelf. One in 10 said they or someone in their family went to bed hungry in the past month because of lack of money for food.

Each year, 96 billion pounds of food, 27% of the U.S. food supply, is wasted and thrown away. EFN's Lost Harvest program attempts to salvage some of this. Here's how.

Consumers have become accustomed to purchasing produce of uniform size and color from their grocery displays. Consequently, at the U.S./Mexico border at Nogales, Arizona, thousands of tons of perfectly good, fresh produce are sent to landfills because they are misshapen or off-color. One truck, 35,000 pounds, of such produce is worth $100,000 and can feed 8,000 individuals. EFN's only cost is that of its transport from Arizona to Minnesota for $4,000 per truck. In 2008, EFN transported and distributed 1 million pounds of produce – with a value of $2.8 million – at a total transport cost of around $114,000.

Like the rest of this operation, that is nonprofit and free market efficiency at its best. Even our new, Wall Street socialists should support that!

The Twin Cities Gay Men's Chorus will present "Food, Glorious Food!" at the Ted Mann Concert Hall, 2128 4th Street South, Minneapolis, Fri-Sat, Mar. 27-28, 8pm. Tickets: $23-$43, 612.624.2345.

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Exhibit: A dance legacy, University of Minnesota

Minneapolis, Minnesota

In 1962, Loyce Houlton founded a small dance school near the University of Minnesota that became the Minnesota Dance Theatre (MDT). Known for blending classical with contemporary dance, MDT engages the community and cultivates young dancers. For four decades, the company has performed the “Nutcracker Fantasy,” originally choreographed by Houlton and one of the most sought after holiday events in Minnesota.

“Houlton’s Legacy: The Magic of Dance” is a colorful survey and exhibit of MDT's evolution. The exhibit features selections from the University of Minnesota Libraries’ Performing Arts Collection and includes personal notes and choreographic sketches from Houlton, photos of the company, original costumes, props, set designs, and continuous viewing of live performances from the past to the present.

An essay by arts journalist Camille LeFevre, "A life in Dance, Resurrected" details the horrifying and dramatic story of how MDT's records were saved from destruction 20 years ago, and describes how they are displayed in the current exhibit.

Houlton's Legacy: The Magic of Dance, thru Feb. 20, 1st floor gallery, Elmer L. Andersen Library, West Bank Campus, University of Minnesota, Minneapolis. 8:30am-4:15pm M-F; 9am-1pm Sa. Free.