In August 1991, Brass Tacks Theatre of Minneapolis announced it was closing, effective immediately. The theatre had no debt, the board and artists were united, the past season successful and fund-raising for the upcoming season secure. The theatre thanked all of its funders prior to the public announcement and served notice it would not be able to accept over $40,000 in funds already awarded for fiscal year ’92. The theatre’s annual budget was a little less than $200,000 at the time of closing. Brass Tacks was widely known and respected for its productions of new works by writers such as Lee Blessing, Sherry Kramer, Darrah Cloud, Kevin Kling, Jon Klein, Steven Dietz, Mac Wellman, Eric Overmyer, Jeff Jones, Len Jenkin and Jim Stowell.Order now
So you want to know why. There must be something, some dirty little secret, a buried body or two something. No one just walks away from her baby. In fact there are lots of dirty little secrets and hundreds of buried bodies. Look around, is there one in your office?
In the months before we went public with the news of the theatre’s closing, I kept finding myself in Kafkaesque situations, announcing Brass Tacks’s impending demise to people who were busy arranging funerals of their own.
The first came last spring when the associate artistic director of a prominent theatre came to Minneapolis to see me. She and her theatre had promised to do a production of my play, Dr. M. Kurtz’s Christian Radio Hour, in the summer. We went to lunch, and she kept asking me questions about Brass Tacks, which I kept shrugging off. Finally, I asked about production plans for my play. I learned she had been let go in a round of budget cuts and the second stage was backing off from new work. She wanted me to hire her, that’s why she was in town. I told her I didn’t think there would be anything for her at Brass Tacks. What I didn’t tell her is that there wouldn’t be a Brass Tacks.
The same spring, I got a call from Keryl McCord, the executive director for the League of Chicago Theatres. She wanted to fly me down to give a talk to arts groups in trouble, as I had in San Francisco in 1989, after Brass Tacks had been successfully streamlined. Thinking she would not want an ex-artistic director, I came clean about my decision to resign. She said she wanted me at the conference more than ever. A few weeks later an assistant phoned: the conference had been indefinitely postponed lack of funds.
In late July, I called Nello McDaniel, executive director of FEDAPT, the arts management service organization, and told him the news. He seemed distracted. He was packing boxes. FEDAPT was closing. Nello and George Thom have moved on to a new approach and new organization, Arts Action Research, because they,re so convinced that old methods are not going to bring relief and change to the arts.
I wrote Ben Cameron, director of the Theater Program at the National Endowment of the Arts, so we could stop the grant wheel from churning there. I’ve known and admired Ben for years and felt especially close to him because he led me to re-organize Brass Tacks during a fiscal crisis the theatre experienced in 1988. I wrote: “We are not in crisis or debt, the board and I are closer than ever, our new structure perfectly fine.
“I want to pursue my writing. After much thought I have concluded that being an artist while running a small not-for-profit in this currently hostile climate is a flawed strategy. The theatre’s survival seems to hinge on factors frequently beyond our control. The Twin Cities’ largest newspaper is giving the arts significantly less coverage. Theatre rental is rising and suitable space options narrowing. Spiraling production costs have rapidly outpaced the theatre’s ability to generate revenue, earned or contributed. In one year our health benefits costs alone nearly doubled. Because of the nature of our mission we have been unable to attract a sizable core audience, yet we are increasingly dependent on ticket sales. The arts industry is over-regulated and plagued by changing demographics. I am discouraged by the relentless attack of the arts from the left and the right. I am sick to death of Donald Wildmon and political correctness. One of my childhood memories is of visiting some elderly relatives in Gerardville, Penn. after all the coal had been mined out. With Irish stubborness, they had stayed on while the town dried up. It was a learning experience….”
I believe that what’s happening in this country is reflected in our arts: diminishing, divided, dishonest and in debt. It’s a time for speaking truth, for asserting our place in public. Let us go boldly not whining and backbiting into the night. Let the lines be drawn. Research and development is our hope for the future. Actively participating as artists in the education of our nation’s children is essential. If the price of maintaining the NEA is to be labeled deviant, let the right have it. If funders want us to become social workers to solve all of society’s ills, let’s tell them to keep their money. We must reject the roles of martyr, pervert and politically correct messiah.
We have allowed government, funders, boards and administrators to define us rather than defining ourselves. We are part of a massive struggle for the cultural and spiritual agenda of this country. It is no time for Band-aids. We must confront the idea that the world has fundamentally changed, and that our future depends on our acceptance and willingness to embrace that change.