I wrote this essay in September 2019 to accompany the announcement that In the Heart of the Beast Puppet and Mask Theatre would take a year off from its beloved MayDay Festival after 45 years. Originally published at hobt.org/about/imagine/letter-from-the-executive-director/.
Time to Change
From HOBT Executive Director Corrie Zoll
In the Heart of the Beast Puppet and Mask Theatre has decided to take a year off from our annual MayDay Parade, Festival and Ceremony, after its 45th year. HOBT will begin immediately to assemble the team that will redesign a more equitable and resilient MayDay celebration for 2021. This document is intended to provide more details and background for that decision as it was announced in this letter to our friends and neighbors. More materials about the decision and how to get involved are available at hobt.org/imagine.
HOBT is referring to the work of this coming year as MayDay in Metamorphosis. The caterpillar in its cocoon is not at rest. It uses everything it built in its previous form to recreate itself as a new creature with a new purpose. In the same way, this decision is not walking away from the important work of MayDay but rather walking into it more directly and giving that work the time needed to succeed.
This decision to put off HOBT's Mayday until 2021 did not come lightly. HOBT has known for years the challenges related to producing a festival. The challenges facing MayDay today fall generally into three categories. Even if MayDay’s only challenge was addressing the financial and administrative challenges facing festivals across Minnesota, that would be a big challenge. Second, even if we were merely transitioning from Sandy Spieler’s 45 remarkable years of artistic leadership, that would be daunting work on its own. Third, it’s time for HOBT to address what so many arts institutions in Minnesota should be addressing right now around white decision making structures, cultural appropriation, microaggressions, and just plain racism. HOBT is using this moment of transition to take on all three at once.
Challenges for the Wider Arts Community
In January, HOBT shared a wider set of challenges we see for mid-sized arts organizations in Minnesota. Expectations of cultural organizations have grown, and operating costs have grown with them. General operating grants are more scarce, project grants have more strings attached, and individual giving, while still a vital source of support, is less predictable than in generations past.
Other arts community innovators have agreed with HOBT that this is a challenging time for arts organizations. Carl Atiya Swanson wrote On Fragility & the Work We Do Together to coincide with Art a Whirl 2019. Scott Artley wrote The Final Act: Sunsetting a Nonprofit Arts Organization to explore the decision to sunset Patrick's Cabaret. Kate Barr, Executive Director of Propel Non-profits wrote the blog post 8 Trends in the Nonprofit Sector in June, reflecting the idea that these challenges expand far beyond the arts sector.
Challenges for Festivals
In our January announcements, HOBT shared a list of other arts organizations and festivals that closed or faced crises related to these challenges in recent years. Now we can add to that list of festivals facing the same challenges. In 2019, the Twin Cities saw Art Shanty Projects take a year off. Eaux Claires Music festival took a year off. Grand Old Days was “cancelled and then un-cancelled”, as was Art-a-Whirl. Interest in these festivals was not the problem. Like the record numbers for HOBT's MayDay in 2019, Art Shanty Projects saw record attendance in the year before they went on hiatus. Others have similar stories. The challenges facing festivals are a subset of the challenges facing arts nonprofits. As attendance grows, so do expectations and expenses. Festival income, especially for festivals that do not charge admission or sell beer, does not increase at the same rate.
Funding a festival without an admission fee is challenging. Foundations don't generally give grants to projects that have been done before. The State Arts Board grants Legacy Amendment funds to festivals, but not to organizations that also receive operating support grants (like HOBT does). These are annually competitive grants. Some festivals have received Arts Board festival grants in multiple consecutive years, only to find themselves cancelling their now-established festivals when Arts Board support is declined (and, presumably, and equally-worthy festival somewhere else is funded instead).
Challenges for HOBT
In the context of these challenges, HOBT also weathered a serious financial crisis over the past nine months. In November, after losing $130,000 in anticipated funding, and carrying the programs and staffing levels we had at that time, HOBT was on track to be out of cash in June and in a position to shut down completely. We revised HOBT's annual budget midyear, cutting programming and staff to balance income and expenses. Our goals in this revised budget were to produce MayDay 2019, and to end our fiscal year in August with enough cash on hand to keep the organization open.
Setting these as our goals came at a great cost. Entangled in this emergency re-budgeting was a monumental change in HOBT's artistic leadership. Four years earlier, in 2015, Sandy Spieler stepped away from her 42-year role as HOBT's Artistic Director. Sandy continued to lead MayDay and direct other projects, but artistic leadership shifted to a shared model with Sandy, Alison Heimstead, Bart Buch and Steve Ackerman sharing the role. That group was aware that a team of four White artistic leaders was increasingly problematic as HOBT sought to shift to a more equitable model. In early 2018, Sandy decided that 2019 would be the last year she would lead MayDay. The team began exploring models for a transition to new HOBT artistic leadership. We assembled a committee of volunteers to advise us in this work. At that time, we hoped a shift would happen in 2019. With budget cuts that reduced HOBT staff by more than half, this leadership transition was put on hold indefinitely.
During this time of pain and loss, MayDay 2019 surpassed expectations in almost every way. As soon as HOBT made that January announcement, messages of support began pouring in. You told us you want MayDay to go on. Based on police estimates, we believe 75,000 people participated on May 5. That's a 25% increase from record numbers in 2018 and 50% more than record attendance in 2015. For the first time in organizational memory, MayDay income surpassed expenses.
But this success did not address the core challenges listed at the top of this document. MayDay is still financially unpredictable (even in strong years), MayDay is still facing leadership succession, and MayDay must still address its culture of inclusion and equity. HOBT's overwhelmingly White board and staff could see the problems that needed to be addressed and knew that authentic connection with core stakeholder communities was needed if we were to develop solutions rooted in justice and equity. Like many institutions, HOBT does not have a track record for doing that well. We knew we would need outside help.
Some white folks are not sure what we mean when we say we have a problem. And we understand that most people watching the parade don’t see a problem that needs solving. HOBT is still on a steep learning curve in understanding the problem, and we encourage other white folks to begin the long healing process of understanding whiteness and how it impacts our own lives and the world around us. I hope we can agree that Minnesota has some of the widest racial disparities in the country and that disparate treatment of people of color is built into our institutions. Even progressive people running progressive institutions get caught in the trap of maintaining old ways of doing things. Changing the world starts with changing ourselves.
Here is an example of what I see at HOBT. I like to say that, if you sit on the curb and watch the MayDay Parade go by, you are likely to see a more genuinely diverse range of authentic cultural expression than you will see in any one place on any one day anywhere in this state or any state touching this one. We should all feel good about that. But if you go a couple of steps up the decision-making process, HOBT still has a very White decision-making structure. Voices of color are welcomed to the table but expected to quickly get on board with the way things have been done around here in the past (sometimes for decades). New people are welcomed, but new ideas are not. HOBT has actually pretty good at recruiting new artists of color into the MayDay process. Those artists report feeling welcomed at first, and feeling like HOBT will be an artistic home for them. But then, two or three years later, those same artists leave HOBT feeling unwelcome, silenced, and - at worst - taken advantage of. Ironically, that diversity you see out on the street comes at the expense of artists of color feeling shut out of the decision-making process.
HOBT board and staff see the changes that are needed in the world around us, and the changes that are needed in institutions if we are to live up to our own promises of an equitable society. I see the best - the only - place to do this work is in ourselves and with our neighbors. In a very personal way, that is what it means to me to work in the heart of the beast. This is an opportunity to be honest about the ways in which we have allowed culturally White systems to harm people, and to use this time of transition to make meaningful change.
The IMAGINE MAYDAY Community Engagement Process
In February, HOBT began a search for consultants. In April, HOBT began working with consulting group Imagine Deliver to design and lead a community engagement plan. Imagine Deliver has a track record for helping organizations through very similar transitions. We chose this group because they have a stated focus on Equity work and were able to bring valuable partners to the table.
One thing HOBT has done in the past is to gather feedback (about the Avalon, about artistic leadership, about a future vision), only to find ourselves as an organization unable to follow through on the feedback we received. For those of you who contributed to those efforts, I thank you for your time and your passion and thank you for sticking with us through these iterations of working toward change. The Imagine MayDay process was specifically designed to lead to actionable recommendations.
Imagine Deliver Engagement Strategist Dameun Strange designed an engagement process. We made a decision early in the process to center the voices of artists of color, queer artists, and other artists who are underrepresented in arts institutions and have felt shut out of the Mayday process. Imagine Deliver brought in subcontractor Juxtaposition Arts to design a community engagement survey, and Juxtaposition Arts staff spent the day on MayDay talking with people in Powderhorn Park. 418 people completed the survey, both in person on Mayday and later online. 43 artists attended artist-centered gatherings that promoted conversation about the barriers of the existing MayDay structure and the possibilities if the event were redesigned. HOBT artists, board and staff members conducted 81 one-on-one interviews in which people shared their hopes, dreams, concerns and fears for the future.
We did not talk with everyone we wanted to. And HOBT very much plans to continue having conversations. As designed, the goal was not to gather feedback from every single person who has a stake in MayDay. That could take years. At this early stage, with guidance from Imagine Deliver, we wanted to talk to enough people so that we would have a representative sample that could be used to draw the main themes of what HOBT's core communities were thinking about HOBT and about the world around us. Enough people so that we could feel like we captured a representative picture.
What You Told Us
Imagine Deliver drafted a report summarizing the themes gathered from more than 500 people who participated in interviews, artist sessions, and surveys. That report is still in draft form. HOBT will publish a final version when it is available. For now I will share with you the themes that I see myself when I look at the early results.
- South Minneapolis needs an artist hub for BIPOC artists, queer artists and other artists underrepresented in arts institutions. MayDay and the Avalon provide HOBT with an opportunity to establish that hub.
- MayDay should be rooted in community abundance. The structure of the event should more closely match the richness of resources, financial and otherwise, present in our South Minneapolis neighborhoods.
- HOBT should shift from a role as a gatekeeper of what ideas speak to the needs of our neighbors to a role of facilitating the voices of our neighbors to tell their own stories.
This is what our community wants. We trust that if we had been able to talk with twice as many people, the major themes would be the same. HOBT wants to make good on a promise to listen and to act based on what we hear. Imagine Deliver recommended that the only way to make enough time and space to work toward these goals in a meaningful way would be to take a year off from producing MayDay.
Making the Decision
HOBT staff leadership (Corrie Zoll, Linnea House, Steve Ackerman, Claire Curran, and Naomi Campion) and MayDay Festival Director Elina Kotlyar unanimously agree that a year off from MayDay is our best path forward. On September 5, HOBT's board of directors unanimously approved an annual budget that supports this decision.
The key deciding factor for myself and others was this: over the coming year, HOBT can choose either to produce the Mayday that South Minneapolis has come to know and love and that hurts artists and people of color in the process, or we can invest the time and resources needed to change that process and design a MayDay that lives up to its own values. We cannot do both. I choose to invest in the future.
Though the recommendation is to take a year off from producing MayDay, work will begin immediately toward a 2021 MayDay. The caterpillar in its cocoon is not at rest. It is using everything it built in its previous life to recreate itself as a new creature with a new purpose.
A MayDay Council
Work will begin immediately to assemble a MayDay Council made up of IBPOC artists and community members who will be tasked with using what HOBT learned from four months of community engagement to shape a new MayDay process that is truly collaborative, community-owned, and equitable. Over a two-year term, this team will be tasked with designing a collaborative MayDay model and will represent a wide range of the communities present in our neighborhoods. Compensation, childcare, travel expenses, accessible meeting spaces, and food will be provided. This group will meet twice a month at most, with a day-long kick-off retreat in January. Nominations open today and will be open until October 12th. Nominations can be made by filling out a short nomination form which can be found here or by calling HOBT Executive Director Corrie Zoll at 612-540-5366.
What Else to Expect at HOBT
While MayDay in Metamorphosis will be the core of HOBT's work in the coming year, other HOBT programming will continue on a smaller scale than in previous years. HOBT will continue to support the development of new works of puppetry. With a grant from NEA, HOBT will work with Julie Boada, Rebekah Crisanta de Ybarra and Elle Thoni to develop and premiere three new short works exploring themes of environmental justice. Pending approval of a grant from the Jim Henson Foundation, Steve Ackerman and Junauda Petrus-Nasah will develop a workshop production over the winter. Artist residencies with schools, faith communities and others will continue. What has previously been HOBT’s Saturday Morning Matinees is currently happening monthly at the Midtown Global Market. Puppet Cabaret nights will continue. HOBT will experiment with new ways to share the Avalon Theater including hosting Barebones Productions for two months as they build their Halloween Extravaganza as well as hosting the work of Free Black Dirt as we partner with them on other projects.
A Call to Action
Here’s how you can support MayDay in Metamorphosis:
Nominate individuals to serve on the MayDay Council Over a two-year term, this team will be tasked with designing a collaborative MayDay model and will represent a wide range of the communities present in our neighborhoods. Compensation, childcare, travel expenses, accessible meeting spaces, and food will be provided. This group will meet twice a month at most, with a day-long kick-off retreat in January. Nominations open today and will be open until October 24th. Nominations can be made by filling out a short nomination form which can be found here or by calling HOBT Executive Director Corrie Zoll at 612-540-5366.
Sign up for text updates. Text MayDay to 77222 for updates on the MayDay in Metamorphosis process. We will also continue to make updates as the MayDay Council is selected and convened at hobt.org/imagine.
Become a monthly donor. This work of transforming HOBT’s MayDay requires financial support. By giving monthly, your gift builds a predictable source of income to fund a resilient and equitable future for MayDay.