The Northeast Minneapolis Arts Association (NEMAA) is in a precarious financial situation, the organization’s board and interim executive director reported to nearly 100 of NEMAA’s hundreds of members gathered at Public Functionary gallery on Wednesday, October 24.
In opening remarks, Greg Foley, board chair, talked about finances going from “extremely lean” to “perilous,” of vendors not getting paid, and of executive director Dameun Strange stepping down at the end of September.
Foley said the situation had reached the point where “the words ‘insolvent’ and ‘viability’” surfaced at board meetings.
Lack of funds
Reasons for the shortfall were explained by board members and Interim Executive Director Anna Becker over the course of an hour-and-a-half question and answer session moderated by Carl Atiya Swanson, associate director of Springboard for the Arts.
NEMAA counted on but did not receive a $60,000 grant this fall from the Minnesota State Arts Board (MSAB) for the 2019 Art-A-Whirl, funds which have been granted in previous years, nor did it receive in September two other new-to-NEMAA grants of $10,000 each for which it had applied. When asked about the organization’s debt, NEMAA treasurer Archana Desai said the organization had $60,000 in payables, much of that owed for printing costs.
Members weighed in. “I am upset about it because when I was board president, we had six months reserved cash. We were very adamant about having the organization be financially solvent,” said Susan Wagner, NEMAA president in 2010-2011 and board member for seven years. “I would like assurance from the board that you would not put in a line item in a budget any grant that you may or may not get.”
“What will you do to change the fiscal oversight moving forward so this organization is sustainable? You spent money you didn’t have, and that borders on unethical,” said Dik Bolger, CEO and owner of Bolger Vision Beyond Print, a vendor that NEMAA has not paid.
Board member Paul Ostrow explained that the Bolger’s printing company had provided discounted printing of the Art-A-Whirl directory throughout its history. “The catalog is possible only because of the generosity you have shown. It is extremely painful to all of us that there are unpaid bills,” Ostrow said.
Ostrow said that the board is discussing not only expenses, but financial policies and procedures needed to move forward and would be telling members about them. “All of us are committed to really regaining everyone’s confidence, and that’s not’s going to happen overnight,” he said.
Member Alison Bergblom Johnson said she was concerned there might be problems with accounting on grant reports, which might affect securing future grants.
Becker said that she can guarantee that there have been no grant funds misallocated. Board Chair Foley said that they are having an independent audit of the last three years. Other members asked about seeing the budget and financials, and Foley explained that the 990 tax form required of nonprofits is presented at each annual meeting. The 2017 form was due [November 15], he said and would be shared with members. The 2014, 2015 and 2016 990 filings are available by searching for NEMAA at Guidestar.org.
NEMAA treasurer Archana Desai said that the finance committee has begun to build out a financial calendar with clear tasks over the course of the year. “Another piece that I think will be important for us is to think of the financials not in term of our actuals versus budget but actually to understand that cash is king,” she said.
Becker outlined the actions planned by the board to get the organization back on track, including securing a $20,000 loan from Propel Nonprofits, which will be used to pay all individuals who have worked for the organization, but not businesses, which will have to wait until the start of next year. She said NEMAA also received a $10,000 gift from an anonymous donor.
Becker also mentioned Give to the Max fundraising in November, an end-of-year appeal, and in early next year, ad sales for publications, membership renewals, and a plan to look for sponsors for aspects of Art-A-Whirl previously covered by the MSAB grant, such as the trolleys and police detail.
She said that in June 2019 she will “cycle out,” leaving the organization operating without a paid staff member, with hopes that by the end of 2019 an executive director could be hired. She said funds will be set aside for a coordinator for the AutumNE Member Art Show, an annual event that the NEMAA board cancelled this year.
The issue of communication between board and members was brought up many times. Becker addressed this in her opening remarks. “In the last couple years, we haven’t been talking to our members all that often, and our and members haven’t really had a chance to talk to us.”
Carmen Gutierrez-Bolger, who served on the board for “many years,” and as chair in 2012 and 2013, said: “When the mission of NEMAA changed in our publication, that blew me away, because no one had asked me if I wanted to change my mission.”
“The board has looked at ways to have more community representation on our committees, to get more contributions. We’re looking to expand that,” said board member Dean Trisko. Foley said that the board will have building meetings with the building captains, and will use them earlier in the planning of Art-A-Whirl.
Several board members and Becker mentioned a member survey that they planned on sending the next day, and some discussion centered around whether that was an effective way to reach out to members, questioning the number of returns, as well as whether members would be able to give informed opinions on aspects of the survey without more information.
“We’re here right now, let’s discuss.” said member Loretta Bebeau.
Jennifer Young, who owns several studio buildings in Northeast and also is a board member of the Northeast Minneapolis Arts District, offered “a word of caution” about a survey. “I think there’s tremendous energy in Northeast and in this room … people getting together, hearing each other, letting the organic ideas feed off each other, that’s where the richness is,” she said.
Changes in direction
Board member Dean Trisko addressed the change in mission of the organization brought up by Gutierrez-Bolger. “I think the vision behind some of the initiatives that have rolled out in the last year and a half or two were to try to make our experience grow as a community, to try bring in new people who may be underrepresented, to try to keep this organization growing with new members, younger members, members that don’t look like me.
“My biggest regret is not what we’ve done but the fact that a number of these initiatives did not get fully realized or brought to fruition,” Trisko said.
A handout and email to members described the initiatives pursued in the last year-and-a-half, including the creation of a magazine; discounted memberships for high school and college students; Art N| Motion, a showcase of artists’ processes during Art-A-Whirl, which replaced a silent auction; workshops providing professional development for artists; a new website, rebranding process and mobile app development; increased newspaper, skyway, and radio advertising, and the hiring of a part-time designer/social media manager.
Several comments at the meeting focused on the absence of a traditional member directory for the 2018 Art-A-Whirl. It was replaced by N Studio Magazine, an 8½-inch by 11-inch 90-page publication that included profiles of several artists, an article about NEMAA’s [$7,000] re-branding, with the directory of artists limited to 16 pages toward the end of the magazine and listing the artists only by building.
Directories for previous years had a smaller layout size and listed the artists by building, alphabetically, and also by medium, and included images, phone numbers, e-mail and web addresses.
Becker promised a directory for the 2019 Art-A-Whirl but did not elaborate.
In an interview the day after the meeting, Becker said that the budget for the spring magazine and a similar fall magazine for November was about $100,000; the fall publication has been changed to a digital version and has an improved design, she said.
She also shared that salaries for herself, Strange, and the designer/social media coordinator were about $100,000 total. According to 990 forms from 2014 through 2016, that’s more than twice that of previous years.
Gutierrez-Bolger encouraged the board to consider that NEMAA is a member-driven organization and to explore collaborations with the Northeast Minneapolis Arts District, the Northeast Minneapolis Chamber, the rest of the community, and other organizations.
“We are all of us together able to be stronger as opposed to separate,” said Carmen Gutierrez-Bolger to much applause from the audience.
Several members encouraged the board to enlist the membership to get things done. Alison Price of the Northrup King Building spoke about the “incredibly bountiful amount of opportunities” that came with NEMAA membership and her desire that members be more involved. She suggested that the board come up with 10-hour volunteer tasks. “Moving forward, I think we really need to work together … where we are actively participating in our own art destinies.”
Aisha Fromanski said that she took the position of NEMAA building captain for the California Building because she thought it would involve responsibility, but all she was asked to do was post flyers and remind members about renewing their dues. “I signed up to work. I signed up to connect the tenants in the California Building to NEMAA, so what I’m asking you is to take me up on what I was ready to do.”
Christine Levens, president of the Northeast Minneapolis Chamber, said that she was speaking on behalf of the chamber’s board and encouraged the NEMAA board to use the chamber’s resources. “We believe that every artist and every studio whether they’re a NEMAA member or not are an entrepreneur. They’re a part of this economy and that is incredibly valuable to us … We’re ready to support, so call on us when the time comes.”
When asked what resources the chamber could provide, Levens gave the example of an $8,000 grant in which the chamber had included NEMAA, and provided business-related workshops for artists.
Jennifer Young offered assistance from Northeast Minneapolis Arts District, which has held various forums. “I want to gather us together. The Arts District is willing to help you do that, already has a process for that,” she said.
Disclosures: Karen Kraco joined NEMAA in December 2018. She has not taken advantage of any benefits of membership yet, except for receiving member communications. Northeaster publisher Margo Ashmore was NEMAA’s Art-A-Whirl Coordinator in 2000-2002, and has been a vendor and sponsor of Art-A-Whirl. She is secretary of the Northeast Community Development Corporation, fiscal agent for Northeast Minneapolis Arts District.
Below: Archana Desai, Greg Foley, Dean Trisko, and the crowd. (Photos by Karen Kraco)