The Final Act
Sunsetting a Nonprofit Arts Organization
Scene from a Funeral
3 June 2018 marked the end of an era, and the dress code was “your FUNeral finest.” The FUNeral, as we called it (billed with the tagline “like a funeral, but FUNNER”), was a party celebrating the end of Patrick’s Cabaret. It was the last show hosted by the organization, a radically inclusive queer-led performing arts incubator in Minneapolis known for supporting provocative work. This wasn’t a somber affair; this was a final chance to say goodbye in a flurry of color, glitter, humor, and togetherness. Featuring performances and a dance party, the event was both a parody of funereal traditions and a very real ritual to help the vast community of artists and audiences mourn, grieve, and ultimately accept the finality of an organization that had been an artistic home to many hundreds of performers over its three-decade lifespan.
Six months earlier, faced with the reality of closing Patrick’s Cabaret within the year, I had a great deal of difficulty finding resources to help me do it well. Even discussing a closure is taboo, so there is little documentation of best practices. This is the account of an organization at the end of its lifecycle, and how we embraced its final act and staged a beautiful end to its story.
On Saturday 26 April 1986, dancer-choreographer Patrick Scully invited other artists to join him in the basement gymnasium of Saint Stephen’s Catholic School in a one-night show of works-in-progress. What became known as “Patrick’s Cabaret” grew into a regular underground happening known for showcasing socially subversive work, particularly by artists with marginalized identities. By 1994 the Cabaret was located in an unassuming (and illegal) storefront venue that had also served as Patrick’s apartment, and a performance that included ritual incision by HIV-positive artist Ron Athey sparked a national debate around art and censorship. In 1997 Patrick’s Cabaret became a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization after a decade underground, and in 1999 secured a building thanks to a “fairy godmother.” Atop the renovated firehouse building’s cupola, at the highest point in the neighborhood, flew a rainbow flag that became an iconic symbol of queer culture claiming its visibility. Patrick Scully left the organization in 2008 to pursue his own performance work, although he stayed closely connected as a regular artist and champion.
I was promoted from performing arts curator to executive artistic director in 2016. Just weeks under my belt with the new title, the fairy godmother landlord, for reasons she never divulged, suddenly announced she was terminating the organization’s twenty-year lease three years early, requiring us to move out in just a few weeks and setting in motion a series of financial and operational crises. The board and I decided to transform Patrick’s Cabaret into a mobile organization presenting performances at partner venues throughout Minneapolis and exploring new ways to help artists navigate their careers. In just a year we were directly serving twice the number of artists we had served in our old building, producing impactful and inclusive programs. It seemed like we had effectively turned around the organization and were entering boldly into a new era.
In January 2018, however, we announced that the organization would sunset about six months later. Writing about the organization’s final season of shows, a local newspaper headline adeptly pinpointed the tragedy: “Patrick’s Cabaret prepares to bow out of Twin Cities performance scene it built.”
This wasn’t a somber affair; this was a final chance to say goodbye in a flurry of color, glitter, humor, and togetherness.
Sunset on the Horizon
For-profit businesses close all the time, and the reason is usually pretty straightforward: money. If we’re talking business, nonprofit organizations are no different. Even if an arts organization is not organized to make profit, it must earn or otherwise secure the resources to operate. But what is peculiar to nonprofits is that our discourse around the very nature of their existence is firmly about community value. We don’t do the work to make money; we do it because it makes the world a better place. We rely on that presumption of community value to drive people to take action, whether that manifests as buying a ticket or making a donation.
So when a nonprofit organization cannot secure the resources it needs to operate, it’s easy to live in denial about it. The community need still exists, thus the organization that addresses that need must also continue to exist. We’re so used to making it work with dramatically limited resources, so we expect there to be a way to pull through just over the horizon. This underlying mythology about nonprofits drives the “we must continue” mentality that ultimately means organizations again and again fall apart in crisis. To leaders, both staff and boards of directors, ceasing operations feels like personal failure, when in fact it’s a symptom of the ongoing failure of our society to adequately support critical community services, like providing arts and culture, when their value exists outside the framework of capitalism.
For Patrick’s Cabaret, our business model was broken. Our cashflow projections showed that we were going to go into the red in August later that year, and we weren’t going to come out of it. In the two years since losing the building we were unable to replace the flexible and relatively stable earned income we had once generated through building rentals, and our decreased budget size meant that in the next year we would become suddenly ineligible for continued support from our two largest and most consistent funders. It would take an immediate miracle infusion of sustainable funding we could expect year after year to make the case that the organization could reasonably continue.
When a nonprofit organization cannot secure the resources it needs to operate, it’s easy to live in denial about it.
All of this was happening in a broader context that compounded these challenges. Grantors are less willing to provide general operating support, especially to smaller organizations, so we scrambled to assemble a patchwork series of project grants—many of which would not support our core program producing mainstage cabarets because it wasn’t “new” enough. We diligently grew our individual donor and audience base, but as an organization increasingly serving, and indeed at all levels made up of, communities facing structural barriers in access to resources like time and wealth, more flexible sources of revenue like individual giving and box office sales were not a significant source of income (and had never been, even when we were in the building). The most important factor, in the end, was that leadership (again, both staff and board) were burnt out, a common occurrence for a small nonprofit. This is not about making excuses but instead about disrupting the mythology that has us avoid even confronting the possibility of closure because we conflate personal failure with admitting that an operation is unsustainable.
There are, of course, many reasons that an organization might be confronted with decisions about its continued existence. An organization could be facing the loss (by happy retirement or unhappy circumstances) of a founder or longtime key leader. An opportunity might emerge to shift a keystone program, or the entire organization, into another organization that might better support its activities. An organization might even find that its mission has been accomplished. Regardless of the factors leading to the sunset, it’s important to destigmatize sunsetting because sometimes it is the best option.
Regardless of the factors leading to the sunset, it’s important to destigmatize sunsetting because sometimes it is the best option.
Making the Decision
After presenting financial projections to the board that showed we would be out of resources in eight months, we explored possible solutions to raise additional revenue, both in the short- and long-term. But our get-rich-quick schemes were not realistic, so we looked at possible ways to reduce expenses. We could have chosen to fight closure by dramatically decreasing the size and scope of the organization, which would require moving to a volunteer-run model. However, it was clear that trying to operate from an even more fragile infrastructure would mean our programming would suffer and provide diminished impacts for artists. We decided, in an act that I will call courage, to declare that survival itself wasn’t the goal.
So on that cold Minnesotan January evening, sitting at a quiet wine bar where we held our board meeting, ours was the table in the corner where everyone was crying. Ours was the table where we chose to overcome the stigma of closing an organization because it meant doing the thing we thought was best for the community at large.
What I didn’t expect was how making the decision was actually the most difficult part of the process. In some ways we had been having a version of the conversation for many months, but the actual inflection point of making a clear decision was the heaviest emotionally because it meant we had chosen a path with no return. Did we actually explore all options? Did we miss connecting with the right funder, or wealthy individual donor, or landlord who could have saved the organization? It was Kate Barr at Propel, an organization with which we had worked closely to adapt our business model over the last two years after losing our building, who said the sentence that made all the difference: “If there were a way out of this, you would have found it, so I’m confident you made the right decision.” Trusting in our decision let me focus on sunsetting and make every moment count before we brought down the curtain for good.
It was clear that trying to operate from an even more fragile infrastructure would mean our programming would suffer and provide diminished impacts for artists.
Leading into the Sunset
We committed to making the sunsetting process transparent, thoughtful, and (in a way) beautiful. Our first action was to insist on calling our closure a “sunset,” a conscious word choice I borrowed from the philanthropic sector where it is used to describe a grantor intentionally spending down its endowment. The concept of a sunset poetically captured the sense of both finality and beauty that we wanted to inspire in the moment. We rebranded our final spring season as our Sunset Season, and encouraged everyone to “come out and enjoy the Sunset.”
Making the decision when we did allowed us to produce our spring programming as we had always intended, on our own terms. We developed a detailed timeline of activities that would see us through this transition. We timed the announcement in widening circles, starting with staff and key funders. Knowing that the word would spread quickly, even with an explicit request for close stakeholders to keep it under their hats, we carefully crafted a public announcement and series of FAQs to explain the situation.
Sunset activities, which we treated like additional programming running parallel to our regular season, were developed to honor the past and pass the torch to the future. We published a retrospective book from the organization’s archive, then donated the archive itself to the University of Minnesota’s Jean-Nickolaus Tretter Collection in Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgender Studies. We preserved some of our most successful activities by transferring programs to new entities. Our annual mainstage cabaret focused on new queer performance, Controlled Burn, transitioned to become a program of 20% Theatre, a like-minded company in town. We also hosted forward-looking conversations called Sunsetting Community Roundtables where we explored common challenges and began identifying collective solutions for the next generation of artists on the edge of culture.
There was a kind of freedom that came with our final season. We still needed to raise a half-year’s worth of funding from individual donors, but for the first time in my career I had no grants to write. In a field where we are so often pulled in so many directions trying to appeal to those in power, we were able to focus our energies on only those activities that made us, and the community we loved, feel more whole. Those last six months, in many ways, were an opportunity to operate the way we wanted to, and imagine a world where that was the norm.
The Final Act
The performance that concluded the FUNeral—indeed the very last one under the umbrella of Patrick’s Cabaret—was a lone drag performer reprising her piece from a show featuring artists with disabilities. Projected behind her was the photo of our iconic rainbow flag atop the historic firehouse where we claimed space for seventeen years. Singing “Somewhere Over the Rainbow,” she embodied the enduring vision of Patrick’s Cabaret, and reminded us to dare to dream of a better world at the end of the rainbow.