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The Cedar’s David Hamilton: ‘Our plan right now is to be very cautious’

“Our next phase,” Hamilton said, “is to figure out how we can continue to do some livestream programming, which will also be a campaign to help support musicians in the Twin Cities to present their music through us.”

Executive Director David Hamilton
Executive Director David Hamilton: "There’s so much uncertainty in this process, in the decision-making, that it has been very, very difficult."
Courtesy of the Cedar

If you haven’t been to the Cedar Cultural Center, you’ve missed one of the Twin Cities’ defining experiences, and you should immediately add it to your Things-To-Do-When-We-Can-Gather-Again list.

A single-story building with a prominent marquee, the Cedar is located in the heart of Cedar-Riverside in Minneapolis, the largest Somali neighborhood in Minnesota, the state with the most Somali immigrants in the nation. Built in 1948 as a movie theater, reimagined in 1989 as a live music venue, it has hosted thousands of concerts by local, national and international artists, and a few interplanetary ones.

The upright piano is always in tune. You’re never more than 30 feet from the stage, whether you’re sitting on a folding chair or standing in a crowd. The beer is cold and the malted-milk balls extra chocolatey. The sound is great.

David Hamilton became the Cedar’s executive director in August 2018, during its 30th season. In a little over a year and a half, he made major strides. After ending 2018 with a $58,000 deficit, the Cedar closed out 2019 with a $10,000 surplus. Financial processes were changed and staffing was reduced. The six members of the Cedar’s new Artist Collective – a group of local BIPOC (Black, Indigenous and People of Color) artists – were bringing the venue into the 21st century.

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“We were in a period of great transition,” Hamilton said by phone on Tuesday morning. “We were dealing with a lot of issues around inclusion and diversity and thinking about where the Cedar needed to go next. We have a history of folk and world music, but recently we were more engaged with the Somali community. We needed to have a diverse staff to meet the needs of and represent the communities we were working with. Part of my challenge was to keep the old and make the new and make the Cedar part of everybody. To keep our traditions and move forward, in terms of what we present.”

And then came COVID-19.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

MP: Where was the Cedar in March? What shape were you in?

DH: We came into 2020 feeling good and looking good. We were doing over 200 shows a year. Shows are our bread and butter. We were just about to hit our busy March period when we had to pull the plug on programming.

We canceled our first show on March 13. Things were changing by the hour. We were ready to do the show that night. The band had just flown in. We heard Gov. Walz on the news and said, “Oh, wait, we have to cancel now.”

Our booking director reached out to other concert presenting organizations, saying, “We need to have a conference call so we’re on the same page.” We had First Avenue and various organizations on the line, saying, “This is what we’re thinking. What are you thinking?”

MP: On March 15, you canceled all shows through April 15.

DH: We ended up doing a longer cancellation period than most other organizations. We’re still doing that. A couple of weeks ago, we canceled until June 1, but now our calendar is canceling itself until Sept. 1. Many of the touring artists can’t make it, particularly the international artists.

There’s so much uncertainty in this process, in the decision-making, that it has been very, very difficult. You can see that in the messaging from our governor, the governors in other states, and our president. Different approaches, different messaging on what is the best way forward.

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After we canceled shows, we covered all staff salaries for two more weeks and [are covering] health insurance costs for two months.

MP: Where do things stand now?

DH: All staff are either laid off or working part time, including myself. We’ve been able to continue all of our programs except for one.

Our music mentoring program that works in the Somali day care centers had to stop. However, we are continuing with our Artist Collective, our group of artists representing different cultural communities in the Twin Cities who are doing work on arts access for the Cedar.

Our Cedar Commissions program is continuing, where we commission local artists to create original music. We’re still planning on doing our Global Roots Festival in September, although we have to see how things go in the next month. The plan now is to shift to presenting more domestic global artists rather than international.

Dua Saleh is one of the local artists receiving 2020 Cedar Commissions.
Courtesy of the Cedar
Dua Saleh is one of the local artists receiving 2020 Cedar Commissions.
It’s looking like we won’t be planning shows until Sept. 1. And that could change.

My concern is how the Cedar thinks about surviving, if we have to close our doors for the rest of the year. That was part of our decision to lay off staff and take a very cautious approach.

MP: You did a fundraising campaign on Facebook where you thanked individual contributors and musicians sang thank-you songs.

DH: When we had to pull the plug on shows, one of our big concerns was the artists and the artist communities and other nonprofits that are smaller than us. I waited a couple weeks before we did our fundraising campaign, because we were foremost concerned about how the artists were going to survive this cancellation of shows. We had to be careful how we jumped out and started fundraising.

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While we waited, we realized there’s a lot of people who really want the Cedar to survive and who wanted to support the Cedar. We saw that very strongly in the first three weeks of our fundraising campaign, when we were able to bring in $45,000 in support and received a lot of messaging of support. Musicians stepped up and asked to help us. They donated their time and energy.

Our next phase is to figure out how we can continue to do some livestream programming, which will also be a campaign to help support musicians in the Twin Cities to present their music through us.

MP: Do you think this pandemic will change the Cedar fundamentally?

DH: I think it will change our society fundamentally. It will change how people interact socially. Pandemics always reshape the world.

MP: What does the future of the Cedar look like?

DH: Our plan right now is to be very cautious. I’ve laid out a way that we can survive if we are closed for nine months or more.

Even if we can technically do concerts in four months or September, people will come out of this pandemic with different attitudes and concerns about being in public and seeing shows. Just because they can see a show doesn’t mean they’re going to want to.

We also need a month or two after a pandemic to properly plan, market and sell tickets for a show. We need even longer for an international show. If things turn around quicker than that, we can start programming again. We have a strategy to shift to local programming.

Cedar marquee
Courtesy of the Cedar
Built in 1948 as a movie theater, reimagined in 1989 as a live music venue, the Cedar Cultural Center has hosted thousands of concerts by local, national and international artists.
We can survive not putting on any shows. If we have to close from March through December, we can do that and the Cedar will survive. I’m saying the Cedar’s going to survive no matter what. We have access to lines of credit and other things.

We have to see what people want after this. And what they need, and how the Cedar can work and adjust. People will still want to see concerts, but maybe in different capacities.

We livestreamed our Global Roots festival last year for the first time. It worked great. I left one night and watched some of it at home. We livestreamed Drone Not Drones and some other shows. We are going to be better at that technology and process after this pandemic, so what do we do with it? We’ll be doing things differently. I’m open to seeing what happens after this and responding to it.

This period has energized a lot of us, in a way, because we’ve seen the great outpouring of support for the Cedar from our friends and supporters. We have an important history. An important place in Minnesota as a unique music-venue community organization. I think that means we have to continue. We will continue, because we have that support and connection.