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Before the wrecking ball, a few questions

The recent news that the board of Minnesota Film Arts has finalized a deal to sell the Oak Street Cinema to a developer isn’t surprising, but it sure is heartbreaking. The Oak Street was always a cinema of the heart, a cinéaste’s equivalent of Hemingway’s clean, well-lighted space. Its demise hurts.

It’s no secret the theater has been in financial trouble. For more than two years now, signs of economic uncertainty were legion. The writing, to alter the cliché, was projected on the screen.

But for those of us who founded the Oak Street Cinema, the prospect of the theater’s imminent demolishment is not only cause for dismay; it’s a betrayal. It demands hard questions about accountability and transparency. The shadow of the wrecking ball that looms after the ongoing Minneapolis-St. Paul International Film Festival serves as a challenge: Why did the board of directors abandon its dedication to supporting the mission of the organization its members signed on to serve? How could they have lost their heart?

Our metropolitan area justifiably prides itself on the strength and vibrancy of its nonprofit arts scene. Taken together, our arts nonprofits create an arts ecology that enriches and sustains our cultural vitality.

That ecology depends on the avid interest of audiences, on the efforts of paid and unpaid workers, on the contributions of individual donors, foundations and corporations.

A basic pact with supporters

But donations of spirit and revenue rest, in turn, upon a basic pact: In exchange for the support of an organization’s stakeholders, a nonprofit board agrees to provide dedicated stewardship of its tax-exempt mission.

In the case of Minnesota Film Arts, that pact has been disregarded.

How so? Oak Street Cinema was founded to keep the art of cinema alive in that particular building. Its mission was written into its 501c3 nonprofit charter (we know; we wrote it), and its importance was clearly embraced by the audience who came to the theater to experience its aggressively eclectic programming over the years.

This was the mission the McKnight Foundation helped sustain with a capital grant of $50,000 so that the nonprofit could buy the building in 1998; it was the mission that the Oak Street’s donors and volunteers believed in, and that the combined boards of the U Film Society and Oak Street agreed deserved a merger so that two cinematic rivers could blend to sustain year-round sophisticated movie joy in this town through their combined expertise and programming. 

The departure of a founding executive director, bad hires, market pressures: These misfortunes are terrible challenges for any board, and MFA in recent years has had its hands full.  Board members deserve empathy. But by deciding to sell and demolish the theater without presenting a plan to replace it, the board has behaved as though the organization’s past support is of no account, its past vision a pipe dream, or as though the central calling of the organization’s mission can be airbrushed away without anyone noticing. And in the process the board has spurned the theater’s most ardent advocates.

Offers of expertise, help rebuffed

Two years ago, when we offered the board expertise in rallying the community to retire the organization’s debt, we were rebuffed, even though as founders we felt a deep responsibility to help the theater we loved. When we made an offer to bring on new board members who would be willing to take on the financial risk of recapitalizing the theater, backed by pledges of community financial support, the offer was apparently seen as an insult. Public interest was set aside. Why?

In the meantime, the theater has closed and opened, closed and opened, as though in the expectation that its old connection to the community will became severed, and its final closing will go unnoticed. 

But it will be noticed. The blogosphere is howling. Elimination of the year-round exhibition arm of Minnesota Film Arts closes out not only the Oak Street, but ends more than four decades of U Film Society programming — a legendary generation of indispensable programming — and it demands the following questions be addressed.

• If restricted funds remain after retiring the theater’s debts, will those funds be dedicated to buy another building?

• If another building is not pursued, will the $50,000 donated by the McKnight Foundation to purchase the building be returned?

• Will board members profit in any way from the sale of the theater?

Answering these questions is fundamental if the board is to re-establish its pact of trust with the community — a pact that all nonprofits rely upon.

Others have survived
The Minnesota Film Arts’ board would like to suggest by the sale that the Oak Street’s days of viability have come and gone. Its members would like their choice to seem inevitable, even prudent. If that is so, how do we account for the survival of other single-screen theaters in our city, like the Heights, the Parkway, and the Riverview? How do we account for the fact that Oak Street’s sister nonprofit organizations, the Film Forum in New York, or the Brattle Theater in Cambridge, have survived market struggles and debt loads far more challenging than those faced by the Oak Street? 

Evidence suggests the public rewards an organization’s authentic and competent commitment to mission, especially during financially hard times. But the public has to be asked. Why wouldn’t this board ask?

Imagine an analogous situation. The Guthrie announces the sale of its building — without public discussion and without placing before the public a plan that shows how the board intends to continue the organization’s mission. The donors and public who supported the theater are not asked for their support. Wouldn’t the outcry be enormous? Wouldn’t the public consider the decision to be a scandal?

Or, as in the case of our beloved Oak Street Cinema, would it just be a crying shame?

Randall Carpenter, Robert Cowgill and Barry Hans are co-founders of Oak Street Cinema, Minnesota Film Arts. 

Want to add your voice?

If you’re interested in joining the discussion by writing a Community Voices article, email Susan Albright at salbright [at] minnpost [dot] com.

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