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MayDay, HOTB: What will we build together?

By CORRIE ZOLL, HOTB EX. DIRECTOR

 

Photo by Tesha M. Christensen
A record number of people attended the 45th annual MayDay parade and celebration on Sunday, May 5, enjoying beautiful weather while celebrating organizer Sandy Spieler’s last year.

A lot has happened over the past six months. HOBT experienced many of the same challenges faced by other legacy arts organizations that have been lost in recent years. Though this period has been difficult, at every step we felt and appreciated the support from your calls, messages, donations and social media posts. You are the reason we continue to strive toward finding a future for this work.

As you may know, in January HOBT announced budget and personnel cuts after $130,000 in projected income did not come through. The layoffs are significant, more than half the staff have been laid off. Added together, the stories of those people and their time with HOBT take up a century. The loss is painful for these individuals, for the organization, and for the communities where we do our work. These cuts reduce HOBT’s staff capacity by more than half in order to allow HOBT to finish its current fiscal year in August without running out of cash.

Though significantly diminished in capacity, HOBT remains committed to its vision of building creativity, empathy, and interconnection in its core neighborhoods. HOBT’s tens of thousands of supporters want us to continue our work. We believe transformational change is possible that will lead to a more resilient future organization.

After layoffs are complete, the remaining staff will be at 4 FTE. This is not enough staff capacity to operate MayDay, the Avalon Theater and other HOBT programs in the coming year. Any future for HOBT will include increasing staff capacity, and we are committed to a future in which staff and artists more closely reflect the communities where we do our work. HOBT’s board of directors is active and committed to the next steps for the organization. The board recently added two members in preparation for the hard work ahead.

Photo by TESHA M. CHRISTENSEN
Hundreds of local residents participated in the 45th annual MayDay parade and celebration on Sunday, May 5, 2019.

Among the announcements we made in January was that MayDay 2019 would be the last under Sandy’s artistic direction, and the last solely produced by HOBT. Both decisions were in deliberation a full year earlier and, though not triggered by HOBT’s financial situation, were certainly impacted by it. HOBT received an outpouring of response to the January 9 announcements. Scores of people told us that HOBT and MayDay were the reason they lived in South Minneapolis, or the reason they returned to South Minneapolis after they had children, or the reason they became working artists.  People told us over and over again that HOBT’s work is intricately tied up in the very identity of these neighborhoods, and they don’t want to lose what has been built here. Excerpts of those stories are included here. 

Now in May, four months since those announcements were made, HOBT is still in the process of figuring out what future is possible for the work and for the organization.  In that time, we have identified three core goals that are essential to any future for HOBT:

1. Developing a decentralized model for producing MayDay. The event had grown too large to be held by a single organization. HOBT will seek producing partners and shared ownership.

2. Developing an equity framework. HOBT must better understand the priorities of stakeholder communities and draw on these communities for artists, staff members and board members who will make the organization more genuinely diverse, inclusive and equitable.

3. Developing a business model that balances the needs of communities, the needs of artists and employees, and the needs of the organization. HOBT’s work must be relevant and accessible to core communities. Artists and employees must be adequately compensated and supported. The organizational infrastructure and finances must be strengthened by the work.

Photo by TESHA M. CHRISTENSEN
As the crowd cheers, workers break apart the wall they have just built in the middle of Bloomington Ave.

This moment in time provides unique opportunities. In Sandy’s transition away from artistic leadership of MayDay, in the loss of staff capacity through layoffs, and in the wake-up call that the entire arts nonprofit field needs new business models, this is the time to marshall community support to work for change.

HOBT will not do this work alone.  Stakeholder communities will be essential along with peers, champions, elders, board, and staff. Consulting group Imagine Deliver, along with Juxtaposition Arts and Amplify DMC, are working with HOBT to design and facilitate a community engagement process. Over the summer, when HOBT programming is typically at its lightest, board and staff will set the highest priority on this transformational work.  While HOBT will hold up all existing commitments, this will also mean saying no to some new projects in order to make time to keep our transformation front and center.  We know that the work ahead looms large. And we know that if we have any chance of moving forward as a more resilient organization, then this is the work we have to do, and this is where we will invest our resources and energy.  

If we succeed, the possibilities are boundless. Imagine a MayDay that is built not only at HOBT with HOBT artists but at sites across our neighborhoods by artists of many communities. Imagine an Avalon Theater with its doors open every day and its marquee lit up every night as a cultural center serving the incredible diversity of South Minneapolis. Imagine developing a successful model that shows other nonprofits how to change patterns of diversity equity and inclusion. Imagine a HOBT better able to support the wealth of artists in these neighborhoods to share the stories of the people of these neighborhoods with the world.

We have every reason to think MayDay will continue. It is in the muscle memory of South Minneapolis on the first Sunday in May to find the picnic blankets and the lawn chairs and the sunscreen and the sun hats (or maybe the raincoats) and head over to the parade route. How often have you seen the clouds part and the sun emerge as the Sun Puppet makes its way across the lake to wake up the Tree of Life and welcome spring? Ask any long-time observer from the hundreds of blankets on the ceremony hill.  It happens more often than could possibly be a coincidence.

This year’s BELOVED COMMUNITY MayDay theme asks attendees how we will carry forward the legacy that MayDay has nurtured for 45 years. That question is held in the potential of a seedling tree. With one tree for the first year of HOBT’s MayDay, two trees for the second, three trees for the third, etc., 1035 tree seedlings will be distributed with the intention that they take root in our neighborhoods as an investment in our future.  MayDay 2019 will thank Sandy Spieler for all she has given us over 45 years leading this event and will say yes to carrying her work forward.

The impacts of the work are clear. HOBT’s work has become part of the visual and cultural identities of a whole set of South Minneapolis neighborhoods. Hundreds of artists have taken what they learned at HOBT and carried it with them across the neighborhood, across town, across the state, and even across the world. That is just a small fraction of the thousands of artists have been trained in puppetry and mask performance, pageantry, arts education and more. Tens of thousands of youth have learned how to tell their own stories through educational residencies. Hundreds of thousands of people have participated in MayDay. It seems no exaggeration to say that a million or more people have been touched by HOBT’s work over 45 years. HOBT has the support to continue impacting communities and the proposed work plan sets the organization on a more resilient path. 

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