Care for all those bits & pieces

Care for all those bits & pieces

Published February 24th, 2024 by Carl Atiya Swanson

Thoughts on the closures, cuts, catastrophes — and possibilities — in the Twin Cities arts community in this moment. As a protest sign outside of Mia said: No Culture Without Cultural Workers.


Note: this essay has been reprinted and expanded from an original post on LinkedIn.

It has been a dire and dispiriting week, month, and year for Twin Cities arts organizations. From theater to dance to music to visual arts, 2024 has been cruel. Here, as best as I've tracked it, is a rundown of the blows and blow-ups that have come thus far:

• Minnesota Dance Theater announced that they would not be contracting dancers for 2024-2025, effectively ending their performance run after 60+ years, although they will continue their school program.

Old Log Theater announced that they were closing after 84 years of productions.

• Furor breaks out over the Minneapolis Parks Board's failure to pay the musicians it books for summer performances.

• The Cowles Center announced that it would be closing the Goodale Theater after Artspace shifts their financial support.

• After only one weekend on the ice, Art Shanties had to pull all its programming, blowing a huge financial hole in the organization's plans.

Hennepin Theater Trust canceled its quarterly Art Salon the day before it was supposed to happen, and apparently cuts public art staff.

• And MPR News released a news story detailing staffing conflicts and allegations of toxic work environments at the Minneapolis Institute of Art.

The reasons for these blows vary as reported — audiences have not returned in the same ways to live entertainment post-pandemic, donor and philanthropic patterns have shifted, the cost of doing business has risen as revenues have fallen, the cost of capital for infrastructure has stayed high, climate change and environmental chaos throw predictability out the window, and 60+ years is just a long time for an organization to run. But all of them are rooted in a fundamental precarity of creative work, that the market consistently undervalues community and creativity even as it is a fundamental aspect of our lives.

The cuts at HTT and the loss of the Cowles Center come at the same time as Minneapolis' Downtown is struggling to bring back workers and retain its identity. The cuts may be a result of that loss of foot traffic and density, but arts and culture also have a central role to play in that re-attraction and evolution of what a downtown can be. Investment from the City and business leaders is crucial to shifting perceptions and imagining new possibilities for public space. Artists and cultural workers have to be a part of those conversations.

Some of these blows are environmental, but others feel incredibly self-inflicted. I keep on returning to a quote given by Katie Luber, Director and President of Mia, on her vision for the institution. In the story by MPR, she says, "Mia is an art museum, and I think sometimes with very activist voices, they forget that it’s an art museum, and they want it to be something else. They want it to fulfill a purpose that isn’t appropriate for an art museum. Since I arrived here, what I have urged all staff to do is to be aligned with our mission. We’re free. We welcome everyone always, which is an incredibly powerful statement of diversity from the beginning.”

The irony there is that Mia is not an art museum, it was founded as the Minneapolis Society of Fine Arts. It sits on land granted to it from the Minneapolis Park Board. It is a public institution, and in its centenary rebranding from "M.I.A." to "Mia," it explicitly made that point. From the (undoubtedly very expensive) re-brand, design firm Pentagram notes, "Bold, confident and friendly, the branding invites visitors to embrace the museum and truly feel that 'Mia is mine.'" I don't say this as a disinterested party — I worked at Mia for 4 years under Luber's predecessor and watched the strategic plans that explicitly focused on community presence and engagement be developed. Luber says she has brought a new style of leadership to Mia, and she undoubtedly has brought one that is more insular, combative, and arguably less relevant in a post-2020 world.

The thing that I come back to for comfort in moments like this is that art remains central and vital to the human experience, and artists will continue to find ways to make and share work regardless of the infrastructure and context. But that's also part of the problem here — MPRB is able to not invest in musicians on the assumption that someone will take the gig regardless, and cities can continue to highlight their cultural assets even as organizations shift priorities or fold. So while artists and cultural workers will inevitably continue their work, scrappy as they are, cities and institutions that ignore and undervalue their labor and needs — and those of the communities they serve — are doomed to these cycles of crisis and votes of no confidence.

This is a moment that calls for imagination, and there are both tactical changes and philosophic shifts that can break these cycles. At the city, corporate, and philanthropic level, being more expansive and including community practice and engagement as public art, using percent-for-art programs on major developments to cover a broader range of art activity, leveraging partnerships for more direct support to artists and cultural workers, and truly investing in the creativity and culture that creates attraction and connection. We need to be connecting and supporting all aspects of the cultural landscape, from our nonprofit institutions to our for-profit venues to the workers who bridge those hybrid spaces. For smaller organizations, finding more umbrella collaboration for administration, more collective marketing or booking, more joint audience development is a potential step forward. Especially in Minnesota, we need to loudly be sharing the impact of investments like the Legacy Amendment, expanding those partnerships, and gearing up for renewal now instead of waiting for 2034.

Fundamentally, though, this is a question of where we place priorities — can we re-orient our culture to directly invest in communities and their creativity? We said it a lot in 2020-2021, that we are all in this together and that we need to imagine new worlds and possibilities. A scant few years on, we cannot let the urgency of more just, engaged, and creative worlds pass us by. As the Lawrence Weiner sculpture that was fixed to the outer wall of the Walker Art Center announced for so long, our cities, our culture, our lives, are bits & pieces put together to present a semblance of a whole. We need care for all those bits & pieces now. ◼︎ 


Carl Atiya Swanson is an omnivorous arts-maker, administrator, and cultural consultant who has worked at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts, Springboard for the Arts, and National Independent Venue Foundation, as well as with may organizations through his firm, Cast Consulting. His writing has been featured in SPIN, City Pages, the Onion A.V. Club,, Meal Magazine, and MPLSART, among others, and he was a member of the theater companies Lamb Lays with Lion and Umbrella Collective. Find out more at

Banner illustration by Russ White, using an image by Mohammed Zar courtesy of Pexels.

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