Bloomington’s Artistry theater struggles to meet $600,000 shortfall

Artistry, which began as the Bloomington Civic Theatre in 1955 and for 60-plus years has been an entertainment mainstay in the south metro, finds itself at an existential crossroad.

Executive director Kevin Ramach abruptly resigned Sept. 7 for reasons that only now are becoming public: The theater company is freighted with debt, and its relationships with key stakeholders have been ruptured. It announced Wednesday that it has postponed its latest production, “Godspell,” until next year. Also, future productions are on hold, and artists have not been paid.

“We have past due bills that without pausing some programming and clearing those, we wouldn’t have been able to move forward as an organization,” said Kelli Foster Warder, Artistry’s producing consultant.

“We were selling tickets and engaging our audience, but poor financial management meant we had no buffer and no runway to build forward.”

Before the pandemic, Artistry had a $2 million annual budget that supported a typical season of five productions that regularly included musicals, comedies and dramas. Those shows and the company’s art exhibits drew about 85,000 attendants.

Now Artistry’s future is in jeopardy as it tries to close a $600,000 shortfall. The organization was not willing to share further details, saying it did not want to jeopardize relationships with donors and funders.

The news comes soon after a new leadership team has stepped in at the playhouse, which operates two stages — the Schneider theater and a black box. When Ben Bakken and Allyson Richert, who are both performers and have administrative experience, took over as joint artistic directors Sept. 6, they discovered the dire state of affairs.

The theater did not have rehearsal books for its “Godspell” cast a week before rehearsals were to start because they had not been sent by the publishing company that controls rights to the show, Bakken said. Artistry’s account, he said, was “past due and the publishing company wasn’t willing to mail the materials until we were up to date.”

Bakken and Richert said those unpaid bills were just the tip of the iceberg. Ramach, who could not be reached for comment, resigned the following day.

In 2014, he resigned as president of the Minnesota Opera after a deficit led to staff cuts. At that time, Ramach said in a statement that his strength had always been the creative end of the business.

“A lot of theater organizations are struggling, so when you hear there might be a few delinquencies, you say, ‘Yeah, that’s the state of theater,'” said Richert. “But to uncover delinquencies on this scale, that has been shocking.”

The postponement of “Godspell” has thrown dozens of actors, designers and other theater professionals out of work.

To work on “Godspell,” choreographer Kyle Weiler left the national tour of “Hamilton,” in which he was a swing and dance captain, and had performed for the past 4½ years.

“I’m blessed to have been a fully employed actor for the past eight years, and while I love performing, I wanted to start spending time as a choreographer and director,” said Weiler, who originally hails from Eagan and Rosemount. “So, I bought a house here and moved back as a leap of faith. I have yet to be paid for anything.”

For director Vanessa Brooke Agnes, “Godspell” was to be her biggest solo directing job at a professional theater.

“It’s a big step to be able to showcase my vision and my work,” said Brooke. “And at a time when the world can be so heavy, a story of love, kindness and joy feels like something that people need now.

“It’s heartbreaking that we don’t get to do this now, but I’m hoping that people who feel harmed will heal and we’ll be able to bring the same team back together.”

Richert, who left her job as artistic director of the Great Theatre in St. Cloud to head to Artistry, said the company’s immediate priority is to repair relationships with artists, donors and its stakeholders.

“We can spend a lot of time frustrated about what has been tarnished because of mismanagement but we don’t have that time,” she said. “We have to turn this around fast.”