Is the Northside Arts Collective finished? Board of directors say yes, many members say no


In the organization’s December newsletter, the Northside Arts Collective‘s board chair Kelly Hoffman wrote that the board has voted to start the process of legally dissolving the organization. Many members are unhappy with the decision, and blame the board, which they say is made up mostly of non-artists. Some are still upset about the termination of the organization’s executive director, Connie Beckers, last year. Others want the current board members to resign, and for the artists to take control over the collective, starting over in a sense but without losing the organization’s nonprofit status.

Hoffman’s letter states that a year ago, the organization was well-respected and had worthwhile programming but also had substantial liabilities, unfunded operational expenses, and close to no assets. 12 months later, she writes, “we have solid financial record keeping and tracking systems, sound fiscal procedures, almost no liabilities, and have forged strategic partnerships for our remaining programs.”

Hoffman said in a phone interview that the current board members were getting “burned out,” and that despite a call for new board members, no one has stepped forward to join the board.  “We needed new people and new energy,” she said, but the response to the call for more board members was minimal. “You can’t make it work if you don’t have a group of people willing to do the work,” she said.

The Northside Arts Collective was founded in 2001 by a group of artists who would got together for potluck dinners using funds from the Minneapolis Arts Commission. Artists living in North Minneapolis would network and talk about art. Connie Beckers said she joined the group at the end of 2002, when things were really starting to gain momentum. “They were starting to voice what they thought the organization could do,” she said. The group became focused on connecting artists to one another and to the community, Beckers said.

Beckers became active with the collective right away, helping organize a big art festival called the Spring Art Party, which brought 1,000 people to North Mississippi Regional Park. Most of the participating artists were Northsiders, Beckers said. 

The Spring Art Party continued through 2009, traveling to different parks in the North Side. “It helped people get out of their boundaries,” Beckers said, “especially in different parts of North Minneapolis.”

Beckers was the first board chair for the group. They started developing programs to help artists be better business people. They assisted artists to get better photographs of their work, develop their portfolios, artist statements, and bios. Eventually NAC started doing exhibitions at places like Papa’s Restaurant.

In 2004, the McKnight Foundation granted the organization funding to hire a part-time executive director. Beckers was looking forward to the group hiring a staff person, because she had been putting in 15-20 volunteer hours a week as the board chair in addition to her glass art work. However, NAC members encouraged her to apply for the position, and she ended up working for three years as a part-time employee, although she often worked full-time hours for a part-time salary. 

NAC started to grow. They started a performance series at the Capri Theater, and their exhibition program expanded to shows in other parts of the city. Funding increased, and they moved their office space to the Capri. They also increased Beckers’s salary from $40,000 to $60,000.

They also got a big grant from the McKnight Foundation to develop the West Broadway Art Street artistic façade improvement program, which Beckers considers her legacy.  “What this program did was not just improve the look of West Broadway,” she said. “It allowed artists to improve their neighborhood. That was a cool thing.” 

In 2009, things started to go south, said Beckers, who was let go in February of that year. “My personal opinion,” Beckers said, “is that there was a lot of dysfunction around the board.” 

According to Beckers, the board had not been helping with fundraising. There were also an increasing number of non-artists and non-Northsiders on the board, she said.

Executive members of the board started having “secret board meetings” that they wouldn’t let her attend, she said. Some board members told Beckers that the board was trying to get rid of her. 

Beckers said she was told when she was let go that the organization had run out of money, but when she filed for unemployment, she was unable to get it, and kept getting conflicting answers as to why.  At one point she was told she was fired because of her job performance.  At another point she was told that she quit voluntarily.

Kelly Hoffman said this week that the issue was that rather than being fired, Beckers was offered a position with reduced salary, which she refused to take. In the end, Beckers had a hearing and won her unemployment benefits. However, because of the delay, her home ended up going into foreclosure.

Rob Johnson, one of the founding members of NAC who served on the board from 2004-2006, was one of the people who was very upset when Beckers was asked to leave. He had seen the organization grow from a small group of artists to something much bigger.

According to Johnson, the board began to have loftier goals than the membership wanted. “We started getting board members that looked great on paper,” he said, “but these board members were not artists and didn’t understand the complex dynamics—how important your relationships are with people in the communities.”

According to Johnson, the board blamed Beckers for the financial state of the organization, but according to him, the board should take much of the blame.

After Beckers was terminated, Johnson and his wife Jeanne started looking into the board minutes that they could access. “They didn’t have their act together before even hiring Connie,” Johnson said. “They didn’t even amend the bylaws to having an executive director.” 

Johnson disagrees with the board’s position that they are dissolving the organization because the membership is not engaged. “I would turn it on its side,” he said. Johnson wants NAC to continue—without the current board. “You guys just leave,” he said. “And we’ll deal with it.” He envisions a smaller, quieter NAC.

Johnson said another NAC member, Scott Nieman, sent out a survey to NAC members asking them if they agree with the board’s decision. “80 percent of the membership doesn’t want to see it dissolve,” Johnson said. “We have a board that is so disengaged with the community. They don’t go to art events. Many don’t live on the Northside.”

Hoffman said on December 7 that she had just heard about members wanting to save the organization. She said that she is going to discuss this option with the board.  “You don’t necessarily need to have a 501(c)3,” she said.

However, Johnson and others don’t want to lose the nonprofit status, because it takes so much time and resources to obtain the status, which is necessary to receive tax-deductible donations and most grant funding.

Meanwhile, Beckers has moved on to new endeavors, opening a store (Goddess of Glass) this past June. She was able to get a loan from friend to open the shop, which currently represents about 40 artists. The store sells all handmade items from mostly Northside artists.

NAC’s at a crossroads, Johnson said. Many members don’t want to see the organization die.  “The board that is there is dysfunctional,” he said. “They have done nothing for the members nor do they know what the members want. We really want to step in and bring this back from the brink.”