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August 12, 2020; Star Tribune (Minneapolis, MN)

Nonprofit partnerships can take many forms well short of a merger or acquisition, and we’re sure we’ll see more of that in the next year or so as organizations put their creative design tendencies to work on the business of fitting endeavor to environment in changing times.

Two theaters in St. Paul, Minnesota, have decided to join forces in a partnership perhaps as creative as their productions. SteppingStone Theatre for Youth is moving into the space owned by the Park Square Theater, and both will share an executive director in Mark Ferraro-Hauk, currently the CEO and artistic director for SteppingStone. Each will retain its own board of directors for now. No one here is looking for a savior in the other, it seems.

Park Square and SteppingStone had both run into financial tailspins even prior to the current crises. Last year, Park revealed that it was running multiyear deficits, and SteppingStone was planning on selling its building to retire its debt—until the sale fell through right as the pandemic took hold.

Despite the fact that mergers between two organizations in financial trouble generally raise eyebrows, the two theaters think the fit is natural and creates something that is more than the sum of its parts while sharing fixed costs.

“Theater spaces are very expensive and inefficient to operate in that their use tends to be for a limited amount of time,” Ferraro-Hauck says. “Since our programming is almost exclusively matinees, we could live side-by-side with an organization that produces in the evening. It’s a good way to use these spaces more efficiently.”

Park may be taking Ferraro-Hauk for a test drive, leaving the question of whether the boards may merge in the future open. But he does not appear to be a delicate flower where risk is concerned; when he was hired, SteppingStone “had nearly $750,000 in debts that was due immediately and $18,000 in the bank,” he says.

“On top of that, the first week I was on the job, the verdict came down in the Philando Castile case. People were being tear-gassed outside the building where our kids were having summer camp.”

Ferraro-Hauk wants to build a generationally inclusive arts organization that is fully owned by the community.

While we have been urged to think about organizational partnerships in little boxes, they really exist along a continuum spanning from relationships between autonomous actors unguided by legal parameters to formal marriages. New times call for creative solutions.—Ruth McCambridge