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Big theater on campus

Think you can't fund arts in lean times? The Guthrie in Minnesota proved otherwise.

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The Guthrie Theater held a groundbreaking ceremony earlier this month. But probably the most groundbreaking thing about it was that it happened at all.

The acclaimed regional theater company had known that state funding would be key to financing its new home on the banks of the Mississippi River. But like many states, Minnesota faced a huge projected deficit this year, $4.2 billion. Budget cuts meant that state colleges, universities, and public schools would be laying off hundreds, if not thousands, of employees. Even aid to lowest-income single adults and medical coverage for the poor took a whack.

That the Guthrie could succeed in squeezing $25 million from the state for its $125 million project seemed improbable. "There were many days when we thought: 'This is not going to happen,' " says Joe Dowling, artistic director of the Guthrie. It had spent years trying to wrestle a bond bill through the state legislature only to see it vetoed last year by Gov. Jesse Ventura. This year, with a new governor in place, it finally passed.

In May 2006, the Guthrie - recently named one of the five best regional theaters in the country by Time Magazine - will move into a stunning three-theater complex designed by noted French architect Jean Nouvel.

Lean times for the arts

Times are tough for arts groups, who feel the strain of government and private funding cuts. According to a recent study, more than half the nation's nonprofit regional theaters ran in the red last year. (The Guthrie barely broke even.) But despite all the gloom, many theaters and performing-arts organizations around the country are also bringing to fruition major building projects, often first envisioned during the financially flush 1990s.

But arguing that Minnesota needed a great theater might have seemed elitist when put up against cuts in basic services, even though the Guthrie could point out that its audience was mainstream, not wealthy, that it served thousands of children, and that it provided low-cost ticket options.

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