Theater Mu [formerly Mu Performing Arts] was formed in the early 1990s as a vehicle for exploring the Asian American experience through stage productions and live performances of taiko drumming. Its eclectic plays, including both new works and classics such as Shakespeare performed by Asian American casts, established Mu as a national leader.
While Mu has steadily grown in its operations, its funding has seen peaks and valleys that resulted in two years of deficits (caused by two large grant ending) during the period when its leadership torch was passed from the company’s founder to Randy Reyes, an artist who had been working with Mu for a decade.
“Given how volatile the market for grants is, we’ve needed Propel Nonprofits [formerly Nonprofits Assistance Fund] in many different ways,” Randy said. “We need a financial support organization that can help us through that volatility, in ways that are not only monetary but strategic. We’ve reacted to a time of transition by trying to build our base of donors into something more reliable.”
Concurrent with Randy taking the artistic reins, Shannon Freeby joined Mu as Managing Director. She was able to use Propel Nonprofits’ long relationship with Mu to gain access to very clear records of the company’s financial history (in some cases the Propel Nonprofits records were more extensive than those the company’s past staff had retained), with a focus on rightsizing the organization.
“We hit a financial crunch based on sunsetting of grants,” Shannon said. “I was able to go to Propel Nonprofits and just talk through it: ‘Here’s where we are, and here’s what needs to happen.’ I didn’t have access to anyone else with that kind of perspective, those kinds of financial reports.”
Shannon also points to her participation in Propel Nonprofits’ Financial Leadership Cohort, which includes half-day learning sessions on business models, financial communication, and building relationships with staff and board, as crucial. And while she was assuming financial leadership while Mu was emerging from deficits, Propel Nonprofits was able to provide business-model perspectives to make the task seem less daunting.
One focus for Randy and Shannon is cash reserves, but Randy points to the difficulty of converting surpluses into reserves amid turbulent year-to-year finances. A 2015 surplus after two difficult years helped the company improve its net assets, but Mu still has limited cash reserves to help weather swings in cash flow. Randy inherited a funding environment that presents structural challenges.
“The main audience we serve is relatively small, as opposed to a city such as Los Angeles,” Randy said. “And in the Twin Cities it comprises immigrant groups for which philanthropy for the arts isn’t a main part of the culture. There’s a need for a lot of education and relationship building in order to communicate the value of telling these stories.”
In balancing Mu’s creative ambitions with its financial bottom line, it’s also crucial to consider the value of its role in the local and national arts ecosystems (as well as the historically difficult path for theaters of color). Randy credits Propel Nonprofits with not only understanding these external factors, but being a force for education and an enlightened advocate.
“The assets that Propel Nonprofits is loaning against aren’t necessarily a house, or a venue,” Randy said. “It’s against your cultural value, and they see the value in how we serve the community. The health of an organization is not just numbers. It’s also people and the mission, and how they’re aligned.”
It’s an ongoing project to engage the funding community with the narrative of the uphill climb faced by theaters of color. “The system we’re functioning in doesn’t benefit us the most in terms of the work we do and the communities we serve,” Randy said.
Solid business fundamentals for Theater Mu have been a matter of prioritizing stability in year-to-year financial operations, as well as fostering confidence in its leadership. Helping to guide that process has been a hallmark of Propel Nonprofits’ recent relationship with Mu. Just as vital has been the understanding that the great value Mu brings to the community also comes with structural obstacles that require clarity and long-term vision. It’s through this vision that Propel Nonprofits is able to be the strongest advocate for Mu, communicating and lobbying for its future.
Learn more about Theater Mu at their website.