Arts person of the year: Dayna Frank of First Avenue led the way to save our stages

Hailed as "the Stacey Abrams of the concert industry," the club owner became a national leader who brought independent promoters together — and $173 million to Minnesota venues.

First Ave owner Dayna Frank at First Avenue in Minneapolis, Minn.
First Ave owner Dayna Frank at First Avenue in Minneapolis, Minn.

— Aaron Lavinsky, Star Tribune

Few independent concert venues in the United States were in better shape to survive 18 months without revenue than First Avenue. And yet, Minneapolis' most iconic performance space teetered on going black.

That's how Dayna Frank knew things had to be incredibly tough all over.

"People took it for granted there would always be a live music venue on the corner of 1st Avenue and 7th Street in downtown Minneapolis," the owner of First Avenue Productions said with an intense shudder. "All of a sudden, there was a very real possibility that would no longer be the case.

"And if First Avenue was in danger — with all its history and assets and support from the community — then so many smaller venues didn't stand a chance."

It's what Frank did for all the others, as president of the National Independent Venues Association (NIVA), that earned her designation as the Star Tribune's Arts Person of the Year. That, and her First Ave team led the way in making live performances safer for Twin Cities audiences in 2021.

Chosen by our arts and entertainment writers and editors, the annual honor has been altered from the usual "Artist of the Year" wording since Frank is not an artist. Not unless you consider lobbying Washington, D.C., or home-schooling two grade-school boys through the pandemic to be an art (they certainly are in her newfound experience!).

Nonetheless, it's hard to think of any person who had a greater impact on the Minnesota arts scene in 2021 — including all facets of the performing arts, not just music.

With the 42-year-old Frank as its president, NIVA quickly cobbled together a coalition of independent venue owners, promoters, performers and music and theater fans to pressure Congress in passing a relief bill at the end of 2020.

Everyone from Willie Nelson and Billie Eilish to Jerry Seinfeld and Broadway stars got in on NIVA's effort lobbying Congress — as did an actual lobbying firm hired for the cause, Akin Gump, which typically pushes Republican causes.

This cause proved unusually bipartisan. It also unexpectedly made Frank into something of a star, with write-ups in Rolling Stone, Billboard and the New York Times and even a trip to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction ceremony in October, where NIVA organizers were honored.

"Dayna's passion is infectious and [made] this happen," said Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., who co-sponsored the so-called Save Our Stages bill with Republican Sen. John Cornyn of Texas.

After long delays that felt like the government version of Prince's First Ave gigs (the little guy was big on making fans wait at his favorite hometown venue), relief money finally started flowing in late July in the form of Shuttered Venue Operators Grants (SVOG).

By year's end, nearly all of the $16 billion was in the hands of NIVA affiliates, including about $173 million for Minnesota venues and arts organizations.

Those included Hennepin Theatre Trust ($9.5 million), the Guthrie Theater ($7 million), the Minnesota Orchestra and Ordway Center for the Arts ($5 million apiece) along with smaller music havens such as the Cedar Cultural Center, Icehouse and Crooners Lounge (all between $400,000 and $725,000), numbers all based on pre-COVID revenue reports.

"Dayna's tireless work on NIVA and its resources was invaluable," said Patricia McLean, CEO of Sue McLean & Associates (SMA) — a First Avenue competitor that received a little over $1 million in SVOG money to continue producing the Music in the Zoo series and other concerts.

SMA President Kimberly Gottschalk added, "I have the utmost respect for female leadership in our industry. And watching Dayna evolve from a local leader to a prominent national figure has been nothing short of amazing. I truly don't think the impact of what she has done to save our industry can be overstated."

NIVA is far from over, too. It will continue into 2022 as a trade association providing guidance on taxes, real estate and ways to provide health care for employees and musicians. Frank's leadership will likely be felt for years to come around the country.

She recently started another new initiative with South Carolina developers Grubb Properties — the Live Venue Recovery Fund, which aims to help more venue operators buy their properties instead of seeing themselves priced out by gentrification-fueled rent increases.

"Dayna sort of became the Stacey Abrams of the concert industry," said NIVA co-founder Gary Witt, executive director of the Pabst Theater Group in Milwaukee.

Noting that indie venues "often take our independence too literally" and don't work together enough, Witt said Frank "created this grassroots organization to give a voice to a disconnected group of voters — in this case, companies — that had previously been voiceless."

Klobuchar said NIVA's grassroots effort was vital in getting Congress' attention. She views First Avenue as "a north star for independent music venues around the country, so it made sense for Dayna to be a leader in this effort. And she's been a good leader."

Avoiding the 'unfathomable'

It took another case of unexpected duress to bring Frank into the concert industry in the first place.

Raised in Golden Valley and a First Ave goer in her teens — the Pixies were her first show, lucky her — she was living in Los Angeles, working as a producer for VH1, when her accountant dad, Byron Frank, was awarded primary ownership of the club in 2004 following a bankruptcy battle.

Byron was always more interested in preserving First Ave rather than running it. After suffering a stroke in 2009, he told his two daughters he would sell it to Live Nation or another deep-pocketed corporation if neither of them wanted to take over.

"The idea that the club could wind up in the hands of a company that's not responsible to Minneapolis/St. Paul and didn't inherently understand the beauty of this market … was unfathomable," Dayna said in a 2014 interview that foreshadowed the spiel she would deliver on a daily basis during the COVID shutdown.

NIVA emphasized the multilayered impact of locally owned venues — as tax generators and job creators for their cities, as anchors for neighboring businesses like restaurants and hotels, and as spiritual sanctuaries, too. First Avenue's own economic impact was measured at more than $4 million in SVOG money, split between its namesake club and St. Paul-based sister venues the Palace Theatre and Turf Club.

The latter two venues ere added to the company's portfolio during Dayna's decade at the helm. So were the Fine Line and Fitzgerald Theater in the couple of years leading up to COVID.

Frank also successfully co-helmed the push for the First Ave-operated concert amphitheater included in the $350 million Upper Harbor Terminal redevelopment plan north of downtown Minneapolis. The City Council finally approved the plan in October — another thing to celebrate in late-2021 after the SVOG campaign, though groundbreaking likely won't be until 2023.

While the timing of the SVOG money wasn't exactly perfect — "We could have used more time to train and hire and make improvements," Frank conceded — it arrived just as First Ave venues started rocking again in early July. But then a new challenge quickly arrived.

'Never a business decision'

She and her team actually argued against requiring COVID vaccine or test-result documentation at first, saying, "It didn't feel right politically.

"There were those magical few weeks starting in July where if you were vaccinated, you couldn't get the virus or spread it," the club owner recounted. "But then the Delta variant came, and breakthrough cases started happening, and all this new information came out.

"There wasn't much of a debate after that."

On Aug. 2, First Avenue announced that proof of vaccine or negative COVID test results would be required for entry to all shows at all of its venues, effective immediately.

It was the first events company in Minnesota to do so, and one of the first in the country. Other local institutions soon followed suit, including the Guthrie, Minnesota Orchestra and Hennepin theaters.

The new requirements only added to the need for SVOG money, as employees had to be hired and trained to handle the safety protocols — and the resulting complaints, confusion and refund requests.

Frank said those negatives have been far outweighed by appreciation for the policy, which was implemented smoothly from the get-go (lines are actually shorter than usual nowadays with help from metal detectors and electronic ticket readers).

And of the 400-plus employees who work among the five First Ave-affiliated venues, only a handful have gotten COVID since July.

The policy "was never a business decision," Frank said. "It was always a safety decision. We did it to keep our employees, our patrons and our greater community safer. Period."

Looking back at all the unexpected demands of the past two years, Frank only voiced one regret — one that could be expected by most parents of school kids reading this:

"My boys ate a lot of mac-and-cheese and hot dogs and watched a lot of movies."

Adding to the challenges on the home front, Frank's wife, Ember Truesdell — a longtime producer for Drew Barrymore — spent a lot of the pandemic working in New York to launch the actress' new daytime talk show.

"But we made it!" Frank contentedly declared. "Everyone's in school and doing activities again. The venues are open again. Ticket sales are as strong as they've ever been going into 2022."

"My boys are resilient, thankfully, and so is First Avenue."

And now, so are a lot more hosts of the performing arts.