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Within 24 hours, the bottom fell out.

As the pandemic forced closings and cancellations, many artists went from “a place they could feed their families to no income at all,” said Laura Zabel, executive director of Springboard for the Arts. “There was a real sense of fear: How am I going to make my rent? How am I going to feed my family?”

So Springboard for the Arts worked as it always does — quickly.

Within five minutes, the staff decided to tweak its long-standing emergency relief fund. Within a few hours, the St. Paul nonprofit added $10,000 to the fund, doubling its size. Within a week, it was processing applications, getting dozens of $500 grants out the door.

“It was a scary time. It was totally overwhelming in terms of the level of need,” Zabel said weeks later. “It also was just this really beautiful, reinforcing moment for me to witness my colleagues and the way the muscle memory of our shared values just took over.

“It felt like the work we always do, just at a different scale, with a different kind of level of urgency.”

The unprecedented crisis has spotlighted Springboard for the Arts, a practical nonprofit that’s long supported and promoted the power of creative people. As other arts organizations sputtered, Springboard swiftly became a source of not just funding but trusted information, inspiring groups across the country to start their own relief funds.

In her 15 years in charge of the St. Paul-based nonprofit, Zabel has made it nimble and fierce, even as it has grown in size and stature.

“Springboard is a leader nationally now,” said Sheila Smith, executive director of Minnesota Citizens for the Arts. While the organization was already “doing great work, especially with one-on-on consultations,” Smith said that Zabel brought an artist’s eye to the organization, innovating and broadening its work.

“It’s been turbocharged ever since.”

Zabel, 45, chooses to be practical rather than precious, launching programs and projects quickly, then tweaking along the way. That approach feels a little like rehearsal, which makes sense: Zabel is an actor.

She fell in love with theater during a kindergarten staging of “Peter Rabbit,” moved to the Twin Cities because of its robust theater scene and most recently starred in Mixed Blood’s 2019 production of “Roe.” As a regular at Brave New Workshop, she embraced the improv actor’s rule: “Yes, and ... ”

“That was my training,” she said. “I don’t have a degree in nonprofit leadership.”

“Laura’s kind of a ‘yes’ person, which gets us into trouble sometimes,” said Jun-Li Wang, Springboard’s associate director for programs. In the office, it’s become a mantra: “Let’s pilot it and see what happens.”

When Wang started at Springboard in 2011 she was staff member No. 9. Now, the staff totals 17, all of them artists and many of them theater artists. It shows.

“Theater is about the whole ensemble,” Wang said, with ticket-takers as integral as stage stars. “If Laura was an oil painter or a writer, I don’t think our organization would be the same.”

The personal emergency relief fund offers Minnesota artists affected by the pandemic $500, stopgap grants with few hoops and minimal red tape. So far, it’s paid more than 1,400 artists some $700,000. It’s also raised $996,000 — nearly reaching the $1 million goal it set along the way.

“A lot of people — maybe rightly so — would say that you should wait and see how much money you’re going to be able to raise before you start,” Zabel said.

But Springboard started first.

Change from the bottom up

When, in 2014, a reporter asked Zabel what she’d do with $1 million, she replied: “I would support thousands of artists to do small projects in their own neighborhoods.”

She remembers thinking that she should have answered with one big, ambitious thing.

“That’s just not who I am,” she said. “I love lots of little.”

Those small, local programs can change bigger systems, Zabel continued. “And I’m much more interested in and much better at working at change from that angle than from a top-down policy approach.”

She laughed. “That might be because I’m impatient. It’s definitely because I’m impatient.”

On stages across the country, Zabel has argued for the power of artists, encouraging communities to support and harness it, while giving doable examples of that work. She borrows from other disciplines, including economic development and food systems, plucking the best ideas. She’s sunny and funny, but also direct.

“She’s become a brilliant and important voice nationally,” said Susan Campion, a consultant and founder of the Giant Steps conference. “But she’s the least pretentious thought leader I know. A lot of that is because she’s always really, really focused on the doing.”

Campion worked with Springboard years ago as it was growing and Zabel’s profile was rising. She and Zabel now teach a course together at the University of Minnesota.

When the pandemic hit, other organizations had to flip and pivot, Campion said. Springboard just had to expand.

Some of that was “weird luck,” as Wang put it. Moving into Springboard’s new, $5.1 million home at 262 W. University Av., just blocks from the State Capitol, the staff had ditched their landlines. They staff a Fergus Falls, Minn., storefront, so they were already comfortable with videoconferencing.

Before COVID-19, the nonprofit’s relief fund mostly addressed medical emergencies. (The fact that health care is a near-constant crisis rankles Zabel, who has argued that “we need for artists, and everyone, to be able to stop using GoFundMe as health insurance.”) Typically, the organization received one or two requests for relief a week. But within that first week in mid-March it got hundreds.

Staffers were inundated with requests, too, from other arts groups in other parts of the country wanting to do the same thing. So on March 17, Springboard published a “quick guide” on how to set up a fund. Their first recommendation? “Keep it simple.”

Toolkits are part of the culture at Springboard. The nonprofit used to charge for its first one. But now that it’s created dozens — on filling vacant storefronts, on building an artist-designed bike rack program — it gives them away for free. Ideas spread more quickly that way.

When groups call Springboard, wanting to hire them as consultants, Wang often turns them down. “There are so many times that I say, ‘Don’t raise $5,000 to bring me here; raise $1,000 and start a pilot project with 10 artists in your neighborhood.’ ”

Imagining ‘a better future’

In late April, Minnesota arts organizations hosted a virtual “town hall.” Artists shared losses and called for changes. Several of them thanked Springboard for the Arts.

At the end, Zabel popped up on-screen from her south Minneapolis home.

“Thank you so much for sharing your ideas and your stories and your grief and your pain and your hope and your optimism,” she told them, her voice full of emotion. “I feel all those things on a daily basis, as I’m sure many of you do, too.”

Then she promised change: The pandemic has illuminated broken systems, “and places where we simply lack a system — for artists and for lots of other people, too. I have to believe this moment can also be an opportunity ... to imagine and build a better future.”

Two-thirds of artists are out of work, according to a study by Americans for the Arts. Some 68% of Minnesota’s arts organization will be in crisis within six months, a Minnesota Council of Nonprofits study indicates.

Until now, Springboard has focused on projects over policy. But since this crisis, people are looking to Zabel and Springboard for answers. What’s next?

Zabel points to the dozens of groups across the country that are now running emergency relief funds.

“There’s something to me that feels like a kernel of a system there that we’ve never had in our country before,” she said. More than 400 organizations have downloaded Springboard’s tool kit. About 50 of them, including folks from Boston and Calgary, gathered on Zoom on a recent Friday to trade tips and next steps.

“We have a much broader audience than we did two months ago,” Wang said. Many of those groups hadn’t previously focused on support for individual artists, she noted. “What else can we share with them to help them keep building in that direction?”

One idea: Community Supported Art — a play on Community Supported Agriculture, the farm-share boxes filled with vegetables. In 2010, Zabel and her team launched a version filled with art. The $300 shares sold out.

Springboard is bringing the program back this fall.

Zabel is talking with arts advocates on a national level, too, about big policy changes. During a recent Springboard leadership team meeting, she described each group and her role within it.

“My preference always ... is that we figure out how to get to the doing.” “Some kind of demonstration might push that conversation forward.” “All right, we’ve had three calls — I’m just going to write it.”

The conversation that excites her most is a collection of grassroots efforts.

“Everyone wants to talk about a new WPA,” she said, referring to the government-funded Federal Art Project in the 1930s and ’40s. “That already exists. It’s happening all across the country already. Artists are doing that work.”

Jenna Ross • 612-673-7168 • @ByJenna