Photo courtesy Can Can Wonderland’s Facebook
Set to open in September, Can Can Wonderland will take the title as Minnesota’s first arts-based public benefit corporation, designed to create an intersection of art, innovation, and activity.
The hope of the new model is to make art sustainable for owners and engaging for audiences. “If you go to any art opening in town, the opening is well-attended. But if you go anytime after, it’s crickets,” notes CEO Jennifer Pennington. “The people who go are always the usual suspects.”
The question, then, became how they can make arts less intimidating and more engaging for everyone. The agreed-upon answer was mini-golf.
Pennington and her husband Chris have pioneered local art projects, a background that has built their confidence to start the new business. Chris started the artist designed Haunted Basement at the Soap Factory, and when the recession hit, Pennington says the board of the Soap Factory told Chris that the only reason they survived was because of income from the Haunted Basement.
Can Can’s artistic director Christi Atkinson, formerly an employee at the Walker for 16 years, has experience making art interactive and profitable. She initiated the museum’s artist-designed mini-golf course, which has had huge financial success. Chris also worked on the Walker’s course, building a hole in 2008.
The Penningtons and Atkinson, along with chief technical officer Rob Plapp, knew that art could create income. “We were really interested in the social mission,” says Pennington, “but a lot of us had worked in nonprofits for so long and we wanted to escape the grant funding cycle to try a model that would be self-funded.”
They found a way to make profitable arts possible with the business model of a public benefit corporation. Passed last year in the Minnesota Legislature, it serves to give companies a social mission—like that of nonprofits. While PBCs have to sacrifice any tax exemptions that would be applicable for nonprofits, the purpose of the format is to create income in a way that aligns with the social purpose.
As a preeminent example of profitable innovation, the business will fit perfectly in St. Paul’s creative enterprise zone. The neighborhood’s mission is to be “a place where people make a living by their creative capacities,” according the website, and the area boasts diverse architectural and artistic forms.
To ensure a steady income, the building won’t be used for mini-golf alone. There will also be art installations, performances on two stages, a beer garden, and a constantly changing putt putt schema so that more people engage in the artistic process.
Pennington plans to focus on a communal effort far after the doors open in a few short months. “Both the Creative Enterprise Zone and Hamline Midway District Councils were very welcoming and really encouraging of our concept. It is definitely a village around Can Can Wonderland.”