Merrill Arts Center (MAC) was originally incorporated in 1996 as Woodbury Arts Council. Founded by a small group of citizens who were watching the explosive growth of their beloved tiny farm town. They wanted to be certain that the city planners were taking the arts into consideration. At first, the group functioned primarily as a matchmaking and advocacy group, showing up at city council and planning meetings, networking as the voice of the arts in Chamber of Commerce events, and helping to connect new community members to existing arts organizations. The group operated as an all-volunteer organization, with a part-time Executive Director for over a decade, with a small budget around $25,000 until Dorothy K. Merrill passed away and left a quarter of her estate to the Arts Council to build “The Dorothy K. Merrill Fine Arts Center”. Her gift of $1.2M was used to build the Merrill Black Box on the new East Ridge High School in collaboration with the South Washington County School District; and to purchase 3 adjoining Suites at 380 Rivertown Drive in Woodbury. Immediately, the operating budget increased to nearly $400,000. Additionally, the organization changed its name to honor its benefactor and began running programming for the first time.
For the next decade, programming exploded. MAC acquired Woodbury Community Theatre, originally founded in 1975. WCT dissolved as an independent organization, and is now MAC’s largest program, which produces 6-8 fully produced plays annually. Next, MAC acquired The SOS for Youth Program (which also dissolved as an independent program), a hard-hitting, peer-to-peer education program serving at-risk youth that works with mental health professionals and teaching artists to develop original performance work, and presents them at high schools with talk backs facilitated by psychologists. MAC began running summer camps for kids, and expanded those offerings to include year-round educational programming on a range of artistic disciplines for kindergarten through advanced professionals. An Affiliate Program was launched to support East Metro Symphony Orchestra, Passport Theatre, and Artists of Woodbury, and a Rental Program was launched to host Julie Sweet Piano Studio and Woodbury Dance Center. During this decade, the organizational structure did not keep up with the demands of the expanding programming, and after running deficits for nearly a decade, the organization ran out of cash, the Board President temporarily stepped down from her position to run the organization as Interim Executive Director while an independent Search Committee (made up of Board Members) embarked upon a search for a new Executive Director who had the skills to help the organization grow from a founder-driven start up to a mature mid-sized organization with sustainable procedures, systems and practices. The organization mortgaged a Suite on Riverside Drive to manage cash flow, and in October of 2017, Barbe Marshall Hansen was retained as the new Executive Director. With 4 successful organizational development projects under her belt, the Board felt she had the skills needed to help the organization grow into the fiscally robust, artistically excellent arts hub that the East Metro deserved.
Currently, MAC has no short-term debt and is current on all mortgages and accounts payable. In 2018, MAC began building an individual donor program but staff capacity was a challenge. Although demand for programming continued to grow, it was difficult to support that growth with 1.5 FTE employees. In 2018, with a capacity building grant from the Hugh J. Andersen Foundation, the organization was able to move the part-time Managing Director to full time, with 50% of her time devoted to fundraising. Creating institutional and individual donor programs is a priority. A new SOS for Youth Program Director was hired to serve at-risk teens and address social justice issues that are important to their generation. In November of 2018, a part-time administrator was hired to increase efficiency for all staff. Finally, a digital strategist, a media relations manager, and director of development were retained for the final quarter of 2019 to focus on raising awareness and raising money.
In March of 2020, Merrill Arts Center closed due to COVID-19, along with all the other arts organizations in the state. During this time, the organization sold one of its four office suites, put long-term leases on two others, and downsized to fit into the one remaining office suite on Rivertown Drive with 2 new rehearsal halls, new conference rooms, and additional offices. The organization expanded its presence in the Black Box at East Ridge High School and retained usage of The Loft Proscenium Theater 3 times per year. MAC programs resumed in the fall of 2021, then went on hiatus January through May of 2022, and will resume programming in the summer of 2022, with summer education and fall theatrical programs.