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Perspectives: Guthrie turns 60: Looking back at litigation

Marshall H. Tanick//May 10, 2023//

Exterior photo of The Guthrie Theater in 2017

The Guthrie Theater’s 2023 season gala Thursday, May 11, commemorates the 60th anniversary of the iconic home for the arts in Minnesota. (AP file photo)

Perspectives: Guthrie turns 60: Looking back at litigation

Marshall H. Tanick//May 10, 2023//

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“The play’s the thing.”

W. Shakespeare, Hamlet, Act II (1603)

The conclusion of the 2023 season at the Guthrie Theater will be commemorated with the facility’s gala Thursday, May 11. The annual event will be a special one because it marks the 60th anniversary of the iconic home for the arts in Minnesota, not just plays, its main fare, but also other performances, including music, comedy and sobering lectures.

Fittingly, the play being performed at its home along the Mississippi River in downtown Minneapolis is William Shakespeare’s “Hamlet.” It’s the same immortal one that on May 7, 1963, opened the Ralph Rapson-designed theater on Vineland Place next to the Walker Art Center, starring in the title role a young, up-and-coming thespian George Grizzard and directed by the facility’s illustrious British namesake, Sir Tyrone Guthrie himself.

Alas, the commemoration was slightly marred by the death last week of one of Sir Tyrone’s countrywomen, iconic Guthrie actress Barbara Byrne, who passed away in Minneapolis at age 94 following a robust career that included some 60 Guthrie performances.

In addition to its dramatic plays with Byrne and fellow thespians and other offerings, the Guthrie also has dabbled with litigation.

The Guthrie Diamond Jubilee provides an opportune occasion to look back at some litigation drama it inspired.

Rolls removal

Marshall H. Tanick
Marshall H. Tanick

The Guthrie’s initial brush with litigation occurred in its first year of existence when the State Commissioner of Taxation, now known as the Department of Revenue, directed the city of Minneapolis to remove the Guthrie’s then-existing facility and related entities from its tax assessment rolls on grounds that they were charitable institutions, exempt from taxes under Article IX, sec. 1 of the Minnesota Constitution, which prohibits taxation on “institutions of purely public charity,” as well as Minn. Stat. § 272.02 (6).

Some 2½ years later, the Minnesota Tax Court upheld that determination in Minnesota Tax Court v. the Commissioner of Taxation, 1966 WL 28 (Minn. Tax 1966). The property, owned by the Walker Foundation, was used by the Guthrie under a long-term lease. The leasehold interest fell within the charitable exemption because it satisfies the three-part test for treatment as a “charity,” consisting of availability of benefits upon equal terms to all citizens, the intent to make a private property and the use of the property for “purely public charity.” Its purpose to “promote the welfare of the community and to do so without any gain to any private person” gives it a charitable characteristic. The theater’s “imaginative” productions have “injected new vitality into the cultural life and … stimulated the minds and enriched the spirits of hundreds of thousands of patrons and other followers.”

That the theater requires patrons to pay for its performances “does not disqualify [it] as an institution of purely public charity. Charging admission does not vitiate the charitable status of theater, any more than it does a hospital, which may charge patients, but still is non-taxable if not run for a profit.” As a “cultural resource,” that ranks high in importance in the arts, the heater and related organizations are properly classified as “institutions of private or public charity,” exempt from state tax law.

The decision of the three-member Tax Court was not unanimous. A dissenting jurist viewed it as a “very novel proposition that a classical repertory theater [is] an institution of purely public charity.” Treating the theater as tax-exempt would, in view of the dissent, open a “Pandora’s box,” leading to “no end of exemptions claimed by clubs, societies, or associations that are non-profit organizations” ranging from “A” (Abolish Punishment League) to “Z” (Zoologist Society of America). But the dissent’s litany of potential tax exemptions did not carry the day, and the Guthrie has been a tax-exempt non-profit organization since its inception.

Recreational ruling

Another Tax Court case implicating the Guthrie was decided by the Supreme Court, which affirmed a decision by the tax tribunal that a condominium in Minneapolis, owned by a couple from Sartell outside of St. Cloud, should be treated as a “seasonal or recreational property” with lower real estate tax assessment rates under Minn. Stat. § 273.13 subd. 4(a) in Helgeson v. Hennepin County, 387 N.W.2d 408 (Minn. 1986).

The “recreational” classification resulted in lower taxes for the one-bedroom condominium overlooking Loring Park slightly northeast of the original Guthrie building. The contention of the owners that the property deserved preferential tax treatment was predicated on the condo being used only about 30-40 days annually when they came from their home in Sartell to Minneapolis to attend performances at the Guthrie or nearby Orchestra Hall.

The Supreme Court agreed with that argument, holding that “the condominium is seasonal/recreational.” Its treatment was equated to that of Twin Cities residents who own a cottage or other seasonal dwelling in outstate Minnesota. Treating the two under different tax classifications “would be discriminatory.”

But that did not sit well with two dissenters, who thought that the Legislature, in enacting the seasonal/recreational classification, did not intend to provide a tax break for such activities.

Disability decision

The Guthrie benefits from many volunteers who provide no-charge services for the institution. But one of them found volunteer work jeopardized her ability to obtain Social Security disability benefits in Hanovich v. Astrue, 579 F. Supp.2d 1172 (D. Minn. 2008).

An administrative law judge denied the woman who volunteered at the Guthrie social security disability benefits because her volunteer work was “inconsistent” with her claimed disabling levels of pain and fatigue, which she contended prevented her from working.

U.S. District Court Judge Ann Montgomery, reviewing a magisterial report, remanded the case for further evidence regarding the denial of benefits. In denying benefits, the administrative law judge did not fully develop the record concerning the Guthrie volunteer’s medical condition.

Therefore, further proceedings would be necessary to determine if the claimant did “meet or equal any listed impairment, irrespective of her volunteer work at the Guthrie.

Inaugural and imitation

Since its gala inaugural night 60 years ago, when the Guthrie staged Hamlet under the direction of Tyrone Guthrie himself, the theater’s founder and artistic director for its first three years, the theater has presented a rich lore of law-related plays. They range from “Saint Joan,” Arthur Miller’s tale of the trial of Joan of Arc, presented in 1964, and again during the 1986-1987 season, to “The Scottsboro Boys,” the 2009-2010 musical about the infamous 1930s trial of nine African American youths unjustly tried and convicted of rape in Alabama.

These cases illustrate the aphorism that sometimes life does, indeed, imitate art.

The end of six decades of the Guthrie and the start of its seventh promises continued theatrical excellence and probably some more litigation, too.


Some well-known Guthrie actors

Hume Cronyn and Jessica Tandy

George Grizzards

Joan Van Ark

Zoe Caldwell

Sally Wingert

Don Cheadle

Blair Brown

Marshall H. Tanick is an attorney with the Twin Cities law firm of Meyer Njus Tanick.

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