The organization plans to sell its assets with the intention of ending most operations unless someone with financial wherewithal comes along to restart its annual ring show, according to a court filing.
The group, which had already canceled its 2016-17 season, said some of its programs could be "transitioned to other capable not-for-profit organizations."
Paul Binder and Michael Christensen founded the Big Apple Circus in 1977 "to establish a performing circus and school for the instruction and artistic development of circus arts," according to the bankruptcy filing.
At its peak in 2008, the organization conducted more than 350 shows in eight locations nationwide. The group provided tens of thousands of free tickets annually to low-income children and families, held special programs for children with autism, hearing impairments and blindness, and conducted a program to provide clown entertainment to hospitals.
The organization listed $8.3 million in debts and $3.8 million in liabilities.
Interest in private circus performances, which provided much of the group's income, suffered "a precipitous drop-off" in recent years, Big Apple Circus executive director Will Weiss said in a court filing. And giving declined 40% in its 2016 fiscal year, even as expenses increased.
The organization also blamed the formation in June of a competing not-for-profit that swiped business away from its long-standing hospital clown outreach program.
The bankruptcy plan preserves "the opportunity to restart the annual ring show with new financial support or through a sale of the circus to an interested buyer," Weiss said.