Art Works Blog

Postcard from Minneapolis

The creative placemaking panel in Minneapolis. From l-r: Tom Fisher, Rocco Landesman, Mayor Rybak, Sarah Harris, and Tom Borrup. Photo courtesy of

Last week, I continued a busy month of travel with a trip to Minneapolis. It was a kind of “coming home” for me because I’ve spent so much time in Minneapolis over the years when Jujamcyn operated theaters there. Let’s face it---people in Minneapolis are arts-oriented. It’s a different kind of dialogue than you’d have in a lot of other places. They’re really ahead of the curve in the arts---always have been. This was reaffirmed over and over again throughout my visit.

We started out at the James Sewell Ballet, where I got to meet James Sewell, who’s a nationally-known dancer and choreographer with a lot of New York roots. What’s interesting about the James Sewell Ballet is that they’re very community-oriented. They’re not just looking to perform in New York City and Moscow, but also in neighborhoods in Minneapolis and all through the state of Minnesota. They really are an example of what we’ve been talking about for a long time now, which is artistic institutions getting out and around in their communities. I also met with George Sutton, who’s the executive director there. He runs the place, and is a very engaged, committed guy. They seem to have a great operation, and I was very encouraged to see the work they’re doing.

We then did a tour of the Hennepin Avenue theaters, hosted by Tom Hoch, who runs the Hennepin Theatre Trust. They’re the recipient of an Our Town grant, and they’re planning to connect the different cultural assets on Hennepin Avenue, which will further enhance what is really a bourgeoning arts district there. Tom Hoch is a great guy. There are a lot of associations there for me because Jujamcyn used to run the Broadway series at the State and Orpheum Theatres, which have been renovated. It was great to encounter him. They’re of course delighted to get the Our Town project, which they think is going to be a big catalyst for development there. It was great to be a part of that.

We then went on to a panel on creative placemaking. I love creative placemaking panels because not only do I get to proselytize about Our Town and the NEA, but I really get to engage in a back-and-forth with the arts community. The room was packed, and as a recovering producer, I love good box office. I was on a panel with R.T. Rybak, the mayor of Minneapolis, whom I’d first met at a MICD conclave at Chicago. He’s a great guy and a true arts mayor. He gets it about the arts and the role of the arts in the local economy, and has been a tremendous ally for us. Sarah Harris was also on the panel; she runs the Minneapolis Downtown Improvement District, which is equivalent to what I was on in New York for all those years---the Business Improvement District, which is now called the Times Square Alliance. So we had some points of intersection since I had a whole history with that. The Business Improvement Districts are essentially businesses getting together and pooling resources to take matters of their neighborhood into their own hands, and improve their communities on their own. Tom Borrup, who’s a principal with Creative Community Builders, was also there. Again, we’ve taken a page out of their playbook for Our Town---he really gets how art works with community building. The moderator was Tom Fisher, who’s a professor of architecture and dean of the College of Design at the University of Minnesota. This is his subject, so he had some great questions. It was one of the better panels that I’ve had, and was very stimulating.

After the panel, I met with Joe Spencer, who’s the Mayor’s Director of Arts and Culture in St. Paul. We talked about our work in St. Paul and in Lowertown, which is their arts district. He’s clearly very committed to the arts in St. Paul.

That night at dinner, I was seated between Mayor Rybak and Sharon Sayles Belton, the former mayor of Minneapolis. It was great to be between two mayors. When I was in town previously, it was Mayor Belton who had been a proponent of the arts and development of the theater district and so forth.

That night, there was a big gala dinner at the Cowles Center, the wonderful new dance complex that just opened that weekend. The Cowles Center was literally the old Shubert Theatre, which they moved two miles down the road on a truck, plopped down in a parking lot, and created a whole new place. It was a 12-year process to raise all this money, and right in the middle of a recession. And if it could be done at all, it was going to be in Minneapolis. And it was. I think this gives dance a much higher profile in the Twin Cities. The Cowleses have been committed to this for a long time. Mrs. Cowles is a former dancer and a dance patron, and really passionate about the arts. We had a great dinner, and I got to connect with a lot of old friends in Minneapolis.

That night, I got to speak as part of the program, which honored the Cowleses, the center, and also Kelley Lindquist, who’s an old friend and whose playbook we really have borrowed from here at the NEA. The Cowles Center is an Artspace project, which Kelley runs. He’s a great visionary, and is passionate about using the arts to transform places. It was just a great evening altogether, and I’m looking forward to getting back to Minneapolis soon.

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