The future of the Cowles Center

Editor’s note: In case you missed this story on Friday night, I thought it was worth a reprint here. Chris Roberts reports on what the departure of Executive Director Frank Sonntag means for the new performing arts center.

After Frank Sonntag’s resignation as executive director of the brand new Cowles Center for Dance and the Performing Arts in Minneapolis earlier this week stunned the local dance community, fans are wondering what it all means for the center.

Sonntag had been in the job for just 10 months. It leaves Minnesota’s so-called ‘flagship center for dance’ searching for a new leader midway through its inaugural season.

Ultimately, it was a culture clash that led Sonntag to leave what he considered his dream job at the Cowles Center. He arrived in Minnesota from the Brooklyn Center for the Performing Arts in New York. Here, Sonntag’s self-described New York-style directness collided with a certain Midwestern politeness.

“I had heard from lots of folks about the whole ‘Minnesota Nice’ thing, and the truth is, its’ pretty hard to wrap your head around that until you step in it,” he said. “And I stepped in it, pretty early on.”

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Frank Sonntag

MPR Photo/Jeffrey Thompson

Sonntag said he is entirely to blame for not being able to overcome the difference in work and communication styles.

“It tripped me up and that caused me some consternation and other people some consternation,” he said. “At the end of the day, we made the mutual decision that it might be best for the organization if I stepped aside,” he said.

When asked for specific examples of how Minnesota Nice became particularly aggravating, Sonntag declined to point fingers.

“I do not want to get into specifics but you know it’s what everyone says,” he said. “People don’t tell you what they think, they talk about it behind your back. And so that causes you to bob and weave and I’ve never been very good at that.”

In a statement released Monday, Sonntag said “after spending most of my professional life in New York, I don’t feel Minnesota culture is one I’m well suited for.” In parts of the arts community and beyond it was interpreted as a put down and it triggered a minor uproar.

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The Cowles Center for Dance and the Performing Arts

MPR Photo/Jeffrey Thompson

Sonntag said he wasn’t referring to the state’s cultural scene, for which he has the utmost respect, but its culture of social interaction. Colin Hamilton, senior vice president of national advancement for the Cowles Center’s parent organization, Artspace, said he knows when Sonntag made the statement he was trying to be gracious.

“But when it came out, people heard the exact opposite, right?” he said. “A lot of the buzz has been this sense that somehow Minnesota’s honor has been challenged. To me that’s a little microcosm of the whole thing. You just have a slight failure of languages to connect, personalities to connect. And it’s not about anybody being right or wrong, good or bad, just ‘fits’ not being what they should be.”

Hamilton credits Sonntag with doing a wonderful job guiding the Cowles Center through its gala opening and into its inaugural season.

“There’s a very short-term harm,” Hamilton said of the impact of Sonntag’s departure. “But I don’t think in the long term it is going be all that disruptive.”

Hamilton said the Artspace team, led by president Kelley Lindquist, which has spearheaded the Cowles Center effort for the last 12 years, is still solidly in place. He said Sonntag will stay at the Cowles through December.

Artspace hopes to name his replacement within weeks as opposed to months. Hamilton said Artspace will be looking for someone with extensive experience in the nuts-and-bolts operation of a performing arts venue, who can also effectively communicate the Cowles Center vision in the community.

Meanwhile, Minneapolis dance writer Caroline Palmer said Artspace has quite a bit of work to do to ease concerns among dance artists and audiences.

“I think that the management is going to need to do a bit of soul-searching and a bit of outreach in order to let people know that this venture is still proceeding as planned, it’s still on steady legs and we’re not going to see any major shifts from what we’ve been told about in the future,” she said.

Palmer also hopes the Sonntag situation won’t lead Artspace to only consider Minnesota candidates to succeed him. That, she said, would be a knee-jerk reaction.

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