Remembering Sage Cowles

The Twin Cities has lost one its most generous arts supporters. Philanthropist Sage Cowles, the wife of the late John Cowles, died yesterday. She was 88.

As a couple, Sage and John Cowles had a tremendous influence on the local arts scene.  Through Sage, much of that generosity went to dance.

Her legacy is reflected through the Cowles Center for Dance and the Performing Arts in downtown Minneapolis, and the annual dance awards in the Twin Cities called the “Sage Awards.”  She also established the “Sage Cowles Land Grant Chair in Dance” at the University of Minnesota.

“I truly don’t think the dance community would exist here if it wasn’t for Sage,” reflected dancer Joanne Spencer.

Sage Cowles in "Space, Time, and Illusion" (Photo courtesy the Walker Art Center)

Sage Cowles was herself a dancer. She trained in New York with the Martha Graham Company, and pursued a career on Broadway before she married John Cowles, a newspaper man whose family owned the then Star and Tribune newspaper company. Sage introduced himto dance, and they even danced together on stage.

“Sage was hugely important as somebody who understood what it’s like to be a dancer, and what it’s like to make a commitment to that life, the kinds of sacrifices one makes, the struggles to survive as an artist in the United States and Minnesota,” said longtime Twin Cities dancer and choreographer Patrick Scully. “She didn’t face those challenges in exactly the same way. But because she had that understanding and the resources that she did, she worked in a very quiet, approachable way to make the world and the community she lived in a better place.”

The Cowles supported not just dance, but theater and the visual arts as well.It was not unusual to run into them at a gallery opening.

“[Sage] and John were always first in line to help the arts thrive and grow in Minnesota,” recalled Bob Booker, former director of the Minnesota State Arts Board. “The wonderful part is that they were not only supporters, but participants in every form of the word. Sage was a comfortable person to be around. Gracious, generous, funny, and inquisitive.”

Their commitment to the local arts scene goes back more than 50 years. In the early 1960s, John Cowles was one of the people who worked to convince Sir Tyrone Guthrie to bring his vision for regional theater to Minneapolis.

Neal Cuthbert, Vice President of Programming at the McKnight Foundation said Sage and John Cowles were irreplaceable forces in the community who had a profound effect on Minnesota.

“It’s not just the money,” Cuthbert said. “It was the leadership and the belief and the vision. Those were things that changed this community in a historic way.”

“Sage was a great supporter of our performing arts program for many years,” said Walker Art Center Director Olga Viso, “and she and John gave us the Cowles Conservatory in the sculpture garden. Frankly it’s hard to imagine the Twin Cities without them.”