A harbinger of the health of the local arts scene

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After many years working across the arts disciplines in Minnesota, attending numerous national conferences and going on many site visits to see and experience the local arts culture in whatever city the conference was in, and being married to someone with a background in dance, so knowing how active and deep the Minnesota dance community was, I would naturally observe the dance scenes in these various cities as well as how robust the overall local arts scene seemed to be.

I pondered the connection between the two, and it quickly became very clear that the relative health of a dance community was a clear and consistent indicator of how strong and robust a local art scene was. There are a few quantitative and qualitative reasons for this observation.

Dance is by far the most difficult artistic discipline to survive in. Economically there are no virtual or cheap substitutions for creating dance. A choreographer needs live physical bodies and three-dimensional real space to begin to draft, craft and realize their work. There are no economical or technological substitutions, no writing on legal pads or laptops, no sketches in notebooks or computer programs that can simulate cellos and orchestras, no run-through with friends reading a script.

Additionally, choreographers need people who know how to move. People with training or ability. Choreographers also need space with certain requirements, hopefully no concrete floors but with some width and depth to simulate a decent-sized stage.

And that’s just to draft a work and create. If a choreographer is lucky or determined enough to put together a piece that wants to end up on a stage, they enter into a whole different level of economics and production. And if the choreographer finally gets something to the stage, typically they’ll get one night, maybe two nights and a matinee, and that is all they have to recoup some of their investment back in the form of ticket sales, after of course the split with the presenter. The economics are crushing, and the requirements to get there equally so.

So when a community has a visible and healthy dance scene, it means that there is a lot of infrastructure and that there are a lot of economic and human assets in place that these artists can take advantage of. It means that the arts scene is deep and broad and has bench strength. This is why when the supports for dance artists are in place, and a community benefits from a healthy and robust dance scene, most other art forms — theater, music, visual, literary — will have their needs met long before the dance artist.

This is all to say that in the culture world dance is the canary in the cave. And this is why the fall of the Cowles Center for Dance and the Performing Arts in downtown Minneapolis is worrying. Not just for dance but for the whole Minnesota arts scene.

For several decades the dance community benefited from several investments and infrastructure — many venues, undergraduate and graduate programs producing professional dance artists, and for many years a service organization dedicated to dance artists, similar to the Loft for writers, the Northern Clay Center for ceramic artists, the Composers Forum, the Playwrights’ Center and so on.

Minnesota has more artist service organizations than anywhere else in the country, and they are frequently national leaders. The one for dance, which during its time was also a national leader, folded more than a decade ago due to a variety of factors. Luckily some remnants of its services still remain, though reliant on volunteers. Other parts of the infrastructure, most notably venues and presenter/producers, have also seen their numbers dwindle with each passing year as have dance companies. These are not good indicators. There are however a couple bright spots that have to be taken into account.

Given the turnout at the recent Dance/Cowles Center Town Hall Forum hosted by the city, there are still a lot of artists in the dance community who call the Twin Cities home and want to continue to pursue their professional lives here. They care a lot. These artists are a huge asset to our community. Don’t take them for granted. They are here in part because a lively arts scene attracts artists but also because the University of Minnesota, St. Olaf and other colleges, along with numerous dance schools, are producing professional dancers. In doing this, these institutions are fulfilling their roles as trainers of these artists.

Sadly, it is the community — whose role it is to welcome, support and celebrate these artists — that is failing in its responsibility. And because we are not paying attention to what is happening in dance, we are also not really paying attention to what is happening to the rest of our arts community. We have gotten complacent and are happy to rest on our laurels as a region with a reputation for an exceptional arts scene. This reputation was created over decades by the hard work by artists and the community’s investment, sparse as it has been over the years. Again, don’t take it for granted.

But if you think, well, it’s just dance, we’ve got plenty of other stuff going on, this is certainly is true. It won’t remain true without attention and care. The closing of Cowles, even though to some it felt inevitable with its flawed and fragile business model, tells us quite clearly that forces couldn’t be gathered to save it, or to figure out what the structural issues were and how to solve them. It signals a failure of our community will and vision. It also signals something much bigger is lurking that is a threat to our broader cultural community, and that this is not just a dance thing, it’s an everything thing.

Neal Cuthbert, of Minneapolis, is an artist and consultant and worked in philanthropy for several decades.

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