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The Big Picture

What transitions in the leadership ranks mean for the local arts scene

THE BUILDINGS go up, the builders step down. Or so it seems: Many of the arts leaders behind Minnesota’s revitalized cultural institutions, from the Walker Art Center to the Minneapolis Institute of Arts (MIA) to the Loft Literary Center, have moved on in recent months or are leaving soon. Kathy Halbreich steps down next month after 17 years as director of the Walker. Linda Myers retires this month as executive director of the Loft. Tony Woodcock left his post earlier this year as president of the Minnesota Orchestra to lead the New England Conservatory. And William Griswold, after less than two years as director of the MIA, announced that he’s returning to New York City to head the Morgan Library and Museum.

The good news is that Minnesota’s cultural institutions are emerging from an unprecedented period of expansion in terrific shape, with healthy financial and attendance numbers. And at least one of these vacancies had already been filled at press time, with Jocelyn Hale, a consultant and former manager of the Best Buy Children’s Foundation, replacing Myers. Griswold, observers agree, wasn’t here long enough to leave a sizeable hole at the MIA. But the question remains: Could a leadership vacuum suck the air out of the Twin Cities’ cultural sails?

Halbreich insists that she’s most proud not of the new Walker building she helped create but of cultivating a risk-taking board; of forming a mission-driven staff of arts lovers, not careerists; and of extending the Walker’s reach. The Walker has certainly courted diversity on Halbreich’s watch, becoming the first major art museum to create a teen-outreach program, increasing attendance among young people from 9 percent in 1995 to 13 percent in 2006, and instituting Free First Saturdays and Free Thursdays.

For the Walker to remain relevant and solvent, Halbreich believes, it must continue to turn outward, not inward, answering this question: “How do you expose people to new ideas in ways that are thrilling rather than frightening?” The center must also be increasingly inventive in how it generates income, she says, examining everything from its marketing to potential new revenue streams, such as catering and rental opportunities. And, in fact, the new Walker was designed to capitalize on just that.

Woodcock led the Minnesota Orchestra out of the financial woods and back toward a balanced budget in just three years on the job—without drastically cutting programs. Gwen Pappas, the ensemble’s spokesperson, says audiences seemed scarcely aware of the cuts, which ranged from reductions in health-care expenses to musician and staff wage freezes, while marketing and fundraising were dramatically re-energized.

The new orchestra president’s first priorities will likely be fundraising (the group is planning a $90 million building expansion) as well as creating a financial model that’s sustainable, not one in need of the occasional miracle. With any luck, Woodcock’s successor will also resurrect his plan to take the ensemble on a tour of China next year.

Hale, the new director of the Loft, has suggested she will reach out to minorities, especially new immigrants. Myers applauds the idea: In her term, she quadrupled the number of students served annually at the Loft, partly by cultivating more diverse programming. But Myers may remain best known for shepherding the creation of the elegant Open Book building in downtown Minneapolis to house the center and other nonprofit literary groups. It opened in 2000, the first of several recent cultural building projects.

“I used to say that no one would take literature seriously as an art form until it had a piece of real estate, like museums and performing-arts halls,” Myers says. “Open Book has given literature a visibility it never had before in the Twin Cities.”


The Loft will fête departing director Linda Myers and welcome Jocelyn Hale on October 26 at the Nicollet Island Pavilion in Minneapolis. Details at www.loft.org.

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