FROM THE 49TH FLOOR of the City Center office tower in downtown Minneapolis, picture-window panoramas offer views that reach the suburbs. Scott Mayer doesn’t seem to notice. His vision, as evidenced by those he’s gathered around the table—including representatives from Macy’s, the Walker Art Center, Meet Minneapolis, and the Actors’ Equity Association—is focused squarely on downtown.
The group he has assembled this afternoon is brainstorming ideas for Spark24, a one-day, round-the-clock cavalcade of dance, music, and theater on and around Nicollet Mall, beginning on the evening of August 30. Mayer hatched the idea to coincide with the opening of the Republican National Convention in St. Paul. The event, in Mayer-speak, is “about leveraging the Republican convention to create a message about our phenomenal city.”
“While we’re all focused on the opportunity to fill our hotels and restaurants, there’s no strategy for getting the thousands of people coming here to come back,” he says. “Nobody was asking ‘How do we use the convention as a point to capture more tourism?’ We need to get the message out that we offer the best arts and entertainment experience in the country. So if nobody is going to do anything, I’ll make sure something’s done.”
The attendees at the Spark24 meeting share a faith. They believe in Scott Mayer—by turns a cheerleader, entrepreneur, ambassador, hobnobber, and power broker. He has a knack for generating ideas, excitement, and, perhaps most importantly, money. In just a few years, Mayer has helped leverage hundreds of thousands of dollars in financial contributions and sponsorships from U.S. Bank, Best Buy, and other heavy hitters to accomplish what few had even thought possible: He has united the Twin Cities arts community, bringing its sometimes-fractious and often-competitive members together for festivals and award programs, spotlighting their talents, and solidifying the arts’ reputation as an economic engine.
MAYER REFERS to the Twin Cities’ arts and entertainment scene as the best in the country, without a trace of hyperbole. His favorite adjective is “phenomenal,” which he uses to describe the local arts scene—as if the assessment were commonly held. He devotes most of his time to spreading the word, and preaching the value of promotion and celebration. His converts include not only performers and arts administrators, but also CEOs and politicians.
Mayer runs a sponsorship marketing and consulting business from a small office on Loring Park, just a short walk from the high rise where he lives with his partner of 14 years, a skin-care esthetician. At 51, Mayer has a thin build, an easy smile, and a jawline set at razor-sharp angles. His wavy, gray hair is swept back in such a way that it makes him look like James Brolin, overdue for a trim.
His client roster is eclectic: First Avenue (the Minneapolis club wants his help to “enhance the First Avenue experience”), a national organization of luxury property realtors, the suave singer/pianist Jim Brickman. Most of Mayer’s business comes from people who have long-standing relationships with him.
Mayer’s networking and promotional skills were already evident four decades ago, when, at 14, the native of Roscoe, South Dakota (population 324), canvassed Indian reservations for George McGovern. At 18, he worked in the Washington office of then—U.S. Representative Tom Daschle. He later lived in Greece for a while, dealt blackjack for a year in Lake Tahoe, and briefly taught high school in Nevada, before moving to Minneapolis to attend law school. He spent eight years lobbying the Minnesota legislature for health-care groups while advocating for gay rights and raising money for HIV/AIDS organizations.
One of Mayer’s first forays into promotion was a house party he held, inviting friends to watch the Academy Awards. The celebration eventually grew so big that he moved it downtown to the State and Orpheum theaters. The bash raised thousands of dollars for the Minnesota AIDS Project, which now runs the event.
Later, inspired by the talent he saw on Twin Cities stages, he launched the Ivey Awards—the local equivalent of the Tonys. The event will mark its fourth year this fall.
PERHAPS IT SAYS as much about Minneapolis’s demographics as it does about Mayer’s talents that when Mayor R.T. Rybak sought to develop an arts festival celebrating the city’s multicultural artistic treasures, he tapped as its director a gay, middle-aged, white man from South Dakota. Mayer has directed MOSAIC, which begins with a kickoff performance in June and runs all summer, since its inception six years ago.
“He’s one of the most effective and innovative people in town,” says Rybak. “He understands what is unique about this community better than almost anybody I know. He has Minneapolis in his blood.”
Even Mayer’s fans, however, can occasionally be critical. The city’s senior arts commissioner, Trish Brock, stepped down from the board of MOSAIC in March because she believed it was wasn’t inclusive enough—surprisingly—of white European descendants. “I think he needs to really stay on the course that MOSAIC is an arts festival as opposed to a political agenda for immigration,” says Brock. “The city is a mosaic of many colors, and many parts of that mosaic are shades of white.”
Mayer counters that MOSAIC’s promotion of events at the Swedish American Institute is evidence of the festival’s broad scope. He also wants MOSAIC’s definition of multiculturalism to extend beyond race and ethnicity—a desire informed, to some degree, by personal experience. “Part of it is… recognizing how being different is really valuable,” Mayer says. “I do think being gay certainly helps me identify with minority
“I would have preferred to have a person of color leading MOSAIC,” Rybak says. “But MOSAIC never would have happened in the first place if not for Scott.” In fact, Mayer raised most of the money for the first MOSAIC celebration single-handedly. Even today, the $160,000 budget for the city-sponsored festival is paid for entirely through corporate sponsorships arranged by Mayer.
“There are a lot of people who talk about things they’d like to do, but he’s able to talk about it and make it happen,” says Fran Davis, a member of the Ivey steering committee who also sits on the boards of several local theater companies. “He’s a great salesperson for the things he believes in.”
Mayer is also “a great ambassador for the Twin Cities,” says Davis—and, with Spark24, he hopes to evangelize to visiting journalists and other convention-goers about the region’s arts community. “I think of myself as a messenger,” he says. “We have a phenomenal arts community—I recognize it, I feel strongly about it, and I have the talent to help create and deliver the message.”
Of course, not every event Mayer dreams up meets with success. He laughs as he recalls the scavenger hunt, picnic, and look-alike contest he organized in 2002 around the unveiling of the Mary Tyler Moore sculpture on Nicollet Mall. The event drew exactly four people—including Mayer and his partner. Mayer, ever the optimist, refuses to concede defeat: “I still think it was a good idea.”
Matt Peiken, a former arts reporter with the St. Paul Pioneer Press, is managing editor of the Walker Art Center’s magazine.