The challenge of the Cowles Center: Why is Frank Sonntag leaving his “little place in heaven”?


“The unfortunate thing is that people misread my comment about being ill suited to the culture here,” said Frank Sonntag, the executive director of the Cowles Center for Dance and the Performing Arts.

On late Monday afternoon, the Star Tribune published an article online (expanded later in the evening) reporting that Sonntag was resigning. The article quoted a statement by Sonntag, released by the Cowles’ parent organization, Artspace: “I came to Minnesota because I believed in the mission of the Cowles Center, and I still do. But after spending most of my professional life in New York, I don’t feel the Minnesota culture is one I’m well-suited for.”

Besides the blow that Sonntag is resigning after only 10 months, just as the Cowles is embarking on its first season, the comments by Sonntag stirred a huge reaction in comments on the Star Tribune article and news coverage that followed, and on Twitter and Facebook. MPR’s Bob Collins even wrote the tongue-in-cheek “A Letter to the East Coast” that lambasted Sonntag. “You don’t like the culture? Grow a little,” Collins wrote.

Sonntag said in a telephone interview on Wednesday evening that his statements were about his own shortcomings, about his difficulty adjusting. “I take full responsibility,” he said. He’ll be staying on with the organization until the end of December. “I don’t regret coming. This is a little place in heaven.”

The Star Tribune scoop

Kittie Fahey, a member of the advisory council for the Cowles Center, said in a telephone interview also on Wednesday evening that she was upset by the reaction to the articles and to Sonntag’s statements. “He wanted to be here. He has no other job. I don’t like the way the public is responding to it, as if he just decided to abandon ship…that was never his intent. He bought a car. He went to events with me all the time.”

Fahey said she hadn’t heard an inkling about Sonntag resigning before she heard about it from the Star Tribune’s Claude Peck on Monday afternoon. “We had a board meeting on Friday,” she said. “Everything was hunky-dory.” The meeting involved talking about the future of the organization, according to Fahey—about what the Cowles is doing in 2014, looking into restaurants, a co-production with Theater Latté Da. “Frank was not planning on leaving on Friday afternoon. I would have known,” Lahey said.

Sonntag said the decision to leave is something that he’s been wrestling with for months, but according to Melodie Bahan, who is in the process of transitioning from her contract position as director of external relations at the Cowles to her future position as vice president of communications at Artspace, though Sonntag had been in discussion with the Artspace leadership about leaving his position, the timing was not planned. 

“This had been in discussion,” Bahan said. “This kind of thing doesn’t happen suddenly. Somehow the Star Tribune got wind of this, and didn’t give anyone the opportunity to have conversations with the community.”

Colin Hamilton, senior vice president of national advancement for Artspace, said that though there had been discussion about Sonntag leaving, the decision happened on Monday.

Discussions with Sonntag had been very open, according to Hamilton, about what was working and what wasn’t working. However, everyone was caught off guard by Claude Peck’s phone call to the Cowles on Monday, he said. There wasn’t a chance to explain things internally and come together as a team before it became a public story. “It’s too bad for us,” he said.

Cowles Center

Artspace and the Cowles

Artspace is a national organization that provides affordable space for arts organizations. The Cowles Center is like many things that Artspace does around the country, but differs in being a programmatic entity rather than just a space. “Usually we just lease it out,” Hamilton said. “The Cowles is a different beast.” Currently, the Cowles works as a project of Artspace, but eventually—in maybe five years—the Cowles will become its own 501(c)3, according to Hamilton. Thus Sonntag, rather than answering to a board of directors, answers to Artspace’s president, Kelly Lindquist.

The advisory council for the Cowles Center isn’t really a board of directors. It’s “board-like,” according to Hamilton, “but not truly a board.” The Council does many things a typical board of directors would typically do—such as fundraising—but there is a fundamental difference. “The council does not share responsibility for the Cowles Center and does not oversee it,” he said.

“The Cowles is not its own organization at all,” said Troy Linck, who worked for Artspace for two years as a contractor. “Artspace is not an arts organization. It’s a development board.” Linck says Artspace and the Cowles are like “two people speaking completely different languages.” The difficulty, he says, is how to translate that. “Frankly, it’s not being translated.”

“The thing with Artspace,” Linck said, “is that they’re brilliant developers of specialized use structures. They build art space for artists and the organization is called Artspace. If they built space for doctors, it would be called Medspace—but that would not make them doctors. They are profoundly sensitive to the arts, but they are not an arts organization.”

The politics of dance

Jeff Bartlett, former artistic director of the Southern Theater, who worked as a dance liaison at the Cowles from January to August of 2010—when he had a major accident and could no longer work—and who has designed lights for the Cowles in their first season, says he has some ideas about what Sonntag may have been referring to when he spoke of the different Minnesota culture.

“It’s hard to get dance companies to work together in this town,” Bartlett said, wondering if that might be part of what Sonntag was alluding to in the “culture” comment.

“I think it’s possible that there’s a tendency to look at […] nonfinancial things that my company—whatever artistic director I am—the nonfinancial things my company needs.” The intangible needs of the dance community are very different from the business needs, according to Bartlett. “As I’m saying this—you could blame me in part for that. For years, I was more interested in addressing those intangible needs…I bent over backward to make them feel welcome and happy and comfortable.” Of course, Bartlett admits that the Southern had financial difficulties, in part because he wasn’t on top of the business side of it all. 

Bartlett suggests that the role of an all-encompassing executive director—without an accompanying artistic director—is too big for one individual. “The whole business of trying to get the new facility up and running, with all the equipment, and supervising a construction project, plus trying to advance the season, and all these artists coming in.”

Bartlett’s experience designing for Ragamala at the beginning of the season was that things were rough around the edges. “That’s not anything they didn’t know,” he said. “It’s always crazy opening a new facility. But there were miscommunications. They really don’t have a technical staff. They had a production manager who quit right after opening weekend.” 

Bartlett said he realizes the Cowles is trying to succeed economically. “They are trying to run an organization where there isn’t a huge amount of staff overhead cost. Because if there gets to be too much overhead, it makes it more difficult for artists to be there. To their credit, they are trying to keep it lean.” But there’s a balance, Bartlett said. “I don’t envy them. It’s really a challenge. I hope they succeed—it’s a beautiful facility.”

Hamilton said that hiring an artistic director in addition to an executive director is definitely something that Artspace has considered, though he doesn’t think it’s something they’ll do right away. “For small to mid-size organizations,” he said, “you know you don’t have the capacity to hire everyone you want. You’re constantly juggling your resources, trying to put the right people in the right places.” According to Hamilton, the plan is to hire a new executive director right away, without hiring an interim executive director in the meantime.

Correction: When this article was initially published, Troy Linck was mistakenly identified as “Troy Lindquist.” 

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