Hennepin Avenue, the bustling cultural artery of downtown Minneapolis, is becoming inhospitable to dance.
That’s the premise of a fundraising letter sent to several thousand supporters of Zenon Dance Company and School. Zenon, the venerable Twin Cities modern-dance outfit, regularly performs at the Cowles Center on Hennepin between 5th and 6th streets. Its 33rd season recently completed, Zenon has a $60,000 budget shortfall.
“Our longtime home at 6th and Hennepin in downtown Minneapolis … has now become an environment that is hostile to the arts,” said the fundraising letter, signed by founding artistic director Linda Z. Andrews. “Many factors have contributed to this change, including the recent development of downtown sports centers with escalating parking fees; ongoing street construction right outside our door; and social unrest on Hennepin Avenue.”
By “social unrest,” she meant tension and fights on the street, Andrews said by telephone from Italy. Patrons have raised safety concerns, Andrews said, and a street fight on Hennepin in May broke a Cowles Center window.
Her view of an arts community in crisis because of its urban environment drew immediate fire from other arts leaders who are also tenants at the Cowles.
“There’s no question that in the five years that we’ve been at the Cowles, downtown has become more vibrant and lively, with the addition of light rail and the sports stadium,” said Carl Flink, leader of Black Label Movement, an 11-year-old dance collective that has offices and that has performed at the Cowles. “But I don’t think that it has become antagonistic or negative for the arts.”
Zenon has a sympathetic ear in Minneapolis City Council President Barb Johnson, who said Tuesday that she has heard from other businesses about crime in downtown Minneapolis. Johnson noted that there has been a rise in assaults and aggravated assaults in downtown, compared with last year.
“This is our social entertainment area. And it is terrible that we’ve got a portion of people who come downtown just to do mischief. It’s ridiculous,” Johnson said. “Mischief is not a strong enough word.”
Johnson said that the city has been aggressive in trying to maintain order but that police powers are limited when dealing with loitering. “It’s very frustrating,” Johnson said.
Stuart Pimsler, founder and artistic director of his namesake dance company, said that having sports and more people downtown was, in fact, an “exciting” sign of growth.
“I work downtown every day, and all I can say is that those are some strange claims to make in a fundraising letter,” Pimsler said. “I’m afraid of my neighborhood, so please give me money?”
Officials at the Cowles did not return calls seeking comment.
Andrews, a blunt-speaking arts leader, said she did not intend to knock the Cowles. She is upset that ticket sales are down for Zenon shows, that she’s lost about a third of her 2,000 students this year and that parking rates have gone way up.
“Every time we do a survey in the school, the main complaint is the cost of parking. Especially when the sports events are on, there’s no place to park for less than $15 or $25,” said Andrews. “That doesn’t make sense for a $15 class.”
Johnson, the council president, said she has been “stunned” by some of the prices charged by private ramps downtown. “I think we have to be careful about this,” she said. “We’re going to be to the point that we’re turning people away.”
Zenon has an annual $725,000 budget. It has addressed the $60,000 shortfall by cutting back hours for its three full-time staff members. Andrews said she’s no longer drawing a salary. She’s hoping to find a suburban space to hold classes and offer fewer performances at Cowles in the coming season.
Zenon’s complaints come during the peak of construction activity downtown. Some nearby restaurants and stores also have said they’ve lost business. And parking continues to get worse.
Those are growing pains that will result in a better experience long-term, said Tom Hoch, president of the Hennepin Theatre Trust, which presents Broadway shows on Hennepin.
“As we’re building up this cultural district, we want more people to come here, not fewer,” said Hoch. “Our goal is to have lots of things for folks to do when they come here, from shows to dinner to drinks.”
Staff writer Eric Roper contributed to this report.