Minnesota arts groups are losing their greatest generation of donors

Twin Cities arts groups adjust to reality of fewer big patrons.


John Cowles Jr. and Sage Cowles, gave millions to the performing arts.


Funding the arts in the Twin Cities once took little more effort than a meal and a spiel.

“It used to be you took someone to lunch at the Minneapolis Club, told them about this great group that deserved support, and they’d write you a check,” said Ford Bell, grandson of the founder of General Mills.

But the circle of wealthy philanthropists who made up the “greatest generation” of arts giving in Minnesota is growing ever smaller. Several have died in just the past two years, including George Pillsbury, John Ordway Jr., Thomas Crosby Jr., and John and Sage Cowles.

With fewer wealthy patrons willing to give enormous sums, arts organizations must invest more resources to reach greater numbers of smaller givers. They must conform to more stringent standards.

Today’s younger donors “don’t want to give just because a museum is a great place to visit and has always been there,” said Bell, a trustee of the Minneapolis Institute of Arts (MIA) who heads the American Alliance of Museums in Washington, D.C. “They say: What’s the community impact? That’s something we measure now that we didn’t used to.”

Once during the 1970s, the Guthrie Theater was so cash-strapped it was in danger of not being able to make payroll. A staffer simply went over to board member Polly Grose’s house and coaxed her away from her garden long enough to secure a check to cover it.

The late Ken Dayton, who gave millions to the Minnesota Orchestra and whose widow, Judy, continues that support, was “my idol,” Bell said. “He’d say, if I think enough of you to make a big contribution, then I have to believe you know how to best use it. You didn’t have to show him the 10 additional widgets you were able to produce.”

That was then, this is now.

“These legendary families are aging out, and we have to address it,” said Danielle St. Germain-Gordon, development director at the Guthrie Theater, which recently announced its largest operating loss in 20 years. “The future will look very different.”

Going their own way

Many of today’s big givers still come from the One Percent, but their wealth doesn’t go back as far. Marilyn Carlson Nelson, of the Carlson Companies fortune, recently led a fundraising effort to resolve the Minnesota Orchestra labor dispute by offering $20,000 bonuses to each musician. William McGuire, former head of UnitedHealth Group, and his wife, Nadine, have given $10 million each to Walker Art Center and the Guthrie in the past 10 years.

But potential future major givers, those in their 40s and younger, may not be as tied to Minneapolis or St. Paul and want to create their own legacies rather than build on those of their parents.

Instead of attending black-tie dinners, they use social media to build donations and meet the people they’re supporting.

“The younger folk are more mobile and don’t feel that deep indebtedness to one city,” said Jeremy Wells, 35, who matches donors with nonprofits as a vice president at Minnesota Philanthropy Partners in St. Paul. “They’re continuing to fund the arts, but they might choose innovative work as opposed to the traditional.”

Judson Dayton, Ken and Judy Dayton’s son, sees it as “the end of an era in some ways. People are still picking up where their parents left off, but it’s often for different, smaller organizations.”

Blythe Brenden embodies this generational transition. Brenden, 46, whose family money comes from her grandfather, the late theater mogul Ted Mann, runs her own foundation, is a prominent supporter of the MIA and serves on the boards of the Guthrie and arts developer Artspace.

Brenden’s foundation will shortly announce the first recipients of a new micro-grant program, all for $10,000 or less.

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  • Bruce and Ruth Dayton support the Minneapolis Institute of Arts.


    Four of the top 10 during 2011 were family foundations established by such deep-pocketed Minnesotans as the Cargills and MacMillans (of Cargill Corp.), the McKnights (3M) and the Hills (Great Northern Railway).

    1. Target Foundation/ Target Corp. $33,263,605

    2. Margaret A. Cargill Foundation: $25,954,580

    3. Minneapolis Foundation: $10,977,023

    4. McKnight Foundation: $9,929,500

    5. St. Paul Foundation/ Minnesota Community Foundation: $8,822,214

    6. WEM Foundation: $5,937,000

    7. General Mills Foundation: $3,972,867

    8. Travelers Corp./Travelers Foundation: $3,837,250

    9. U.S. Bank Foundation: $3,425,310

    10. Jerome Foundation: $2,841,060

    Source: Minnesota Council on Foundations


    Here are just a few of the donations, totaling hundreds of millions of dollars, that these philanthropists have given.

    Bruce and Ruth Dayton: More than $72 million to Minneapolis Institute of Arts, plus 2,000-some works of art.

    Sally Ordway Irvine and Ordway family: $15 million to build Ordway Center in St. Paul in 1980.

    Ken and Judy Dayton: $15 million in 1994 to the Minnesota Orchestra’s endowment. Also, Judy Dayton has given more than $10 million to the orchestra’s Building for the Future campaign fund over the past several years.

    John Cowles Jr. and Sage Cowles: $2.5 million to launch Cowles Center for Dance and Performing Arts in 2010.

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