New role for the Twin Cities' godfather of art films

  • Article by: COLIN COVERT , Star Tribune
  • Updated: October 11, 2010 - 7:48 PM

Minnesota Film Arts plans to shift longtime artistic director AlMilgrom into an advisory role, with board member Susan Smoluchowski taking over as executive director.

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For nearly half a century, Al Milgrom, 87, has been the passionate, irascible Johnny Appleseed and Don Quixote of Twin Cities art cinema.

Photo: Richard Sennott, Star Tribune

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Ending an era, Minnesota Film Arts (MFA) will hand over its top responsibilities to a new team.

For nearly half a century, Al Milgrom, 87, has been the passionate, irascible Johnny Appleseed and Don Quixote of Twin Cities art cinema. He has become a familiar figure locally, tirelessly taping leaflets to utility poles, and internationally, where his nimbus of gray hair and remarkable vigor make him a standout at the many film festivals he visits each year.

On Friday, MFA board member Tim Grady announced that Milgrom will move to an emeritus position. The group's new executive director is board member Susan Smoluchowski, 57, a former Minnesota Film and TV Board staffer with a background in nonprofit management. She will focus on fundraising and expanding the organization's reach with new programs in St. Paul and beyond the Twin Cities.

Milgrom will continue as a programming adviser.

Milgrom, who is attending the Vancouver Film Festival, could not be reached for comment on Friday.

He founded the group's predecessor, the University Film Society, in 1962, offering audiences international cinema in a market where film fare was rarely more exotic than "The Sound of Music." Milgrom and his staff presented many of the more important foreign films of the period, arranging appearances by such filmmakers as Jean-Luc Godard, Werner Herzog, Wim Wenders, Milos Forman and many others.

After two decades of screening films at the Bell Museum, he served as director of the annual Minneapolis/St. Paul (originally Rivertown) International Film Festival, or MSPIFF, in the early 1980s. Minnesota Film Arts was created through the merger of Milgrom's University Film Society and the Oak Street Cinema in 2002. In 2007, Milgrom received the Ordway's Sally Award for his service to the arts community.

A vociferous advocate for exotic offerings, he fought for media attention with an underdog's tenacity. Local film journalists swap tales of classic Milgrom pitches such as "You've got to see this! It's the Serbo-Croatian 'Big Chill.'" Even in his ninth decade, he crashes on friends' couches and tools around film capitals by bicycle. At the 2008 Seattle Film Festival, he tripped on an escalator and broke his collarbone. And he kept on going.

"We all have veneration for Al, but the truth is that anybody at his age needs to be stepping back just a little bit from the day-to-day to leave room for new people to come and carry on the legacy," Smoluchowski said.

The group intends to buy and renovate the St. Anthony Main theater complex as a permanent home, offering a mix of art-house and mainstream titles. The MFA will rename itself the Film Society of Minneapolis and St. Paul in a move to be seen as a membership organization. Grady hopes to see the subscriber base rise from about 600 at present to "10 or 15 thousand at a minimum" over the next several years. The annual film festival is slated to expand, mini-festivals showcasing diverse cultures will run year-round and the organization will host worldwide filmmakers.

"There's more competition in town now," Grady said, referring to alternative exhibitors such as the tiny Trylon Microcinema and last month's ambitious new Twin Cities Film Festival.

Film festivals in comparable cities have budgets between $3 million and $4 million. But MSPIFF, a two-week affair screening about 140 features, operates on a quarter that amount. Grady, a lifelong cinephile who helped Milgrom run the University Film Society in the 1970s, has personally underwritten most of the festival's expenses. In order for the organization to reach its potential, he said, it must seek additional funding. "Corporate support is crucial for this," he said, and a seat-of-the-pants management style is anathema to such donors. "Al has been a driving force, and we really want to honor him in some way, maybe by creating an Al Milgrom Theater," Grady said. "But we need to push forward with new blood, new programming, new programmers."

"The legacy that Al Milgrom leaves this community is huge," Smoluchowski said. Stepping into MFA's top spot is "an amazing opportunity, and there are some challenges but I think they're all surmountable challenges," she said.

Colin Covert • 612-673-7186

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