Actor turned tap dancer is St. Paul's coolness king

  • Article by: ROCHELLE OLSON , Star Tribune
  • Updated: December 25, 2011 - 10:21 PM

Aide to Mayor Coleman aims to strengthen St. Paul's arts community, reputation - and bottom line.

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Joe Spencer, St. Paul's director of arts and culture, had a beer with the bar owner Jon Oulman at the Amsterdam Bar and Hall in St. Paul, Minn., Monday, December 19, 2011.

Photo: Renee Jones Schneider, Star Tribune

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Colleagues call him the King of Cool.

Joe Spencer is St. Paul's director of arts and culture, charged with creating a nurturing home for artists, a cultural haven for residents and a draw for tourists.

The 36-year-old stands out downtown in a distinctively hip wardrobe that includes fedoras, plaid pants, a bright green sport coat and Munsingwear penguin shirts.

He aims to give the eastern half of the Twin Cities a distinctive stamp and allure of its own. By many accounts he's doing well.

When Mayor Chris Coleman hired him in 2006, he told Spencer, "Go make St. Paul cool."

The Wednesday food truck caravan in summer months was his idea. He brought live music back to downtown with the recently opened Amsterdam Bar and Hall on W. 6th Street. He helped plant the bar's neighbors: Eclipse Records and poster-art studio Big Table.

Spencer also gets credit for building up the Twin Cities Jazz Fest in Mears Park, and Concrete and Grass, the Lowertown-centered festival. He helped shepherd Irrigate, a nationally recognized plan to showcase art and pump up creativity on the six miles of the city's Central Corridor light-rail line.

He talks about "clustering" creative activities in geographic areas, such as the downtown parks, Lowertown and now 6th Street. "What we've been successful at is supporting artists and creative people to drive vitality," Spencer said.

Chris Osgood, vice president of community relations for the McNally Smith College of Music, credits Spencer for doing more than anyone else in recent years to integrate the arts and cultural community in downtown St. Paul.

"We're always looking forward to Joe's next bright idea," said Osgood, who has a strong résumé himself dating to the punk rock band the Suicide Commandos. "He wrangles all the pieces of the arts community."

Spencer is both a city resident and a longtime member of the arts community. The native of Osceola, Wis., earned a degree in U.S. history and theater from the University of Minnesota in search of an acting career. He got roles in a couple of small shows, but said, "I found myself eating out of a garbage can one day and decided it was time to come home."

He decided his passion was tap dancing and joined Joe Chvala's Flying Foot Forum. He became active on former Vice President Al Gore's 2000 campaign and the late Sen. Paul Wellstone's 2002 campaign. Later that year, he became executive director of the West Side Community Organization, located in the ward of then-Council Member Coleman.

When Coleman was elected mayor in 2005, Spencer was a new father and tiring of the double life of community organizer by day and dancer by night. "It's a perfect combination of both of my passions," he said of the City Hall arts job.

Both the mayor and Spencer talk about the importance of art as an amenity, lifestyle enhancer and economic force. Spencer writes a weekly "Joe's Blog" so "the perception that St. Paul's dead would eventually go away." (Subscribe through www.stpaul.gov/index.aspx?NID=58.)

Rochelle Olson • 651-925-5035 Twitter: @rochelleolson

  • KING JOE'S PICKS:

    Happy-hour beer spot: Ngon or the Dubliner.

    Glass of wine spot: Meritage or Biaggio.

    Family meal: The Bulldog (hot dogs covered in mac and cheese).

    Beer: Summit Extra Pale Ale.

    Romantic meal: The Strip Club or Sakura.

    Favorite meal: Croque Madame at Meritage.

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