A decade ago, St. Paul’s Ordway Center would rather have taken the head of the Hennepin Theatre Trust to court than to lunch.
But when Mark Nerenhausen took the helm at HTT’s Minneapolis office in June, he was heartily welcomed by Jamie Grant, who became the Ordway’s president and CEO last year.
The two multi-arts Broadway presenters — which, between them, draw over 1 million patrons a year — relish the opportunity for a fresh start. The Ordway actually used to book Broadway shows at the Hennepin theaters in the early 1990s before the trust was formed in 2000 and became a fierce competitor for touring productions.
“When I first heard of Mark’s appointment, I made sure to send him a note,” said Grant, who as a fellow industry veteran had known Nerenhausen for years. “I was thrilled to have someone here with less time as me.”
The two recently worked on “The Hip Hop Nutcracker,” a show presented by the Ordway at HTT’s Orpheum Theatre in Minneapolis — the first of many collaborations, both hope.
“The Twin Cities are very fortunate,” said Nerenhausen. “In most communities you only have one presenter like this, and they feel pretty isolated. Now we have someone with whom we can work for the enrichment of the whole community.”
Nerenhausen, 63, grew up in Wisconsin’s Door County, and hopped around the country, eventually running the AT&T Performing Arts Center in Dallas. He and his wife, Martha, are empty-nesters with three children. Grant, 57, was born in Canada and moved here from Austin, Texas, where he ran an arts center, with his wife, Christine Bird. Their five children are out of the house, too, so they are exploring the Twin Cities through its arts, culture and restaurants.
We talked with the two about their passions and the opportunities they see not just for their organizations, but for the community at large.
Q: What was it in your past that jazzed you about a life in the arts?
Nerenhausen: For me, it was starting a little coffee shop in a barn in high school. People had fun, and I realized how much I like putting things together and that it could make a difference in people’s lives. People applauded and left the place happy. I thought it was cool.
Grant: In the early ’90s, I opened a theater in a small town in New Brunswick, Canada — an old vaudeville house they were renovating. I got to see that what was happening was more than just opening a building. This is going to sound sexist, but my job at the time was to take the spouses of businesspeople coming to town and show them the community, the schools and the arts. I realized the power of what we do. The number of corporations that brought hundreds of jobs changed. It was more than about putting on shows. We literally changed the population. More people moved to town, which changed the ecosystem. That was powerful, meaningful stuff.
Q: How are you adapting to Minnesota?
Grant: Among the shocks for me is just how much activity we have happening here every single day. We’re in gigs where we work both nights and days. Part of our jobs in understanding and appreciating the community is to get out and be present and see stuff that’s happening. But since there’s so much happening every single night, you can’t possibly make it and still do your job.
Nerenhausen: In Fort Lauderdale, where I spent a long time and which is approximately the same size as this metro area, our place was the only show in town on most nights. Jamie’s right. I knew it was a metro area whose identity was built around the arts, but actually seeing what that looks like on a day-to-day basis is pretty astounding; The level, quality and range of activities — whatever dimension you choose — has been a little bit of a surprise and somewhat frustrating.
Q: How do you understand the role that you play in the community?
Nerenhausen: The mission doesn’t end when the curtain drops. We want to be in a place, at the end of the day, where you walk down the street at random and say, the Ordway would be disappearing tomorrow or the Hennepin Theatre Trust would be gone, and everybody you meet would go, “Oh, my gosh!” They wouldn’t just miss “Annie” or “Figaro” or the [touring] production of “Waitress” at the Orpheum. They would be shocked that the institution is gone, even for people who’ve never set foot in these theaters.
Grant: There’s a magical thing that I see all the time when people are walking around downtown to show Aunt Martha around on her visit. They come over through Rice Park and look at the lights and take pictures. It doesn’t matter if Aunt Martha has been here to see a show, even though we would like to have her. We’re part of this landscape, this magical tradition.
Nerenhausen: Jamie hit it perfectly. We help [Twin Cities businesses] attract and retain employees. We make this an attractive place for people to live. We’re part of the puzzle along with schools and livable, walkable and attractive downtowns. Nationally, when I was moving here, people said, “Oh, it’s such a great place.” We want people to love the shows we do, but also more than that.
Q: You two seem to get along like a house on fire. What do you understand of the bitter competition that defined the past?
Nerenhausen: I’m more interested in moving forward than dwelling on the past. The environment has changed in so many ways, in terms of the economy, development, housing patterns, demographics. And organizations evolve.
Grant: I can make a case for you that I would be better at my job because someone like Mark has come to town. If you quiz me, I probably know his office number by heart. I can pick up the phone about an issue I’m trying to solve and that perhaps wouldn’t have happened if there weren’t two colleagues working for the betterment of the community. In our first meeting, Mark and I were looking at everything from what would it take for us to own a bus line together to how could we find more ways to work together.
Q: A bus line?
Nerenhausen: Yes, to get kids from school to the theater, and not just our theater. One of the biggest costs now is getting kids from schools to the shows.
Grant: That’s a cost barrier and we have to reduce barriers to entry where we can. It’s nice to have a colleague like that. The ability to spitball different ideas is really empowering.
Q: How is your work/life balance?
Grant: The truth is, I’ve not always managed it well. I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve done settlements with a small child [in tow]. Hopefully, as I get older, I’m working smarter instead of more often.
Nerenhausen: But one of the nice things is that you can blend work and life in a nice way. I look at my kids and they have such an appreciation of the arts. Of course, they were shocked when they got out of the house and realized that they’re not able to automatically go backstage all the time or get into the donor lounge and have cookies like my little son used to do.