The Cowles Center in downtown Minneapolis, which opened to great fanfare in September, is losing the executive director it hired just 10 months ago. In a surprise announcement Tuesday, the center said Frank Sonntag has resigned, effective at the end of the year.
"I came to Minnesota because I believed in the mission of the Cowles Center, and I still do. But after spending most of my professional life in New York, I don't feel the Minnesota culture is one I'm well-suited for," Sonntag said in a statement released Monday by Artspace, which owns the center. "It has been a struggle, but ultimately I think this is the best decision for the organization."
Sonntag, 49, is a Cleveland native. He said he has no immediate career plans but has "some family on the West Coast. I'm thinking about heading out there."
Sonntag came to Minneapolis after three years as managing director of the Brooklyn Center for the Performing Arts in New York City. His longest tenure in nearly 25 years in arts administration was a seven-year stint as executive director at Parsons Dance Company in New York. The Cowles Center position was his fourth job since leaving Parsons in 2005.
"I spent a lot of years working on the East Coast, and the way of doing business there and the way of doing business here are very different," Sonntag said. "That tripped me up."
He declined to give details, other than to say, "There's a very specific way that things are done here." However, Sonntag also said Monday he's never been happier than he has in the past 10 months.
"I looked forward to coming to work every day," he said.
In a written statement, Artspace president Kelley Lindquist said he was "grateful to Frank for his extraordinary efforts this year to produce the amazing and long-awaited opening of the Cowles Center." Lindquist did not return calls seeking further comment.
Future impact unclear
Sonntag's departure comes at a time when the center appeared to have reached a point of stability. Nearly 15 years ago, the Shubert Theatre was saved from the Block E wrecking ball and moved alongside the Hennepin Center for the Arts in downtown Minneapolis.
Artspace sought to refurbish the historic building for use as a dance and music venue. Fundraising progressed slowly for more than a decade, and the project eventually was scaled back because of structural issues with the building. Originally built with nearly 1,000 seats, the theater now has about 500.
Ground was broken on the $42 million project two years ago. Last year, the Shubert name was dropped in favor of recognizing dance patrons John and Sage Cowles.
The opening weekend, Sept. 9-11, featured performances by guest dancers Savion Glover and by Clifton Brown of Alvin Ailey dance company. Dignitaries from the national arts world mixed with local politicians and corporate leaders at the Friday night gala, a $1,000-per-ticket affair. The Center has been programmed nearly every weekend since then with Twin Cities dance groups including Ragamala, Arena, James Sewell Ballet and Minnesota Dance Theatre. It is booked from now into the middle of June 2012. Sonntag said that ticket revenues thus far have run about 12 percent below projections.
The executive director job had been in flux since Kim Motes, a key figure in guiding the project to completion, left in 2008. She was replaced by interim director Colin Hamilton. Mary McColl held the job briefly before taking a position with Actors' Equity in New York. Sonntag was then hired.
In an interview with Time Out Chicago in September, Sonntag said, "I felt this job had my name all over it. I always thought that I'd spend the rest of my life in New York but, honestly, this is the opportunity of a lifetime."
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