The vivacious and personable Patricia Mitchell has just ended a nearly eight-year tenure as president of Ordway Center, St. Paul’s glittering multi-arts venue on Rice Park.
Her watch coincided with a critical juncture in the Ordway’s 30-year life. She achieved harmony with the fractious “arts partners” that compete for space on the Ordway’s calendar: the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra, Minnesota Opera and Schubert Club. The partners, in turn, collaborated to raise money to build a $42 million, 1,100-seat concert hall that opened March 1.
We asked Mitchell to reflect on a 50-year career in arts administration that started with a community relations job at the Guthrie Theater and took her to the West Coast — including executive positions at San Francisco Opera, Los Angeles Opera, Los Angeles Philharmonic and Hollywood Bowl — before her return to the Twin Cities in 2007.
Q: What is your legacy?
A: I don’t think in those terms. When I think of anybody’s legacy, I think of [Ordway founder Sally Ordway Irvine’s]. She wanted to make lots of arts and performances available to everyone, and that’s what we’ve done.
People will point to the opening of the concert hall and the development of the Arts Partnership as things that happened on my watch. And that’s true. [Architect] Tim Carl did a marvelous job with the concert hall, which we all worked mightily to get done. But don’t forget that by the time I got here in 2007, the initial conversations about the partnership had started. I helped get it to the conclusion, but I didn’t invent it. But that’s not something people can readily see. Nobody buys tickets for meetings of the arts partners.
Q: How surprised were you at your return to the Twin Cities?
A: When I came here to work at the Guthrie a hundred years ago, the people-of-color population of the Twin Cities was 6 percent. Now it’s closer to 40 percent, with people from everywhere. The richness and opportunity of that is huge for arts organizations.
Q: Is there an advantage to being an arts presenter then?
A: Yes. We can be more responsive to a community that has changed a lot since the Ordway was built 30 years ago. You can find artists that resonate with various parts of the community as it shifts and changes.
To me, shows like “The Hip Hop Nutcracker,” with the legendary Kurtis Blow [which the Ordway presented in November], that’s what this has been all about. It was amazing not only artistically, but also because of the audience, and it complements what we do all around.
Q: Is there anything you wish you could do over?
A: There are internal organization things that I’d like to have another stab at. But if you’re fishing for the “Miss Saigon” controversy, I do think that experience was instructive. [Mitchell ran into criticism from Asian-American community members and allies in 2013 when the venue booked a return engagement of “Miss Saigon,” which was greeted by protests when it first played the Twin Cities in 1994.]
We all learned a lot from that. One of the things that became clear was that we didn’t have the institutional memory. I didn’t have a clue about what had gone on here previously. I saw the show in Los Angeles when it was new, and the objections were about a white star, Jonathan Pryce, playing the Engineer [a half-Vietnamese, half-French character].
Q: So it was a surprise?
A: It was a difficult situation because it was such a volatile subject with such deeply held opinions about that piece. You have questions about balance and openness and breadth of expression coupled with what you know about the extreme hurtfulness of the piece to some people. Your goal is not to get up in the morning and hurt people.
We’re further along in our journey around diversity, equity and inclusion partly because of the searing experience of “Miss Saigon.”
Q: Was there an upside to the protests and controversy, in which you came under personal attack?
A: The upside was that it helped us build relationships with the Asian-American community. We commissioned Katha Dance Theatre and Ananya Dance to do works. We’ve had deep and good long-standing relationships with the African-American and Latino communities. And we get a chance to expand those to other parts of the community that we serve.
Q: Was there a moment when you said, “Why did I agree to do this?”
A: When you come to any place, you never really know what’s under the rocks. And there’s always something under the rocks. I don’t think I found anything that made me think, “What in the world have I done?” We have some great people at the Ordway.
Q: Casting forward, what advice do you have for other arts leaders?
A: The rapidly changing demographics everywhere, including in the Twin Cities, present a rich opportunity and a whole set of challenges to long-term assumptions that nobody thinks of as assumptions. For example, we speak of the musical theater as the great American art form. What America are we talking about?
If musical theater is to have a future, and not become a museum art form, how does it mold itself to the changing America? “Hamilton” [Lin-Manuel Miranda’s much lauded hip-hop musical] shows how it’s possible. It’s one of the best examples of musical theater that is about something real with high stakes.
Q: Any advice for your successor, who, we have been told, will be named soon?
A: Don’t forget to have fun, and don’t forget that the operative word is partnership. We’re not a bank or insurance company. They may have fun, but I bet you we have more than they do. People don’t come here out of duty. They come to play and have a good time.
Q: What do you plan to do in retirement?
A: I’m a member of a wonderful book club, the No Guilt Book Club. We identify two books a month. There are many months when I’ve probably read only one. But I bought them all and I intend to read them all.
I saw a headline about a women’s whiskey club. I didn’t have time to read the story, but I may spontaneously do that. And I’m looking forward to the concept of a weekend. Just once in my life, I intend to spend time at the cabin until I decide otherwise. Tee-hee!
Rohan Preston • 612-673-4390