Neal Cuthbert grew up in Detroit at a time when it was good to root for Gordie Howe’s Red Wings and Denny McLain’s 31-win season for the Tigers. But by 1977, when he graduated from the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, 900 people a year were being murdered in his hometown, the auto industry was in dislocation and unemployment was nearly 20 percent.

So Cuthbert, a natural analyst and researcher, went “city shopping.” A friend recommended a look at the Twin Cities and Cuthbert found it to be “like an Ann Arbor for adults.” He moved here in 1980 and after jobs in public planning and grass-roots arts journalism, he became the Mc­Knight Foundation’s first arts program officer in 1991.

For years, he was the indispensable phone call a reporter would make on an arts story. People talked to him. He seemed to know everything. He held the job until 2007, when Vickie Benson took over arts and he stepped up to a senior leadership post, as vice president of program.

Cuthbert retires this month but has no reason to move from his house in the Seward neighborhood of Minneapolis, which he shares with his wife, Louise Robinson, managing director of Ragamala Dance Company. Their children are grown.

We recently had our last lunch together as working people. Here are excerpts of the conversation, over pastrami sandwiches, at the Seward Co-op Creamery Cafe.

Q: What were you doing before McKnight?

A: I was publisher of Artpaper, a monthly critical journal. And before that, a planner at the Met Council. My first job was at the University of Minnesota in the administration and records office of the St. Paul campus. 

Q: An office clerk?

A: The St. Paul campus was a fun and cool place. I loved that job. You had the ag barns, the swine practicum. They gave away caps. 

Q: How did you get to Mc­Knight?

A: I applied, with 200 other people, when they decided to hire their first arts program officer. Louise [his wife] thought I had a chance because she thought I would get along with [then foundation president] Mike O’Keefe. I assumed they wouldn’t hire me. 

Q: Why not?

A: The stuff we were publishing in Artpaper was pretty unapologetic and pretty critical of the arts scene. We had no sacred cows. And besides that, I was not cut from the Foundation cloth. 

Q: But they hired you?

A: I know. I think it was because I was completely candid in my interview — I didn’t think they were going to hire me so I said exactly what I thought. 

Q: Sort of like in “Seinfeld” when George Costanza does the complete opposite of everything he’s ever done, and gets hired by the Yankees?

A: Right. I hadn’t pretended to be something I wasn’t. Being candid was the best thing for me. 

Q: McKnight had been granting money through the State Arts Board. You decided to give the money directly from McKnight. Why was that important?

A: There’s a direct relationship with the organizations you’re funding. Companies can call us and say, “Hey, we used to get $40,000 a year from the Arts Board, just so you know,” or “Hey, we’re building a new theater.” Direct access to the foundation changed all the relationships we had with the groups we were funding. 

Q: Now that you had more control over where that money went, did it make you a curator?

A: It was never my money. There was a program and I was implementing it. We’ve always granted about 10 percent of the foundation’s total disbursement. [McKnight gave about $8.5 million to the arts in 2015.] It was more about analysis and how an organization performed. In the beginning, I was pushing a lot of paper around. It took us a couple of years to understand the art, after a lot of listening and looking at patterns. You get a view of the field that no one else has, all this interesting intelligence. 

Q: Intelligence like what?

A: We published work about the rise of suburban arts centers, the arts in rural Minnesota. How arts have started locating in neighborhoods, how arts interact with other economic forces. I always liked research and data and how the community could benefit from it. 

Q: Did you go out a lot when you ran the arts program?

A: Yeah, about two to three times a week. One year, I saw about 150 shows. Thursday, Louise and I would try to do a date night and then find something family-friendly for the weekend. 

Q: You’ve seen a lot of changes in the local arts funding community.

A: One of the biggest changes was about 15 to 18 years ago. I noticed I was getting all these calls from reporters. Dayton-Hudson [Foundation] had switched to Target, so there was change there. General Mills and some others had changed their art programs. There weren’t specific arts officers directing those corporate granting programs, like there had been. The people running those programs were more generalists.

I wondered, “Why am I getting all these calls about what’s going on in the scene?” And I realized it was because there was no one left to call. 

Q: So do you believe corporations and foundations are cutting or shifting arts funding?

A: I have heard that anecdotally over the years, but I haven’t done research. I know that capital [grants for building or endowment campaigns] are much harder to get. We don’t do much capital anymore. That fell out with the recession. And the Bush Foundation used to have an arts officer, but they don’t even have a specific arts program anymore. [Bush continues to do arts funding through a program called Community Creative Cohort.] 

Q: You became a repository of arts news as a result of all this.

A: I’m like a reporter. I work in the arts sector, I talk to people, I’m married to someone who works for a dance company, I have a series of people I talk to. I share observations.

Q: I know you try to make funding more of a science with criteria and objectivity, but it’s not always just about giving away money, is it?

A: Sometimes you don’t want to give a company too much money because they aren’t ready. I’ve seen arts groups get too much money and they implode when the money runs out. National funders can come in, drop some money, and then discontinue the program. You don’t want to create overdependency.

But other times, it is an art — or at least the funding has unintended results. In the early days of McKnight’s arts program, this actor, Harlan Quist, came back from New York to take care of his mother in Virginia, Minn. So he’s up there and decides he wants to renovate the NorShor Theatre in Duluth and turn it into a performing arts house. He was a character. He’d bring in friends from off-Broadway and Chicago, cabaret acts. We gave him the money and he turned the upstairs balcony of the movie house into a 200-seat theater.

Well, he died and it kind of fell apart, so you could look at that as a bad investment. But that theater would become the hub of the Duluth music scene. It’s managed by the Duluth Playhouse [a community theater]. And now 20 years later, they’re going to renovate the whole building. 

Q: You have a gauge for judging the scene’s health, don’t you?

A: The canaries in the coal mine of an arts economy are dance and book publishing. Both those are healthy here. 

Q: And where does the scene go from here?

A: There’s a vibrancy based on individual artists. I think there will be more of a cross-section of entrepreneurs [building businesses based on the arts]. Arts are crossing over to these different kinds of work and I think the number of people employed by the arts will rise. Its relevance to other sectors will grow. What makes a place distinct is its culture. 

Q: But what about innovation?  The big companies can’t afford to be too risky.

A: Yeah, but you need both big and small. If you don’t have the major companies, you don’t have something for others to respond to or against, to say “This is our niche.” It’s a dialogue of reaction. Walker Art Center shows, for example, are hugely important to individual artists because it shows what the Walker is valuing as art. 

Q: What are you going to do in January?

A: I’m going to hibernate. Seriously. Just sleep. Isn’t there a gene in us, like bears, that makes that possible? Then I’ll put up a web page and see what interesting projects people want me to work on. 

Graydon Royce is a longtime Star Tribune journalist and critic. He can be reached at roycegraydon@gmail.com.