Mary Ellen Taylor, who launched the arts nonprofit COMPAS and shepherded the organization through decades of growth, raising millions of dollars for the arts and artists, died Aug. 18 of complications from dementia at her home in Stillwater. She was 93.
Taylor, who went by Molly, was a fierce and savvy organizer who coupled those qualities with charm and quick humor and forged a network of artists, politicians, donors and others out of the 1970s Twin Cities arts scene.
She strongly believed that artists and musicians should be paid, said her daughter Missy Bowen, of Marine on St. Croix. “That was the thing she taught everybody,” Bowen said. “These people and what they do has immense value.”
In addition to COMPAS, she created the Minnesota Poets in the Schools program, took a leadership role at the Walker Art Center and advised the National Endowment for the Arts, the Rockefeller Fund and the U.S. Department of Education. She was proud of the fact that David Rockefeller once made her a peanut butter sandwich on his yacht.
Taylor grew up in St. Louis Park with her father, Harold Hodgkinson, a science teacher at Blake, her mother, Ellen Lay Hodgkinson, a North Carolinian who came from a family of artists, and her brother Harold. She received a degree in English from the University of Minnesota.
“It was a family of strong Southern women who were clever, talented, good at organizing, creating — and she was like that, too,” said her son, John Bowen, of St. Louis.
Her life’s work took shape in 1968 when, amid Vietnam War protests and civil unrest, she secured a National Endowment for the Arts grant to put poetry into Minnesota schools and help students better express themselves in an age of tumult. Soon poets like Robert Bly were visiting classrooms around the state.
The mission grew to include a college-level series on integrating arts into teaching and a book on how accomplished artists could teach fine arts to senior citizens. She lobbied St. Paul Mayor George Latimer to fund teaching artists for St. Paul neighborhoods.
In 1974 she founded COMPAS, an organization that has sent hundreds of artists to Minnesota schools as part of its mission to deliver the arts to everyone.
“She had great depth, integrity and fearlessness,” said actor and vocalist T Mychael Rambo. A longtime COMPAS collaborator, Rambo said Taylor saw something others didn’t see: the importance of pairing artists with children.
Taylor worked solo at a time, the early 1970s, when women faced restrictions. “Women were supposed to be supporting their husbands and have their coffees. You didn’t just get into a plane and fly to New York to meet with the Rockefeller Foundation,” said Missy Bowen.
Instead, Taylor was the kind of woman who got out of the car when she and Missy were stuck in a parking lot and broke off the gate arm, setting it on the ground so their car and others could get out. “Nobody saw that,” Taylor joked.
Her gift for bringing artists together meant the Taylor home often hosted poets and musicians. One night, the dinner guests were Eudora Welty and Ernest J. Gaines, two giants of contemporary American literature.
In a piece for the St. Paul Almanac several years ago, Taylor reflected on her early career: “There was ... a strong feeling that [arts] funds being raised weren’t serving the ordinary people and the neighborhoods of the city, but serving people who got dressed up and came to events. We needed a whole new agency, and they hired me to run it.”
She was preceded in death by her husband, Phil Taylor. Besides John and Missy Bowen, survivors include son James Bowen and daughter Anne Bowen LaFianza, and four grandchildren. The family plans a celebration of life when the pandemic allows.