Sage Cowles, a former dancer who matured as a key Twin Cities philanthropist, died Thursday. Cowles, 88, advocated for the arts and the value of physical development in education. She and her late husband, John Jr., supported the Guthrie Theater, Walker Art Center and the local dance community — which named its annual awards program after her.

The Cowles Conservatory in the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden, the Cowles Center for Dance in Minneapolis and the University of Minnesota's Jane Sage Cowles Stadium for softball reflect the breadth and depth of their belief in community service.

"There was a generation that John and Sage were in the middle of," said Philip Bither, performing-arts curator at the Walker. "They were enlightened philanthropists who decided to take it upon themselves to make sure Minneapolis would be a world-class cultural destination. It wouldn't have happened without that vision and generosity."

Cowles was born Jane Sage Fuller in Paris and grew up on the East Coast. She studied dance at the School of American Ballet in New York and graduated from the University of Wisconsin in 1947 (she was a descendant of Lucius Fairchild, an early governor of Wisconsin). As a young student with the Martha Graham Company, she met Merce Cunningham, which led to a lifelong relationship. She co-chaired Cunningham's dance foundation for four years and instigated the epic performance of the choreographer's work "Ocean," in a granite quarry outside St. Cloud in 2008, the year before Cunningham's death.

Cowles pursued a dance career, working in the Broadway musical "Bless You All" and on television in "Lucky Strike Hit Parade" in 1950-51.

A true partnership

In 1952, she married John Cowles Jr., whose family owned the Star and Tribune newspaper company. The two formed a symbiotic partnership — he quiet and cerebral, she ebulliently demonstrative. Their friend George Plimpton once described them as "a wonderfully complementary pair. He's so self-contained and with her, it's on the surface."

They also supported each other's causes — the arts, education, athletics and early-childhood development. In a 2006 paper for the Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs, she urged funding for plans that educate "the whole child." The body, she wrote, is "central to the learning process" and not "a second-class citizen, separate from the mind."

In 1989, Cowles held the U.S. record for women race walkers in her age group at 5 and 10 kilometers.

Cowles danced, raised children and maintained an active civic life through the 1950s and '60s. She served on the board of Planned Parenthood and continued to dance, off and on with the Nancy Hauser troupe in Minneapolis.

In the early 1980s, she collaborated with filmmaker Molly Davies on six film/performance pieces that toured the United States and Europe and also played at the Walker. In 2005, she performed in "Space Time and Illusion," which Bither described as "ahead of its time in the mix of media and movement."

She and her husband created a stir in the early 1990s when they danced nude in the Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance piece "Last Supper at Uncle Tom's Cabin/The Promised Land." Jones, a Tony-winning choreographer, remembered Cowles as a woman with "the heart of a dancer." Jones recalled being intimidated upon first meeting someone he assumed was a "rich, privileged white woman."

"I couldn't tell at the moment what a warm, generous and open woman she was," Jones said. "She was sensual and beautiful and knew something about transgression — about what it took to find your place in the world and hold true to your beliefs."

The Cowleses' performances raised eyebrows around the country, but their old friend Martin Friedman, former head of the Walker, had said that he felt it was about the art.

"Once they are convinced of artistic merit, nothing will stop them," Friedman said in a 1998 interview.

Arts as lifeblood

Among the key gifts that helped fund significant Twin Cities cultural institutions were $1 million for the Sculpture Garden in 1985 and $500,000 to the University of Minnesota in 1986 that helped establish the Sage Cowles Land Grant Chair in Dance at the university.

In 2001, Sage and John (who died in 2012) were honored by the Ordway Center with a Sally Award for their long-standing support of arts organizations. Sage was also honored by Dance/USA.

Bither said Cowles' interest in the local arts scene went far deeper than simply the large institutions. She frequently asked him about smaller groups and artists that he had seen, and she would get out to small venues on her own.

"She was tracking it like she was a professional curator or a really active, rabid fan," Bither said. "She had a good sense of the arts ecology and knew how important the different layers are to the lifeblood of the community."

Cowles is survived by sons Jay of St. Paul and Fuller of Shafer, Minn.; daughters Tessa Flores of Ithaca, N.Y., and Jane of Olympia, Wash., 10 grandchildren and two great-grandchildren. Services are pending.

Staff writer Rohan Preston contributed to this report. Graydon Royce • 612-673-7299