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As political convention hosts, Denver and Twin Cities arts scenes have national stage

The arts rarely come up in presidential elections. I can't recall a campaign that included anything meaningful about music, dance, theater, film and the visual arts, unless you count things like Seasons of Love being sung by the cast of Rent at the 1996 Democratic National Convention or the recent Blender magazine poll of the candidates' favorite songs, which was actually quite revealing. (Barack Obama's No. 1 was the Fugees' Ready Or Not; John McCain's was Dancing Queen by Abba.) Maybe the arts will get more than a token mention at 2008's national conventions. Minneapolis-St. Paul and Denver both have thriving arts communities, and the rest of the country could learn from their experience. I know about the Twin Cities from growing up there when the Guthrie Theater arrived in 1963 to spark a regional arts movement in America, and from many more years of living and visiting there. In June, I spent a few days exploring Denver while attending the National Performing Arts Convention there. Here are some thoughts on the arts and culture of the two convention cities.

Denver

One of the most striking things I've ever seen came into view while I was taking a bus to Central City Opera, a great little company in an old mining town just west of Denver. The driver pointed out what looked like a spaceship perched on the side of a mountain. It was the futuristic "Sleeper House,'' named for its use in Woody Allen's 1973 movie Sleeper. With its curving white walls, broad bank of windows and cylindrical pedestal, the house (built in 1963 by architect Charles Deaton) gazes down on Denver from 8,000 feet, like an alien emissary from another galaxy.

Denver is full of surprising architecture. Downtown provides a veritable walking tour in post-modernism, taking in the red stone public library designed by Michael Graves, the sharp-edged extension to the Denver Art Museum by Daniel Libeskind and the latest addition to the cityscape, the Museum of Contemporary Art, a big black box of a building by British architect David Adjaye.

As you might expect in an old cow town, highlights of the Denver Art Museum are the collections of Western and especially Native American art, superbly organized displays of bead work, pottery, quills, blankets and headdresses. The Liebskind building has modern works by Andy Warhol, Claes Oldenburg, Robert Motherwell and Damien Hirst (his Party Time is a giant ashtray full of cigarette butts).

The MCA, which opened last October, is modeled on the German kunsthaus, a type of museum that has no permanent collection but is solely devoted to bringing in cutting-edge art. The day I was there, the spacious galleries had exhibits by Dutch artist Jasper De Beijer and Susanne Kuhn from Germany.

Not far from MCA is Coors Field, where the Colorado Rockies play, and it has inspired a boom in rooftop bars and restaurants in "LoDo,'' or lower downtown. Across from the stadium is El Chapultepec, a jazz joint where Frank Sinatra sang and Bill Clinton played sax. LoDo also is home to the Tattered Cover, a great bookstore; the Oxford Hotel, where the lobby is full of Western paintings; and Union Station, a magnificent 19th century pile where skiers catch trains for the slopes.

The downtown Denver Center for the Performing Arts has more than 10,000 seats scattered among 10 venues. The best one I visited was Ellie Caulkins Opera House, where I saw Opera Colorado's outstanding staging of Nixon in China. I also heard the Colorado Symphony Orchestra play in Boettcher Concert Hall, which has seating in the round. It has long been plagued by acoustical problems and is scheduled to be renovated.

One of the most significant things about the Denver art scene is how well it is supported by local government funding from a special tax district. Since being established by the Colorado General Assembly and passed in a 1988 referendum, Denver's Scientific and Cultural Facilities District, funded by a small sales tax (one-tenth of 1 percent), has poured money into the arts. About $42-million was distributed last year to organizations in the seven-county metro area ranging from the Denver Art Museum to the Denver Zoo and the Denver Botanic Gardens.

The SCFD was conceived during a recession in the Rocky Mountains region, yet people still voted by a margin of 3-1 to raise taxes. Twice it has been renewed by voters. Creating a partnership between the arts and other nonprofits was a savvy move.

"Our marketing has always led with the zoo,'' Denver arts consultant Jim Copenhaver told me. "The polar bear is the symbol of the district. Unfortunately, if you lead with a violin, a lot of people will be less willing to support it. But everybody loves a polar bear.''

MINNEAPOLIS - ST. PAUL

I found it amusing a few weeks ago to hear that CBS news anchor Katie Couric apologized on the air for mixing up Minneapolis and St. Paul. She had mistakenly put the Republican National Convention in Minneapolis instead of east across the Mississippi River in St. Paul.

Getting the Twin Cities confused is common among outsiders. But as someone who grew up in a Minneapolis suburb and later wrote a weekly column from St. Paul called "Pig's Eye Landing'' — the city's original name — I can tell you there's a big difference.

The two cities have never gotten along very well. My favorite episode in their rivalry came in 1965 when they couldn't agree on daylight saving time. St. Paul adopted it while Minneapolis stayed on standard time a few more weeks. So when you crossed over the river from Minneapolis to St. Paul you had to turn your watch ahead one hour. Though hilariously annoying, this wasn't quite a perfect metaphor, because St. Paul was always seen as a more backward sort of place, at least by Minneapolis.

In the 1950s and '60s, St. Paul, with its narrow, oddly angled downtown streets, had a more urban feel than Minneapolis. It was Irish-Catholic and working class — the spiritual center was South St. Paul, a meatpacking district — while Minneapolis was Scandinavian and corporate. Many of the grittier Minneapolis neighborhoods had been wiped out by urban renewal, leaving an expanse of parking lots downtown. Both cities were overwhelmingly white.

Back then the Twin Cities seemed provincial, and most of the defining cultural figures were long gone. Neither city can really claim Bob Dylan, who is from Hibbing, up on the Iron Range in northern Minnesota, but he did live for a spell in Dinkytown, a Minneapolis neighborhood near the University of Minnesota. His old folk cronies Spider John Koerner, Tony Glover and Dave Ray continued to play at the Triangle Bar and Extempore coffeehouse on the West Bank and there was a record store called Positively 4th Street in Minneapolis, but Dylan never came back.

St. Paul was beautifully evoked in the novels and stories of F. Scott Fitzgerald, who drew on his childhood memories of Summit Avenue, home to the city's ruling class, lined with Victorian mansions on a leafy hill overlooking the Catholic cathedral. Fitzgerald grew up in an apartment on Summit and never got over not being rich, and the city was slow to embrace his legacy.

In the arts, most things in the Twin Cities can be dated from the Guthrie's arrival in 1963. Before the company came to Minneapolis, a night at the theater meant a drive out to the Old Log Theater on Lake Minnetonka in the western suburbs. It was the sort of place where local TV personalities would star in shows like Mister Roberts or Arsenic and Old Lace.

At the Guthrie, all of a sudden there were seasons of Shakespeare, Shaw, Chekhov and Brecht with casts of eminent classical actors such as Zoe Caldwell, Jessica Tandy and Hume Cronyn. I saw my first Hamlet (with George Grizzard) there as well as some great concerts (Miles Davis, the Band) on the unusual "thrust'' stage.

Two years ago, the Guthrie moved to a three-theater complex on the Mississippi River, and it's premiering a ballyhooed musical version of Little House on the Prairie this month. The new place looks great, but I still can't get over the demolition of the old theater. Minneapolis has always seemed bent on destroying its past by tearing down scores of fine old buildings.

The Guthrie spawned the cultural renaissance that transformed Minneapolis-St. Paul into one of the liveliest theater scenes in the country, and the other arts boomed, too (though dance never has done well there). This summer, however, the recession claimed one of the brightest companies, Theatre de la Jeune Lune, which shut down.

The Guthrie and all that it wrought represents the Twin Cities arts boom, but credit should also go to Kenneth Dayton. He and his four brothers inherited a downtown department store in Minneapolis and turned it into a retailing giant that includes Target. Dayton's lasting contribution was to implement a corporate policy of giving 5 percent of pretax profits to the community, a standard that he pushed other CEOs to adopt.

His favorite cause was the Minneapolis Symphony, which changed its name to the Minnesota Orchestra and built Orchestra Hall, with its distinctive acoustical cubes embedded in the walls and ceiling. When Dayton died in 2003, he and his wife had contributed more than $100-million to the arts and other civic organizations.

Near the end of his life, Dayton worried that corporations were moving from philanthropy to marketing in their giving.

"They want — in giving as in everything else — a quick payout, an immediate return,'' he said in a speech. "Alas, in too many instances giving is becoming cause-related marketing, and less and less is it a better environment in which to work and live.''

There would have been no Twin Cities arts boom without business leaders like Ken Dayton.

John Fleming can be reached at fleming@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8716.

As political convention hosts, Denver and Twin Cities arts scenes have national stage 08/23/08 [Last modified: Saturday, August 23, 2008 4:30am]

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