The Cowles Center in Minneapolis Is Closing After Ending Its Presenting Season Early. What Happened?

May 2, 2024

The Cowles Center in downtown Minneapolis announced on January 31 that its 500-seat Goodale Theater would stop presenting dance on March 31—thus ending its planned season early—and subsequently close. Since opening in 2011, The Cowles Center has filled a major void in the Twin Cities’ arts scene by providing a theater designed for and dedicated to local dance, as well as office, rehearsal, and performance space for small and midsize arts organizations, including many of the area’s leading dance companies. 

Dance productions scheduled for April and May by James Sewell Ballet and Ragamala Dance Company were left searching for new venues. BRKFST Dance Company, which was to premiere a new work co-commissioned by the Cowles and Northrop at the end of April, will instead be presented at the Walker Art Center as a joint production with Northrop in June. Programs under the Cowles umbrella, including the Generating Room (an eight-month studio residency for Minnesota choreographers) and its Teaching Artists program, will continue through the end of May. 

Reasons for the closure, according to Cowles co-director Joseph Bingham, include the lingering financial effects of the pandemic shutdown, lower ticket sales since 2020, and changes­ in funding priorities from both individual philanthropy and the education world. But the biggest factor? The owner of the building, Artspace, a Minneapolis-based national nonprofit developer of artist live-work spaces, has ended its $500,000 annual contribution to support The Cowles Center. 

The exterior facade of The Cowles Center. The sign on the orange facade reads "The Cowles Center for Dance and the Performing Arts," and the marquee reads, "Fall Forward Festival."
The Cowles Center. Photo by Alexis Lund Photography, courtesy The Cowles Center.

The Cowles’ 2022 990 tax return sheds further light, according to Gary Peterson, a 40-year veteran of the area’s dance community who has served as managing director of Ananya Dance Theatre and executive director of James Sewell Ballet, Zorongo Flamenco Dance Theatre, Zenon Dance Company, and the Southern Theater. The Center’s 2022 program-service revenue (which encompasses income from ticket sales, rentals, and educational services) was less than 20 percent of its total revenue—a decrease of more than one-third since 2019—while ticket sales only covered 11 percent of total expenses. “The Cowles Center, under the aegis of Artspace, raised the rest,” says Peterson. “It has not been enough, and Artspace has stated that it is no longer in a position to fund the difference.” In a Star Tribune article, Bingham said Artspace’s “main business and nonprofit housing development has changed so much. It’s not that they’re pulling the plug needlessly, it’s that their business model has changed.” Anonymous donors, Bingham added, kept the Cowles operational through March and provided financial payouts to companies whose shows were canceled.

The Cowles’ theater arrived at its current location when Artspace moved the historic Shubert Theater through downtown Minneapolis to a vacant lot next to the Hennepin Center for the Arts in February 1999. At 5.8 million pounds, the theater was the heaviest building ever moved on rubber tires. It was then renovated into the Goodale Theater and ancillary spaces.The total cost of the project was $42 million. The project received $1 million in planning funds from the Minnesota State Legislature in 2005 and $11 million in state bonding money in 2006. Donors contributed the rest. After the Cowles closes, the City of Minneapolis and its Community Planning & Economic Development Department will steward the building, and have contracted with Artspace for management and operation. “The legal entity of the Cowles will remain in place in the hopes that someone will step into an operational role in the future,” Tio Aiken, Artspace vice president of communications and community engagement, said in a press release. 

“We are genuinely devastated,” says Cowles co-director Jessi Fett, “for the dance community, the artists, and all of the careers created here. In the last three years, we re-created a strategic plan and put in place many things we were excited to push forward, including an emphasis on BIPOC programming. It’s hard to see that ending so abruptly.” 

Zorongo Flamenco Dance Theatre is one company that performed prior to the closing. “We got in under the wire,” says founder and artistic director Susana di Palma of The Conference of the Birds, which premiered at the Cowles in February. “It’s a tremendous loss to the dance and arts communities, but it’s family, it’s personal, and it’s professional, of course.”