After 10 years of non-stop lobbying and fundraising, the Minneapolis group Artspace will finally break ground Thursday on the new Minnesota Shubert Center in downtown Minneapolis.
The Minneapolis group Artspace is converting the nearly 100-year-old Shubert Theater into what it calls a flagship center for dance.
When all 6 million pounds of the Shubert Theater were hoisted on dollies and wheeled a block and a half down Hennepin Ave. in 1999, it was hailed as a miraculous feat of engineering. Since then however, the old vaudeville house has sat vacant like a forlorn monument to the dreams of the dance community.
Despite a skeptical state Legislature, an extremely competitive fundraising climate and more recently a collapsing economy, Artspace is now just a million or so dollars shy of its $42.5 million capital campaign goal.
Colin Hamilton, the Minnesota Shubert Center's executive director, said in funding the Shubert restoration, Artspace has also created a broader philanthropic tradition for Minnesota dance.
"This has not just been about raising money, it's been about building a community that is going to come together to make this whole institution shine," he said.
The Minnesota Shubert Center is more than just a theater. It will include a refurbished Hennepin Center for the Arts, where many of the groups that will use the Shubert are headquartered. It also features a sleek, two-story structure that will connect the Hennepin Center to the theater, project video performance images out on the street, and contain an arts education technology center.
The theater will be reconfigured as a custom designed dance venue with a seating capacity that's been cut in half from the originally planned 1,000 seats.
"A 500-seat house really will allow a multitude of companies to grow into this space with their audiences, whereas a 1,000-seat house, there are very few dance activities here that could sustain that," Hamilton said.
Hamilton said what will set the theater apart will be its unmatched acoustics and sightlines. Two original balconies will be replaced by a bank of seats that reaches back no farther than 65 feet away from the stage. Hamilton said that will make for a very intimate audience experience.
"You could sit in the furthest back row in the corner, and you have an incredible view and relationship with what's happening on stage," he said.
The Minnesota Shubert Center will serve more than 30 arts groups. That includes most of the Twin Cities leading dance companies, among them James Sewell Ballet, the Minnesota Dance Theater, Zenon Dance Company and TU Dance.
Several smaller groups will also make use of the Shubert, including Zorongo Flamenco Dance Theatre. Zorongo founder and artistic director Susana Di Palma said the Shubert offers a wonderful opportunity for the local dance scene.
"It means a higher profile," Di Palma said. "It means a coming together of resources for maybe all of the dance community. It means higher visibility I think with a public that maybe we haven't been exposed to or hasn't been exposed to us."
But Di Palma is concerned about the ongoing affordability of the Shubert for medium to smaller dance troupes, and whether it will suck audiences away from other dance venues such as the Southern Theater and the Ritz Theater. She also has doubts as to whether the local dance audience is big enough to support the Shubert.
"With the existing dance audience now, it's going to be really rough," she said. "I'm relatively optimistic but I think it's going to take a lot of work on everyone's part."
Developing new dance audiences is on a lot of people's minds, although many supporters are confident it'll happen. Veteran dance writer Linda Shapiro said it's been done before, albeit with another art form.
"Look what happened when the Guthrie was created here," Shapiro said. "It certainly built a theater audience, and part of that was because it was this visible space and Tyrone Guthrie came with it and all of that flagship business."
What impresses Shapiro about the Minnesota Shubert Center is how active it's been even before it's opened its doors. She points to its six-year-old, Internet-based arts education program and some of the dance events it's sponsored.
"There's a kind of ground-up feeling about the Shubert that makes me really trust that it's going to be a success, because in a way, even though it was transplanted, it's grassroots," she said.
Everyone agrees there's a lot riding on the Shubert for the Minnesota dance scene, and Artspace's Colin Hamilton admits his organization is not immune to the pressure.
"I think we all wake up sick to our stomachs, you know, thrilled about what's possible but knowing that this is a 10-year journey that continues and there's as much hard work ahead as there is behind us," Hamilton said.
The Minnesota Shubert Center will officially open in early 2011, in time for the spring dance season.