As Cowles Center closes, local dancers reflect on its impact

Cowles Center for Dance exterior
The Cowles Center for Dance & The Performing Arts will close March 31.
Jeffrey Thompson | MPR News 2011

One of the Twin Cities’ preeminent performance spaces for dance concerts is closing.

The Cowles Center for Dance & The Performing Arts, which operates the Goodale Theater in Minneapolis, will cease operations on March 31 after facing financial issues.

“I think that the community is definitely heartbroken at the loss of our dance center,” said Aparna Ramaswamy, executive director of Ragamala Dance Company.

Ragamala specializes in dance styles from South Asia. The company planned to have performances at the Cowles Center this spring but is now in search of a new venue.

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Ragamala Dance
Ragamala Dance performed “Written in Water” at the Cowles Center in 2017.
Bruce W Palmer

“The Cowles has always been a very free and open place to work,” Ramaswamy added.

Created in 2011, the Cowles Center consists of the Hennepin Center for Arts and the Goodale Theater and Atrium. Formerly the Shubert Theater, the Goodale was renovated and moved to its new home, connected to the Center for the Arts.

“This was a theater that they moved 10 blocks, a historic theater, with an incredible history,” Ramaswamy said.

“So the idea that this is a home for dance, that like dance is a beautiful melding of past, present and future.”

Along with presenting and producing dance concerts in collaboration with companies across the region, the center offered educational opportunities. 

The Cowles Center was created through a partnership with real estate developer Artspace, which focuses on housing and commercial space for the arts. While two separate nonprofit entities, members of Artspace’s staff served on the board of the Cowles Center. Artspace also owns the Hennepin Center for the Arts space.

“We have provided, on average, about half a million dollars a year in operation,” said Will Law, chief operating officer of Artspace.  

“So, a little over $6 million approaching $7 million in kind of operational support,” Law added, acknowledging that exact numbers varied year to year. 

Due to economic issues, prompted by COVID-19, Artspace could no longer support the Cowles Center and sought out new operators in late 2022.

“Coupled with Artspace’s challenging affordable-housing reality, [this] meant that we didn’t have the resources to continue to support that programming the way we had previously. Sadly, very sadly.”

While Artspace had a few promising leads in 2023, no deal had been reached with new operators for the space in 2024. This ultimately led to the decision to close the Cowles Center.

View from the stage
Crews work on the stage and seating at the Cowles Center for Dance & The Performing Arts in 2011.
Jeffrey Thompson | MPR News 2011

“This is a huge hit,” said Lisa Berman, a teaching artist at the Cowles Center. Berman is also the founder of BRKFST, a company whose performances are uncertain after being canceled at the Cowles.

“Not only for performing artists but also for the broader community of people that receive arts education through dance.” 

For Berman, the financial situation came as a bit of a shock.

“This was a huge surprise to me. I had no idea that they were in this kind of financial trouble.”

Berman credits the Cowles Center as one of the first major venues locally to support street dancing.

“We really owe them a lot for exposing the community to our dance form.” 

The Cowles Center was unique for the Twin Cities dance community. Not only was it a large venue that could raise the profile of different companies, but it was also built with dancers in mind.

“There are so many theaters in the Twin Cities, and yet, not too many of them are really primed for dance,” said Rachel Doran, founder of Crash Dance Productions, which will be the penultimate group to perform at the Cowles Center.

Doran points out that logistical things like “the size of the stage, what type of lighting plots are available, what the floor is made of” matter a great deal to the kinds of dance concerts that can be performed.

“In my private conversations, everyone’s like, what are what are we all going to do? Where are we going to go? Literally, where are we going to go?” 

The Cowles Center has promised to fulfill contractual obligations as co-presenters of canceled performances and pay out the artist fees and box office splits. Artspace plans to continue as operator of the Hennepin Center for the Arts, while stewardship of the Goodale Theater will fall to the City of Minneapolis.

This activity is made possible in part by the Minnesota Legacy Amendment’s Arts & Cultural Heritage Fund.