Photograph by Peter Crouser
Joe Spencer stuffs his bright-green earplugs in again. They’re testing the fire alarms at St. Paul’s newest oldest theater, the Palace, and as an eardrum-piercing testament to the one-time vaudeville house’s pristine acoustics when the alarms are on, they’re really on. The actor-turned-tap dancer-turned-political staffer-turned-St. Paul’s director of arts and culture is leaning against a seat midway up the balcony, ruminating on the long road to reopening the Palace. As his two kids explore the theater behind him, we talk about the journey of the Palace and the more dynamic downtown St. Paul that came with it.
It’s been more than a decade since mayor Chris Coleman tasked you with making downtown St. Paul cool. Have you? When we started, the Parks Department didn’t even keep a calendar for Mears Park. Now Mears Park is bursting at the seams: Music in Mears, the jazz festival, the blues festival. All that activity helped us prove the market. It was about us going out and finding the right partners and kind of pitching this vision and that it’s all here—the bones are here, the structure is here.
Where did St. Paul stand with the arts in 2006? Minneapolis arts organizations were drawing about 4.9 million visitors annually and St. Paul was drawing 5.5 million. We basically had parity [but] we had to start asking who is coming to St. Paul. We did seniors really well [and] we did kids and families really well. But if you were in your 20s and 30s—which, by the way, is also the demographic most likely to be out past 10 pm—we were missing you.
What did you change? A traditional person in a role like mine might see the arts as only being the fine arts. But I view what happens at Vieux Carré as just as important as what happens in the Ordway. We need to look beyond what is traditionally the arts, and that includes bars and restaurants and music venues. All of the [restaurants] that have exploded have been driven by people who are trying to craft experiences, and that is just as big a part of the arts and culture scene as the opera.
That opera’s no slouch. The Minnesota Opera is one of our great assets. They’re the most exciting opera in the country right now. They’re doing such adventurous, fun, cool stuff.
Is your work part of the reason the opera has become so dynamic? It’s all a part of an ecosystem. And we had an agenda in shaping how that ecosystem looks. [So] it’s a credit to the whole system.
So, mission accomplished? There’s a great phrase that goes, “The key is to figure out who you are and then to be that on purpose.” And I feel like that’s what we’ve done and we’ve said it’s not OK for us to be missing people in their 20s and their 30s. We’ve gotta be ourselves on purpose for them too.
Joe’s St. Paul Three-Pack
Happy Hour: “I love meeting friends and colleagues for happy hour in Lowertown, then migrating over to Mears Park to see a band.”
Date Night: “Dinner at Meritage, then a show, and [after that] slip down to Vieux Carré for a cocktail and more music.”
Everyday Life: “Spending a night at McMurray Fields or at Langford Rec Center watching our kids play basketball or soccer with our friends and neighbors.”