Bob Cowgill once wrote in City Pages that "a film programmer casts no shadow," but his career argues otherwise. Not only did he found the independent movie house Oak Street Cinema in 1995, but last year he completed a merger few in the Minnesota film community ever thought would come to pass: that of Oak Street with the University Film Society (and its Bell Auditorium), which has been run by Al Milgrom since the 1960s. After putting on last April's 21st annual Minneapolis/St. Paul International Film Festival from separate offices, the two nonprofits moved under one roof in June.
Yet by the end of August, Cowgill had already decided to leave his position as executive director of the newly formed organization, Minnesota Film Arts, having started a full-time job as assistant professor of English at Augsburg College.
"We were hoping to get through one more festival [with Cowgill]," admits Minnesota Film Arts board member Joan Campbell, who, as of press time, says the board has yet to choose a successor. "He, like Al, is a visionary and a founder, and founders are hard to replace."
Cowgill says the decision to leave was difficult, but that both theaters now stand a better chance of continuing without him. "The merger probably made it harder to go, because I still felt that there was some business for me to complete. But on the other hand, the merger makes leaving possible, because it makes the organization a little stronger."
While still programming for the Bell, Milgrom has found enough extra time with the streamlining to complete a rough, short cut of a documentary he shot in the early 1970s, Red Barn. In the meantime, Milgrom's first-run art house fare hasn't suffered under the new arrangement: Bonhoeffer, which played for two months this summer at Bell Auditorium, was the venue's biggest success in a decade.
Cowgill likewise has displayed a similar golden touch, having ferried the Cedar Theatre through its heyday in the late '70s, before turning Oak Street into the kind of rare, comfortable art house where audiences enjoyed the house as much as the art. "When I started the Oak Street way back in '95, I would say to people that I wanted the theater to exist so that a new generation could learn how to do it, and I think that's happened," Cowgill surmises, assessing the current staff in place. "I don't think I'm really needed."
Cowgill's humility aside, few would dispute that the theater succeeded because of the personal commitment he brought to the job. "The Oak Street has said to me that it's really important that in cultural matters, even when everything is really cynical and market-driven and noisy and jangly, that we keep our essential faith that what we do matters," Cowgill says. "I didn't think the Oak Street had a chance when we opened it, and it's still going on."