Hennepin Theatre Trust's Tom Hoch hopes to be the artists' mayoral candidate

Star Tribune

Star Tribune

If Tom Hoch wins the November 7 mayoral election, he won’t be the first mayor of Minneapolis to come from the theater world. A.G. “Buzz” Bainbridge, who served as mayor from 1933 to 1935, previously ran the Bainbridge Players and the Shubert Theater. At century’s end, the Shubert was rolled down the street and ultimately incorporated into what is now the Cowles Center for Dance and the Performing Arts on Hennepin Avenue.

“Coming from an arts background is a huge benefit to me personally and to the city," says Hoch. "One brings a set of skills that is unique to someone who’s moving into the mayor position.” After years of working with artists and arts organizations of varying size, Hoch says he’s developed an understanding of “how to go about solving problems — and who to call on to help us solve problems.”

Hennepin Avenue’s current status as a cultural corridor is due in no small part to Hoch’s leadership of the Hennepin Theatre Trust from its 2000 founding to this past February, when he stepped down. He’s now making the case that the revitalization of Hennepin Avenue and the preservation of three historic theaters (the Orpheum, the State, and the Pantages) demonstrates the kind of leadership he’d bring to City Hall.

Though he became the man who made a home for Hamilton, Hoch didn’t come to that role from a background in the arts; he took the helm on Hennepin with experience in community development. He’d worked at the Minneapolis Public Housing Authority and the Minneapolis Community Development Agency, where he oversaw the restoration of the State and the acquisition of the Orpheum. (The seller: Bob Dylan.)

He says he’s learned a lot during his time at the Trust, and he promises to bring more artists to the civic planning table if he becomes mayor. “Artists live and breathe what we want our city to be more about. We want our city to be interesting, we want it to be beautiful from a visual standpoint. We want it to be accessible, meaningful, inclusive. Art has the capacity to do all of those things.”

Hoch notes that Hennepin’s downtown stretch is due for a major reconstruction in 2020. “What if we had artists lead the community engagement around that? What would that look like? How would it develop new perceptions about Hennepin Avenue, and what it means to be on Hennepin Avenue for everyone in our community? Rather than simply, from an engineering standpoint, putting up some signage, how could we use art to engage people in the process?”

Hennepin has its lovers and its haters, and it’s the site of some of the city’s most visible police interactions — especially around bar close, when Hennepin and the parallel First Avenue swarm with revelers. With policing becoming a central issue in the mayoral campaign, Hoch argues that creative solutions can decrease the need for cops to intervene.

“Not every event that happens in our city requires a law enforcement response,” says Hoch. He cites a program called 5 to 10 on Hennepin. Initially conceived to entice office workers to remain downtown after 5 p.m., the outdoor activities instead proved to be a common ground where people who had somewhere to go (say, the theater) engaged with people who had nowhere to go.

“The lesson that I took away is, in some of these big public spaces that we have, we should really be thinking about: How do we program them through arts activities to make them more engaging to everyone on our community,” says Hoch, “as opposed to simply trying to police our way through a situation that some people may be uncomfortable with?”

During his tenure at the Trust, Hoch was also a leader in the Minneapolis Downtown Council, serving as its board chair. It remains to be seen whether voters in the city’s residential neighborhoods are ready to put him in charge, but he says he's worked to make the West Downtown Cultural District ("WeDo") a hub that attracts attention and investment to the entire city.

He also emphasizes the importance of creating sustainable living and working environments for artists throughout Minneapolis. “Artists are in every neighborhood, so we need to ensure that what we’re doing enables artists to create a living making art.” The more art, argues Hoch, the stronger the community. “Artists are themselves community developers, but the work that they do [additionally] creates positive community development activity.”

If he prevails over a crowded field of contenders (including the incumbent, Betsy Hodges), Hoch will take office at an especially visible time for America’s big-city mayors, who are increasingly called upon to battle the Trump Administration on everything from immigrant protection to climate change. Theatergoers recognize Hoch as the smiling author of Playbill introductions, but he says he’s ready for a larger platform.

“I have worked on the national stage,” he says. “I went to Congress and got Congress to change the law so that here in Minneapolis we could provide some senior-specific housing. We were the first in the nation to have a plan approved, and then it rolled out across the country. I understand working in collaboration with others to achieve broad national agenda items that benefit the local level.”

Has he given any thought to Bainbridge, the impresario who became mayor? “I haven’t,” he laughs. “I will go ahead and do some research on that.”