Somebody Has To Root For Macbeth

Talk about playing against type: It appears that Joe Dowling, the popular artistic director of the Guthrie Theater, has cast himself in the surprising role of Significant Republican Donor. On September 8, 2003, according to the website, Dowling gave the legal maximum--$2,000--to the reelection campaign of George W. Bush.

Are we to believe that this Irish national opposes gay marriage and backs the war in Iraq? Or that he was showing some appreciation for the tax break on his $350,970 annual salary? Or, given his knack for recruiting out-of-town talent, could the director have been angling to cast Arnold Schwarzenegger in a small but ethnically appropriate role in The Diary of Anne Frank?

We can't know for certain because Dowling, who has aided the Guthrie immeasurably through his willingness to talk to any group, anywhere, anytime, declined to discuss his political donations. While not speaking directly to Dowling's situation, however, Sheila Smith, executive director of the lobbying group Minnesota Citizens for the Arts, offers a certain rationale. "If you want to accomplish anything at the legislature," Smith explains, "the goal is to have as many supporters of your issue as possible. And in our society today, we're so divided that if you want to accomplish anything at all, you need to make friends on both sides of the aisle."

Those who enjoy the comedy of our state legislature will recall that last year the Guthrie received a $25 million state subsidy for the building of a $125 million theater complex on the Mississippi riverfront. It's nearly impossible to fathom this project having succeeded without the advocacy of the Guthrie's leader. This is truly the House that Joe Built.

Dowling's personal politicking, then, would seem a natural extension of the theater's $150,905 lobbying effort in the 2002-2003 fiscal year. (Dowling is said to have made numerous smaller donations to statewide candidates. Records also show a $250 gift to Democratic Congressman Martin Sabo, a $500 gift to the last living giant of the old-guard DFL, Walter Mondale, and $500 to a DNC presidential fundraising committee.)

Smith speaks at length about "civic engagement" and the "nonpartisan" status of the arts. Yet philistines may wonder how this kind of strategic giving differs from the "participation" practiced by corporate giants like Cargill or IBM. "The lobbying we are doing is on behalf of artists and arts and nonprofits in Minnesota," Smith says. "And nonprofits are owned by the public. So, unlike IBM, we're not lobbying for a company and for ourselves. We're lobbying for the people of Minnesota."

Though Dowling prefers to lobby from backstage, he did deliver a dramatic final act to this election mystery. On June 30 of this year, Dowling's representative called back to say, the director wrote out another check for $2, the campaign of John F. Kerry.