Ritz Lit Sign and Lanterns

In 1998 Artistic Director Craig Harris became involved in an arts-based community development initiative in Northeast Minneapolis, focused on the redevelopment of the Ritz Theater as a multi-use performance venue, and on the transformation of Sheridan neighborhood’s 13th Avenue district into a creative and valued destination.

The Minneapolis-based dance theater company – Ballet of the Dolls – wanted to establish a permanent home for the company to rehearse and perform, and identified the Ritz Theater in the Sheridan Neighborhood of Minneapolis as a viable setting. Ballet of the Dolls was created in 1986, and by the late 1990s had established a reputation for creating artistically engaging work, with a strong following. The financial condition was in a state of serious distress, though, with no organizational capacity to manage a successful company, and no ability to run a successful capital campaign, renovate a building, or run a theater.

The Ritz Theater was a 900-seat movie theater that had been closed since 1982, and was in a state of deterioration, adding to neighborhood blight and crime, and inhibiting community development. Northeast Minneapolis was in a state of transition, with great potential and experiencing some challenges inhibiting its emergence. A large number of primarily visual artists were moving into the area, hoping to become vested in the community long term, with a vision to integrate the arts into the community’s development plans. Several large warehouse buildings were becoming arts-centered spaces serving artist studios and galleries; small specialty shops were trying to become established; restaurants and bars were developing, hoping to serve an increasing influx of people; the artists organized and created what would become one of the largest open studio festivals in the country – Art-a-Whirl. While there were many factors conducive to positive development, the neighborhood was not able to develop sufficient critical mass of activity to create the kind of momentum needed to succeed. What was missing from the mix of elements was a performing arts venue that would regularly bring people from outside of the area to see performances, visit shops and galleries, and go to local restaurants and bars.

Craig Harris led the initiative to redevelop the theater, and was deeply involved in this artistic and community development initiative. He built the company’s infrastructure and capacity, created strong relationships within the neighborhood and with government officials, helped to raise $2.2 million, managed the renovation of the theater, and launched the theater’s first season with a variety of dance, theater and music activity. His colleague George Sutton of Sutton & Associates was an important colleague in bringing the project to fruition.

The renovated Ritz Theater opened in 2006, with a beautiful and well-equipped 240-seat theater, a large studio and event space, a lobby with concession area, and office space. Today the 13th Avenue NE strip is completely transformed with the arts as a central feature in the district, thriving with successful restaurants and shops, and ongoing performance activity at the theater attracting thousands of people to the neighborhood each year.