After waiting nearly a year for the offer from the National Endowment for the Arts, it took only seconds for Ralph Remington to accept the job as musical and theater director for the NEA.
Among other things, this move to Washington, D.C., means that Remington, who accomplished remarkable things in Minneapolis in just a couple of decades, won’t be running for mayor of the city.
Remington, founder of the Pillsbury House Theatre and a one-term member of the City Council, was almost certain he’d be a candidate for Minneapolis mayor last November. Those plans, however, were derailed when R.T. Rybak decided he’d pursue a third term for mayor and make a run for governor at the same time.
“If R.T. hadn’t run for a third term, I would have run for mayor,” Remington said, “and I believe my chances were good. All indications were that he wasn’t going to run for that third term; that he’d concentrate on running for governor.”
Remington briefly was disappointed in Rybak’s decision. He even considered running against his friend. But “an insurgent” run against the mayor seemed pointless.
“The unions were already locked down [for Rybak],” said Remington. “The traditional endorsing organizations were locked down. Besides, I like him. Even though we have some differences, they’re so small that it wouldn’t have been worth getting into this big divisive fight.”
Remington is delighted with the way things have turned out.
“This is the best outcome that could have happened,” said Remington. “I’m glad R.T. did run. If he hadn’t, I might be mayor right now. This [the arts position] is what I want.”
He added that Rybak wrote a strong letter of recommendation on his behalf to the NEA.
‘Saved my life’
Remington has a very personal relationship with the arts.
“The arts saved my life,” he says simply.
As a middle-class black kid growing up in poor inner-city neighborhoods in Philadelphia, remembers his own anger and the despair and violence around him.
“When I saw ‘Roots’ [the 1977 television series based on Alexander Haley’s Pulitzer-prize winning book] I was so angry I didn’t know what to do,” Remington recalled. “I had studied slavery, but to see that – to see the way black people were brought to this country in chains to build it up for white people – hit me hard. I was mired in anger.”
He went to an arts high school in Philadelphia and he excelled — and his world view slowly changed.
“The arts helped me to focus on the beauty of a play or a performance,” he said. “As an actor, you begin observing everyday life. You study how people behave, the things they do in different situations. You become an expert at human behavior.”
Art and politics and social change are co-mingled, Remington believes. At the Pillsbury House on Chicago Avenue, he used theater not only to bring powerful plays to an inner-city neighborhood but as a workshop on life for troubled kids and welfare moms.
This move to D.C. is a perfect fit for Remington. He will be able to combine his love of theater and his political skills to run a programs that will develop partnerships between the NEA and organizations outside government. He also will be charged with programs that give grants to theaters.
This move also marks another milestone in a two-year run of extraordinary events in Remington’s life.
He was an early foot soldier prior to the Iowa caucuses for Barack Obama. Like so many other Americans, he was overwhelmed with emotion when Obama easily won in Iowa. As a delegate to the Democratic National Convention, he was moved to tears at the sight of Obama accepting the party’s nomination. And overwhelmed again when Obama was sworn in as president.
All the while, he also was making important personal decisions. He decided that he would not seek a second term on the City Council. (His term ended on Dec. 31.)
“I never intended that to be a career,” he said.
There was some disappointment in the last couple of years, too. Like thousands of others, Remington applied for work in the administration.
“I put in an application to be any part of the administration,” said Remington. “But I think those things end up in a pile somewhere unless you’re well placed.”
Then, there was the long wait for a thumbs up or down from the NEA. He applied last spring. He had a phone interview, followed by a personal interview in November and then, finally, the offer.
“I believe you call this the black swan phenomenon,” said Remington of all that has happened to him – and the country – in the last couple of years. “Things that are not expected to happen happen, creating momentous change.”
Doug Grow writes about public affairs, state politics and other topics. He can be reached at dgrow [at] minnpost [dot] com.