Introducing Todd Duesing: The New Face of Hennepin Theatre Trust
This summer, on July 10, a new President and CEO began at Hennepin Theatre Trust (HTT), the non-profit organization that runs our historic and beloved downtown theaters including the Orpheum, State, Pantages, and Dudley Riggs Theaters. Coming to us from the Cincinnati area with an impressive track record of performing arts leadership, Todd Duesing has stepped into his new role here in Minneapolis as previous CEO Mark Nerenhausen has stepped into retirement. This is a huge win for LGBTQ+ people in arts leadership, as Duesing is one of our very own.
“I’m having the best time of my life every day,” Duesing says of his first two months on the job at HTT. “We’re doing some really great things and it’s fun and it’s positive.”
Originally from Kentucky, Duesing has spent the last two decades plus some working and excelling in performing arts leadership in the Cincinnati area, most recently as the Vice President and Chief Operations Officer for the Cincinnati Arts Association. In this role, he oversaw the programming and management of both the Aronoff Center for the Arts and the Cincinnati Music Hall, which included putting together events such as the Tall Stacks steamboat festivals and the Cincy-Cinco Latino Festival. Perhaps most notably, Duesing played a huge role in bringing the World Choir Games to Cincinnati in 2012, an event that had never before been seen in the Western Hemisphere prior, let alone the Midwest. The World Choir Games is an international choir festival, a choir Olympics of sorts, that aims to bring countries together through peaceful competition and song. “It was a really, really historic event for Cincinnati because it was truly the first time that it was on the international stage,” Duesing says. The event not only brought in 250,000 international visitors, but also had a $72.5 million dollar economic impact on the city during its 14-day duration.
So, what brings him to Minneapolis?
“The reputation of this city and its theaters and music scene, I mean there’s such an incredible scene,” Duesing says. “It was an opportunity to kind of drive the trajectory in a new direction and really work with a community of people who want to see a thriving, vibrant arts district.” He also says that while Cincinnati was a fine place to live as an LGBTQ+ person, Minneapolis is much more outwardly inviting and welcoming to LGBTQ+ folks, which is the icing on the cake. He really enjoys that we have establishments like the Black Hart of Saint Paul, where the soccer world and the LGBTQ+ world collide, and is also a big WNBA fan. The Lynx may have played a small role in reeling him up here…
I asked Duesing about the current struggles involved in helping the Minneapolis arts district thrive in comparison to Cincinnati. It’s no secret that our downtown has struggled to entice visitors since the pandemic and the murder of George Floyd. The streets are still eerily quiet and whispers of people feeling unsafe circulate everywhere. Duesing reminds my impatient soul that community healing is not a quick process.
He points to Cincinnati in 2001 when a young black man named Timothy Thomas was killed by police. He says while this event did not garner the same level of uprising and protest as did the murder of George Floyd, “I think the recovery and the healing is similar, and it was done. It takes time. There has to be a level of trust between the community, community leadership, and those affected and those who see the harm that was caused to those affected,” he says. “I think more than we were 20 years ago, we’re able to identify those inequities and start to right those wrongs. That’s why I have a lot of faith in what will happen in Minneapolis, because I’ve seen it.”
While they are but a fraction of the answer, the arts can play a role in community healing. “We are making spaces where people are comfortable to express themselves,” Duesing says, “and we need to grow that even more. We also need a place where people can gather together and enjoy life. When we have live theater, live concerts, live events, it’s an opportunity to be engaged in something that we all can enjoy together. We get to experience it with each other.” He mentions how increased efforts from Broadway to diversify casts in turn diversifies audiences as well, and this is so important. When we spend more time around those who are different from us, we can learn about them and erase the notion of “otherness” that is so harmful to communities.
Duesing’s husband remains back in Covington, Kentucky, for the time being. He is the president of the school board at Covington Public Schools, which is currently being forced to comply with recent anti-LGBTQ+ legislation barring the teaching of gender identity and sexual orientation in public schools as well as barring the use of bathrooms and locker rooms that do not conform to students’ biological sex. Similar to Duesing’s commitment to inclusion in the arts, his husband is committed to helping ensure that LGBTQ+ students remain supported despite these laws and to minimize as much harm as possible, uniquely positioned to do so as an open and out member of the LGBTQ+ community himself. If that isn’t admirable, I don’t know what is.
What’s in the future for Hennepin Theatre Trust with Duesing leading the pack? “What we’re trying to do is create a sense of place for everyone,” Duesing says. More opportunities for everyone to be able to access theater and the arts and these spaces for gathering and healing. He is cooking up ideas to “meet people where they’re at” and bring bigger shows out to theaters in other neighborhoods or regional theaters outside of the downtown district. “It is my goal that we create opportunities for everyone to be engaged in the arts … We can build a sense of community together where someone feels like our work is for them in their neighborhood, but also in the theater district as well. It all belongs to them.”
Duesing left us with some final words.
“It’s an honor to be able to be interviewed for this particular magazine because, it’s my people, and, you know, to be able to take a role of leadership in this community, in this role, is meaningful to me. I’ll do everyone proud, I promise.”