Nine months after his messy exit from his powerful position at Louisville’s Fund for the Arts, Allan Cowen is back in a major community leadership role.
Cowen’s firm, Cowen Consulting, has a contract to help University of Louisville officials craft a far-ranging vision of the school’s role in the community, a vision that might lead to the creation of an influential center for arts and culture.
For several weeks, university and arts insiders have told Insider Louisville that Cowen is heading up what’s referred to inside U of L as “The Center of Creativity.”
Dr. Shirley Willihnganz, U of L provost, said Cowen is involved in the early stages of an ambitious effort to define “what it means to be a metropolitian university.”
Willihnganz said the “Center for Creativity” at this point is only the working name: “We had to call it something.” But she added there could someday be such a center “where the university and the arts community come together.”
At this point, Cowen’s role is to work with faculty and staff at U of L ‘s School of Music, School of Business, School of Arts & Science and community leaders who are trying to define how the university can better engage with arts groups and other entities.
Technically, the contract is between the University of Louisville Foundation and Cowen Consulting, and is worth up to $50,000 for six months beginning Jan. 1, 2012, according to Mark Hebert, director of media relations at U of L.
The contract is renewable, Hebert said.
Cowen reports to Keith Inman, vice president of university advancement, but Willihnganz said she also meets regularly with Cowen.
One of Cowen’s major assignments is to help advance U of L’s efforts to potentially move several programs to the eight-block museum and arts district that runs from the Kentucky Center for the Arts on the east to the Frazier Museum on the west.
U of L now has a 1-year contract on four facades – 615 W. Main through 621 W. Main – in what was to be part of the now-cancelled Museum Plaza project. That contract timeline means Cowen and university officials have months, not years to develop the plan, then raise money.
The effort is a holdover from an earlier plan to create “The Center for Graduate and Executive Education,” relocating several programs including U of L’s Hite Art Institute and the the Professional MBA to the Museum Plaza complex.
The four building facades were to be incorporated at street level into the larger Museum Plaza skyscraper, a project that was cancelled last August.
Hebert said the provost doesn’t have time to oversee the Main Street project on a daily basis, so they brought in Cowen.
Willihnganz added, “We were thinking about who would be good to ‘vision’ this, and Allan’s name came up simply because he’s so well known in the arts community and has worked there so long.”
But U of L officials are taking a risk on the mercurial Cowen, who was channeling Ari Gold decades before the hot-tempered but brilliant fictional Hollywood agent from “Entourage” became a cultural touchstone.
Cowen retired last March after 35 years at Fund for the Arts.
Cowen was disciplined by the Fund’s board after he left Louisville Visual Arts Society director Shannon Westerman an angry voicemail, threatening Westerman’s job.
Cowen’s voicemail to Westerman was leaked to the Courier-Journal.
The CJ editorial board went after Cowen in an editorial titled “A Petty Martinet,” an editorial that slammed his “Brobdingnagian ego” and temper while acknowledging his equally legendary ability to raise massive amounts of money for the arts.
“Did we have that talk with him? Absolutely not,” she said. But Willihnganz added that Cowen is not exceptional in the fact he has admirers and detractors: “That’s true of all of us.”
U of L executives, arts leaders and Cowen’s friends are describing Cowen as the right man at the right time for the mission, which had the backing Brown-Forman executive and heir Owsley Brown II before his death last September.
Moreover, multiple insiders tell Insider Louisville they’re hoping Cowen uses his new position to resolve some of the arts community’s most pressing problems.
Several insiders have said they believe – though they have no confirmation – that Cowen and U of L officials might have a plan to integrate the Louisville Orchestra into the university, a plan that university officials deny at this juncture.
A Fund for the Arts board member told Insider Louisville the board was discussing what role the Fund might play in ongoing negotiations between Louisville Orchestra and players, “and if Allan were still here, he’d be leading those negotiations.
“So, it makes perfect sense for him to assume that role at the university.”
One arts leader noted that many of the players already are teaching at the U of L School of Music.
“It would make sense, though there is no real precedent for a university taking over an orchestra in any city I know of.”
More as we know more.