Cowles advocated for the arts and the value of physical development in education. She and her late husband, John Jr., supported the Guthrie Theater, Walker Art Center and the local dance community — which named its annual awards program after her.
The Cowles Conservatory in the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden, the Cowles Center for Dance in Minneapolis and the University of Minnesota’s Jane Sage Cowles Stadium for softball reflect the breadth and depth of their belief in community service.
Cowles was born Jane Sage Fuller in Paris and grew up on the East Coast. She studied dance at the School of American Ballet in New York and graduated from the University of Wisconsin in 1947 (she was a descendant of Lucius Fairchild, an early governor of Wisconsin). As a young student with the Martha Graham Company, she met Merce Cunningham, which led to a lifelong relationship. She co-chaired Cunningham’s dance foundation for four years and instigated the epic performance of the choreographer’s work “Ocean,” in a granite quarry outside St. Cloud in 2008, the year before Cunningham’s death.
In 1952, she married John Cowles Jr., whose family owned the Star and Tribune newspaper company. The two formed a symbiotic partnership — he quiet and cerebral, she ebulliently demonstrative. Their friend George Plimpton once described them as “a wonderfully complementary pair. He’s so self-contained and with her, it’s on the surface.”
They also supported each other’s causes — the arts, education, athletics and early-childhood development. mong the key gifts that helped fund significant Twin Cities cultural institutions were $1 million for the Sculpture Garden in 1985 and $500,000 to the University of Minnesota in 1986 that helped establish the Sage Cowles Land Grant Chair in Dance at the university.
In 2001, Sage and John (who died in 2012) were honored by the Ordway Center with a Sally Award for their long-standing support of arts organizations. Sage was also honored by Dance/USA.
Cowles is survived by sons Jay of St. Paul and Fuller of Shafer, Minn.; daughters Tessa Flores of Ithaca, N.Y., and Jane of Olympia, Wash., 10 grandchildren and two great-grandchildren. Services are pending.