Philip Von Blon, a philanthropic visionary whose influence in Twin Cites cultural life spanned more than 50 years, died Wednesday from complications of a fall at his home in Tucson, Ariz. He was 88. Von Blon co-founded the Guthrie Theater, helped build the modern Walker Art Center and chaired the State Arts Council. In business, he was vice president for finance at the Minneapolis Star and Tribune Company for a decade before leaving for the investment firm known today as Alliance Bernstein.
"He was one of the great heroes of the founding of the theater," said Guthrie director Joe Dowling. "He had an amazing passion for this organization."
Martin Friedman, the Walker's longtime director and a friend for more than 50 years, said Von Blon's financial advice, connections and personal counsel were key to the Walker's successful completion of its 1971 brick building.
"He was an original, a singular figure in the history of Walker Art Center," Friedman said.
A New York native, Von Blon joined International Milling in 1945, and in the late 1950s he joined the effort to persuade Tyrone Guthrie to found a theater in Minneapolis. His fundraising and financial acumen impressed John Cowles Jr., who hired Von Blon as chief financial officer at the Star and Tribune Company. When Cowles stepped down as first chair of the Guthrie board, he recommended Von Blon as his successor. Von Blon was made a lifetime director in 1987.
He was a key player at the Walker, too. When he joined that board in 1958, it was primarily a community arts organization. Von Blon was a "major figure" in transforming it into an internationally known center for contemporary art, Friedman said. Von Blon served on a joint committee in 1968 that oversaw a project that built a new Walker and expanded the old Guthrie.
"He was a consigliere to me and a great calmer-down," Friedman said. "No director wanted him to be far away. It was a marvel to watch him in the board room."
Also aided the opera
Von Blon left the Star and Tribune in 1970 for a position with Donaldson, Lufkin & Jenrette Inc., which became Alliance Management and then Alliance Bernstein.
He also served as chair of the State Arts Council and worked with the Minnesota Opera and the Minnesota Center for Book Arts.
Following in her father's path, daughter Margaret Wurtele headed fundraising for the new $125 million Guthrie, which opened in 2006.
"When we did the 40th anniversary in 2003, Phil said, 'The greatest gift I've given to the Guthrie is my daughter Margaret,'" Dowling said.
Wurtele said her father had the heart of a champion. "Twenty years ago, he was diagnosed with cancer and was given two to five years to live," she said. "He had just found out that the cancer had come back and was in his bones. So, his passing now is a huge blessing. He won the lottery."
Cowles and his wife, Sage, stayed best friends with Von Blon and his wife, Joanne, an arts patron whose board memberships included Minnesota Public Radio and The Loft.
In addition to Wurtele and his wife of 65 years, Von Blon is survived by daughter Martha Meyer of Minneapolis, brother Robert of St. Augustine, Fla., and several grandchildren. An April memorial is planned at the Guthrie Theater.
Staff writers Rohan Preston and Mary Abbe contributed to this report. Graydon Royce • 612-673-7299