Can Can Wonderland has been open for less than two months, and already the place is packed on a Sunday morning. When I arrive at 11:00 a.m. to meet with Jennifer Pennington, Can Can’s cofounder and CEO, the coat rack in the hallway is full of coats of all sizes. We grab a seat next to the main bar (as opposed to the “wee” bar), right near the entrance. The venue specializes in artistry of all forms, and the drinks are no exception—the bartender is preparing a Beach Life cocktail, although the word “cocktail” doesn’t do the entire presentation justice. He assures me that everything in the box is edible, although the wooden box itself is not.
Can Can Wonderland is Minnesota’s first arts-based public benefit corporation. What exactly does that mean? Jennifer is happy to explain it to me: the organization is a for profit, and does not receive any tax benefits, but it has a social purpose, which is to be an engine for the arts. The public benefit corporation status means that the social purpose aspect is protected and legalized, so that shareholders are not be able to force decisions that prioritize profit or anything else over the social purpose.
The idea for this place first came into being nearly a decade ago, right around the 2008 recession, which hit struggling arts organizations particularly hard. Jennifer Pennington was working in the nonprofit sector at the time, while her husband (and Can Can cofounder), Chris Pennington, was teaching special education in Minneapolis’s public schools. Both Penningtons volunteered with local arts organizations, in particular the Soap Factory’s Haunted Basement and 10 Second Film Festival. A friend of the Penningtons’ also worked on the Walker Arts Center’s artist-designed minigolf installations, and Chris himself contributed a design in 2008. The Penningtons found themselves pondering two questions: why didn’t the Walker minigolf happen all the time, and how could someone create an organization that could be self-funded and free from the distress of unstable funding?
After several years of working with St. Paul city officials in search of the right location and venue, a unique funding opportunity appeared in the form of ArtPlace America, a creative organization looking at community and economic development projects that are driven by the arts. The Penningtons applied for, and won, its National Creative Placemaking Fund support in 2013. A commercial real-estate broker helped them find the perfect location, a vacant former American Can Company manufacturing site. The broker ended up signing on as a partner, along with the friend who helped design the Walker minigolf installations, and Can Can was officially born.
One of the ways in which Can Can strives to achieve its social purpose is through providing opportunities for local artists and performers. When the call went out for artist proposals for the minigolf holes, over 200 submissions flooded in. Can Can deliberately opened up submissions to both concept designs and actual plans—they wanted to allow people to propose ideas even if they didn’t have the skill, materials, or knowledge to bring those ideas into being themselves. After 300 hours reviewing and debating proposals with a committee of architects, mechanical engineers, electrical engineers, professional artists, and fabricators, 18 were accepted, all of them local submissions, a mix of emerging and professional artists. One local math teacher created a curriculum titled “Mini Golf Madness,” and three of her students ended up submitting winning concept designs.
The venue has been seeing a mix of customers, which is exactly what the founders intended. Patrons are of all ages, from groups of seniors to field trips from local schools, including several special-ed classrooms (these groups helped to test the course for accessibility and safety). People who worked in the American Can Company 40 years ago have also dropped by, impressed and tickled by how the space has changed. Can Can is open to everyone until 9:00 p.m., after which it converts to a 21-plus space. Kids also must be at least five years old to play minigolf, in order to protect the art installations and ensure the safety of all golfers.
For those who aren’t able to or don’t wish to golf, Can Can Wonderland has plenty of other entertainment to offer. Antique pinball machines line the boardwalk, along with a cardboard crafting station where aspiring artists learn to create helmets, swords, and suits of armor out of repurposed cardboard. A ping-pong table marks the end of the boardwalk.
Can Can may yet be young, but its founders are already thinking about expansion and growth. The current kitchen is somewhat small, and there are plans to put in a full kitchen to allow for catering and private events. Jennifer mentions a memorable submission for “car-aoke,” repurposing an old car with a karaoke machine inside so that you and your friends can sit on the boardwalk, singing karaoke while other patrons walk by. A rooftop minigolf installation is also in the works, to take advantage of the generous outdoor space and spectacular view of the Minneapolis skyline. The next piece in the works, however, is the Human Foosball Court, first introduced by Chris at Northern Spark in 2014. Jennifer explains that the group doesn’t ever really want to be done: “We always want to be expanding, and building, growing it into a really fun place where literally everyone can have a good time.”
Even before any of the planned expansions, there is plenty to enjoy and love about the current state of Can Can Wonderland. The minigolf holes are gorgeous and amazing. The drinks are delicious, the staff is friendly, and almost any available space is given over to some type of artwork. Murals adorn hallway and restaurant walls—–a particularly gorgeous piece by a local 15-year-old artist is the first thing you see upon reaching the entrance. There are also multiple performance spaces scattered throughout, and the World’s Most Dangerous Polka Band (formerly of Nye’s Polanaise) graces the main stage on some Saturday nights. Can Can is aware of the highly desirable open space and real estate it occupies and has plenty of ideas for upcoming events: adult masquerade parties, a steampunk-style fashion show, something for Comic-Con. “People might come for the mini-golf,” Jennifer says, “but then they might stumble upon a performance that they might not have sought out on their own, and then they become interested and engaged.” And that’s the mission in a nutshell.