Faces of Duluth: Zeitgeist Executive Director Tony Cuneo Discusses Duluth’s Thriving Arts & Culture Scene

Zeitgeist Executive Director Tony Cuneo
Tony Cuneo

Faces of Duluth tells the stories of the people behind Duluth’s iconic attractions, hidden gems and everything in between. Traveling to Duluth? Learn the locals’ tips and tricks for seeing all the city has to offer.

Duluth’s beautiful nature is renowned to travelers and locals alike, but its thriving arts and culture scene is also not to be missed. The industry has grown so much over the years that seasoned visitors and first timers alike may be surprised at the number of theaters, museums, art galleries and more there are within city limits.

When the sun goes down in Duluth – the lights go up in the Historic Arts and Theatre (HART) District, which is downtown and east of Lake Ave. In the heart of the HART District is Zeitgeist Arts Building, home to a performing arts theater, cinema, restaurant and bar, art gallery and classroom spaces. We sat down with Zeitgeist’s Executive Director Tony Cuneo to talk Duluth’s thriving arts and culture scene, what’s happening at Zeitgeist and the upcoming inaugural North by North International Film Festival, which will bring creators from all over the world to Duluth.

What’s your Duluth story?

I’m originally from the Twin Cities, and as a kid we’d take many trips to Duluth. When I was eight years old, I vowed to my family that I’d live here someday – there was just something magical about the city. Years later, I moved here for college and never left.

What do you love about Duluth?

I love that nature is integrated into the city, along with culture, food, art and its long and interesting history. I was excited to live here to be halfway to the Boundary Waters, but I found that I don’t necessarily need to go to the Boundary Waters to immerse myself in nature – there is so much to explore within city limits. Along with the lake, there are beautiful waterfalls and streams throughout the city and you can lose yourself in the woods. Combine that with the arts and culture scene – where you can see great plays, independent films and more – and you just can’t find anywhere else like Duluth in the country.

Zeitgeist is so much more than a theater – can you tell us more?

Zeitgeist is a non-profit arts and community development organization, and we do as much outside of the theater as we do in it. In addition to our cinema and performing arts theaters, we run a non-profit restaurant and lead community outreach programs, such as the Fair Food Access campaign, local health campaigns and initiatives to make Duluth a more bike- and pedestrian-friendly place. We also offer classes where artists can hone their crafts and be free of censorship, judgement or restriction. We work to build culture and tell stories that haven’t been told yet – we want to share a diverse group of perspectives.

How does a non-profit restaurant work?

100 percent of our profits from the restaurant help fund our community development work. We have a no-tipping policy but implement a 20 percent service charge that gives our workers an elevated wage distributed more evenly across the positions. We want to give back while supporting our team, all while making delicious food and cocktails.

What can you tell us about the North by North Film Festival?

The North by North Film Festival will be the first international film festival produced by Zeitgeist. It runs from April 27-May 1. It will feature local storytellers along with films from all over the region and world. There will be screenings, mixers and conversations after the films – and will have prizes given out for best feature, best short, local filmmaker award and audience choice award. There will also be a pitch competition for local filmmakers. Bottom line: there will be something for everyone who loves movies. (Tickets are on sale now.)

How do you spend your time when you’re not working?

I have four kids, including three-year-old twins, and two young teens, so they keep me pretty busy! We live a block and a half from a stream, which we love. We love exploring Tischer Creek. I also love cross country skiing, biking, and exploring Hartley (Nature Center), then going out to see a show and get some great food and drinks. My favorite is swimming in Lake Superior and the local rivers. Sometimes it’s cold, but you gotta do it – it’s a Duluth thing.

Where do you take out-of-town guests?

We like to spend the day outside – depending on the season, either at hidden beaches along the Lakewalk or Park Point, or skiing at Chester Bowl, Lester Park or Spirit Mountain. We then go for dinner and drinks – our favorite is Zeitgeist of course for food and shows. But we also love Lake Ave, Vikre and Bent Paddle, and maybe a movie at the West Theatre or a performance from the Duluth Playhouse.

What advice do you have for travelers?

Along with all of the classic Duluth attractions, make taking in a show a part of your itinerary. If you haven’t been lately, you’ll be surprised at how the theater and arts scene has grown. Duluth is becoming a cultural destination.