I spent the good part of Thursday, February 19, as an arts advocate. I joined about 400+ Minnesotans for Arts Advocacy Day. This mass gathering is organized by Minnesota Citizens for the Arts (MCA) to show our legislators that arts funding is important to our communities.
I had signed up to participate but wasn’t sure what to expect as an arts advocate for the day. I downloaded a 13-page packet in advance so that I could study the issues of public money for art. The handbook was dense with details about how money for the arts moves through the complex legislative process. I pictured myself sitting in a state senator’s office debating why money for the arts was not “pork.”
The day began at the Minnesota Historical Society with a meeting at 8 a.m. for those of us who were first timers at the event. MCA board members Jamie Andrews and Sheila Terryll welcomed everyone and “walked” us through the day. Basically we would be moving in teams that had been sorted by senate district. There would be a team leader, an MCA board member, who would take the lead in discussion with legislators in their offices. The team, there were about six of us, was there to put a face on the arts organizations we represent and to share personal stories.
I was given a sheet of paper with my Team HH assignment on it. Since I live in District 66A, Region 11, I had meetings set up with Representative Alice Hausmann and Senator John Marty. I also had Representative John Lesch on my list but it turned out that he prefers to meet only with constituents from his district and he represents 66B. Ross Willits, of Steppingstone Theatre fame, was our team leader.
We were given the key message of the day and that was “47 percent.” The simplest possible nugget distillable from a complex equation that represents the percentage of a percentage of tax that goes to funding the arts. Since the legislature will decide shortly on arts funding for the next two years it is a good time to make it clear that we want to stick with what we have got.
State arts funding in Minnesota comes from the Legacy Amendment (refresher alert) which increased sales tax by 3/8 of one percent in 2008. That seemingly small percentage yields about $250 million per year. That money is dedicated to four funds: Land Fund (33%), Water Fund (33%), Parks and Trails Fund (14.25%) and Arts and Culture (19.75%). Almost half (47%) of the Arts and Culture money goes to the State Arts Board and the Regional Arts Councils. The other half goes to cultural organizations such as the Historical Society, public broadcasting, etc.
Originally the arts community asked that 50 percent of the Arts and Culture Fund be dedicated to the Minnesota State Arts Board (MSAB) and the Regional Arts Councils (RAC). These are the two main organizations in the state that distribute money to artists and arts organizations through a system of grant-making. The equation is not quite 50 percent. But two years ago the state legislature wrote into Minnesota law that these funding organizations should receive 47 percent. Today’s key message was: stick with all that.
We received some background on the MCA, including a preview of snippets from an episode about MCA on TPT2 Minnesota Originals. MCA was founded in 1974 and is the longest surviving arts advocacy organization in the country. One of their crowning achievements occurred on Arts Advocacy Day in 2008 when the Legacy Amendment was passed. Minnesota is the only state in the nation to have arts funding enshrined in the state constitution.
By 8:30 the auditorium was filled—I estimate more than 400 folks—and we all sang a rousing rendition of the national anthem. There was some rally talk from speakers like Larry Redmond, MCA’s lobbyist since the 1970s and Senator Richard Cohen, who was introduced as “the artist’s friend.” He notably led the campaign to include funding for the arts in the Legacy Amendment. He said that “The legislative process, like great art, is a collaborative process.” He said that it is a constant battle to protect the money for the arts from colleagues who are always coming up with creative ways to “get their hands on the money.” MCA president Sheila Smith presented the Larry Award (named for their lobbyist) to Christopher Stevens, chief of finance and development at the Walker Art Center.
The other big announcement was that today MCA and its partners would be releasing the Creative Minnesota report (if you wondered what purpose the Cultural Data Project served) that documents the economic impact of the arts in the state. Creative Minnesota: The Health and Impact of the Nonprofit Arts and Culture Sector is “the most comprehensive report ever done about the sector’s health and economic impact, breaking out data statewide and regionally.” This info is fresh and can now be downloaded at creativemn.org. Keep an eye out for MCA’s Creative Minnesota Road Show which will be traveling all over the state to present and discuss the report.
After the rally at the History Center we got on a bus that drove us the short distance to the State Office Building where we first met with Representative Alice Hausmann. My MCA packet included a 2012-2014 Legislative Survey that supplied a guide to each legislator’s stance on the arts. Hausmann gets an “Arts All Star” rating for her exceptional support for the arts. Indeed as we sat down in her office, she spoke warmly of her efforts to get funding for an arts center in Chatfield, Minnesota. She saw it as an example of the kind of struggle we face as arts advocates. We gave Representative Hausmann a 47% sticker and a list of the many organizations and arts projects funded in her district.
Next we traveled the tunnels to the capitol building, two thirds of it closed to the public and all wrapped up for restoration. We met with Senator John Marty who, according to the survey, “enthusiastically supports” the arts. We all introduced ourselves and said a few words about the organizations we work with. Like Representative Hausmann, Marty spoke about the importance of honing our case for the arts because there are opponents who do not see the arts as essential.
My day of advocacy was finished by lunchtime. There were further events for those who wished to attend the Creative Minnesota Report Launch at 3 or a series of workshops offered by Minnesota Theatre Alliance at the Ordway. I enjoyed lunch with one of my team members Dawn Bentley, executive director of Art Shanty Projects and we took the opportunity to visit the George Morrison show at the History Museum. I saw many familiar faces in the hallways during the day. It is clear that Advocacy Day draws many key players in my local arts community and from across the state.
It was fun to be a part of Arts Advocacy Day. I voted YES for the Legacy Amendment in 2008 and I can testify that it touches my life nearly every day. My own artistic projects have been funded by the State Arts Board and Metropolitan Regional Arts Council and I have also served on the citizen panels that select grantees. There is probably not a day that goes by where I don’t enjoy the work of artists in Minnesota, whether it’s reading a book, attending an art show, a concert or a play. My kids have gotten some incredible arts learning opportunities in the schools because of state funding for the arts.
It sometimes feels as if we are asked to separate the arts from other things in life and to build a sort of false equation that says, the arts: add or subtract? The arts are deeply woven into our lives and cannot be separated from who we are and how we live. The question is really, how best to foster and spread the lifeblood of the arts that flows in all communities?