Thomas Proehl, the interim executive director of the Minnesota State Arts Board, has a mantra he's been chanting ever since the 2007 state Legislature convened: "restore funding."
"That's our message," he says. "It's very simple: Restore, restore, restore."
In 2003, in the face of a colossal deficit, Gov. Pawlenty and lawmakers made some drastic decisions. One of them was to cut the state arts appropriation by more than 32 percent, from $13 million to $8.5 million.
Dozens of non-profit arts groups and individual artists across Minnesota, who rely on grants from the State Arts Board or the regional arts councils, were affected.
Thomas Proehl says the state arts community has yet to recover from it. "Ask any institution, any individual artist how it hit their bottom line, and it hit," he says. "It hit and it hurt."
For the Minnesota State Arts Board, the cutback was particularly painful. The agency was forced to lay off 11 of its 19 employees. Among artists and arts organizations affected, the Guthrie Theater put its touring program on hold.
The decrease in state arts funding reverberated even into 2006.
At the Metropolitan Regional Arts Council, Executive Director Carolyn Bye had to deliver rejections to a long list of arts groups that applied last year for $7,500 project support grants, because the council ran out of money.
"Nautilus Music Theater, Skewed Visions, Twin Cities Community Gospel Choir, TU Dance, Ananya Dance...." Interrupted when a reporter points out that the cuts didn't put any of these organizations out of business, Bye answers that the groups had to scale back their activities. "For some of them, they won't do the project, because they came in for project support," she says. "And for others, I think they will do the project. I think they will do it in a compromised way, and I think artists won't get paid."
Advocates want the state arts appropriation restored to approximately $11 million a year, just below what it was in 2003. With the DFL the majority party in both the House and the Senate, many assume the atmosphere at the Capitol will be more "arts friendly."
Longtime arts proponent Sen. Richard Cohen, DFL-St. Paul, thinks support won't be hard to find.
"I don't think there will be a battle in terms of convincing people of the merit of the argument," he says. "The difficulty will be, is the money there?"
Thus far, the Pawlenty administration hasn't indicated whether it will propose restoring arts funding. Finance Commissioner Tom Hanson says it depends on how much money is left over after the state's human service, K-12 education and transportation obligations are met.
Hanson says with inflation factored in, those costs will eat up more of the surplus than people realize. "There's the ability to meet the needs that have arisen but not enough money to replace everything that had to be cut," Hanson says.
The other major arts initiative this session will be a renewed effort to pass what's called a sales tax dedication bill.
On Thursday a measure was introduced that would allow citizens to vote on a constitutional amendment to increase the sales tax by a tiny fraction. The money would be set aside for conservation and the arts and humanities. A similar bill was unsuccessful last session.
Several lawmakers and conservationists believe the bill failed because the arts were included. Lance Ness, president of the Fish and Wildlife Legislative Alliance, says his coalition wants the arts left out this year.
"It doesn't seem to fit well," Ness says. "So many of our member groups are opposed to having arts or humanities or public radio put on the same bill as conservation and water."
Arts supporters argue that the senate would not have passed the sales tax dedication bill without arts and culture attached, and the same holds true this year.
Sheila Smith, executive director of Minnesota Citizens for the Arts, says on this issue and the state arts appropriation, she's already mobilizing the lobbying campaign.
"We're going to really work to have a big turnout at Arts Advocacy Day and encourage arts constituents and members of the public to talk to their legislators about the importance of the arts locally," she says.
Smith says Arts Advocacy Day will probably be held in March. At the time, Minnesota Citizens for the Arts will also release a study on the economic impact of individual artists in Minnesota.