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Amendment funds for arts still nine months away

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Sen. Dick Cohen
Sen. Dick Cohen proposed adding the arts to the environmental amendment four years ago.
MPR Photo/Laura McCallum

First, the numbers. The constitutional amendment raises the state sales tax by three-eighths of one percent. That's estimated to raise approximately $270 to $300 million a year, depending on how much consumers spend. Just under one-fifth of that money will go to the arts,  approximately $55 to $60 million each year. 

Long time arts supporter, Minnesota State Senator Dick Cohen, proposed adding the arts to the environmental amendment four years ago. He said this tax-based, state-wide method of funding the arts is completely new. 

"I know from talking to counterparts elsewhere, from talking to individuals involved in some of the national arts organizations, they were watching this effort in Minnesota because it is totally unique," Cohen said.

The state legislature still has to make the final decisions determining how the money will be divided, and Senator Cohen said he expects it will be a contentious debate in the next session.

 However, Cohen said the general concensus is that about half of the money set aside for the arts will go to the Minnesota State Arts Board. The arts board funnels money to regional arts councils across the state, who then fund arts organizations in their region. The other half is expected to go to arts education as well as the preservation of historic and cultural sites, but nothing has been determined.   This past year both Theatre de la Jeune Lune and the Minnesota Center for Photography closed, citing financial troubles.  Cohen said he hopes the money will offer stability to cherished Minnesota arts organizations that might otherwise be forced to shut their doors. 

Minnesota State Arts Board Interim Director Sue Gens agrees financial stability is key. In the past, the Arts Boards budget has risen or fallen on the swell of legislative trends. That in turn has effected the arts boards ability to support theaters and arts centers across the state. Gens said the passage of the constitutional amendment will smooth out it's sometimes erratic funding.

"I think what's significant about it is the predictability," Gens said. "Althought the sales tax may go up and may go down based on the economy and consumer spending, there is some ability to say 'OK this is what we can count on relatively surely for the next 5, 10, 15, or 25 years,' and that predictability is really valuable."

But Gens notes that this money won't be available to arts organizations for at least another nine months, and in this economy, some arts organizations may not last that long.

Sue Gens
Minnesota State Arts Board Interim Director Sue Gens agrees financial stability is key.
MPR Photo/Chris Roberts

So how much can $55 or $60 million do for the arts? Well of course it depends on how you spend it. It wouldn't even build half of the new Guthrie Theater. The Minnesota State Arts Board currently has an annual budget of just over ten million dollars, so the sales tax funds could easily triple the amount it gives to arts organizations around the state. 

David Marty is president of the Reif Arts Council in Grand Rapids, which brings numerous performances to the relatively remote area. He said he's recently had to cancel performances and artistic projects that he believed in. 

"Within our organization we have been forced within recent years to cut back on the artistic quality of quality of what we've been able to do," Marty said. "We've been forced to look at those activities that might be more financially successful rather than those that are artistically powerful and important. This gives us the opportunity to do some things that we know are going to be terribly important within our community."

At a time when the economy is foundering, it appears the constitutional amendment is throwing arts organizations a lifeline. But what remains to be seen, is how this dedicated funding will affect requests for arts funding at the legislature. 

Minnesota State Arts Board director Sue Gens said the amendment says explicitly that it's meant to supplement, not replace other traditional funding sources. But Senator Dick Cohen said in a difficult economic year, after already allocating tens of millions of dollars to the arts, it will be hard to justify giving out any more in its regular budget session.