'Best of times, worst of times' for arts funding

The Murder Room
"The Murder Room" is a spoof on crime thrillers. It's the latest show at the Lakeshore Players Theatre in White Bear Lake.
Image courtesy Lakeshore Players

This is a story with a little drama, and a lot of dancing. Let's start with the drama. It's unfolding on the stage of the Lakeshore Players Theatre in White Bear Lake, where the cast is rehearsing its new show, "The Murder Room."

In the play, a young woman has just learned she is to be rubbed out by a pair of villains.

"Oh, it would have been lovely if the cavalry had shown up!" she said.

Joan Elwell works on a State Arts Board grant application for the Lakeshore Players Theatre in White Bear Lake.
MPR photo/Euan Kerr

Suddenly the door bursts open and a rescue party hurtles across the stage.

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"Not so fast! Not so fast!" one of them called.

"Oh! We're saved!" said the young woman.

"We're saved" were words on the lips of many arts supporters when voters overwhelmingly approved the Heritage and Legacy amendment to the Minnesota Constitution in November 2008.

Projections at the time put the arts share of money from the new sales tax at $50 million to $60 million a year. The rest of the revenue will go toward environmental projects.

But a few months later, with an almost $5 billion state budget deficit looming, some wonder if the situation could actually hurt arts organizations.

Lakeshore Players
The Lakeshore Players Theatre is housed in a converted Swedish Lutheran Church in the middle of White Bear Lake.
MPR photo/Euan Kerr

"One of the biggest hurdles is how will that money be distributed? Who's going to be doling out the cookies?" laughed Joan Elwell, managing director at the Lakeshore Players Theatre.

Sitting in her office in the steeple of the converted Swedish Lutheran church -- which serves as the Lakeshore Players' home -- she points to the neatly organized papers surrounding her.

"This stack, and then all of this, is State Arts Board application work."

While the theater is more than half a century old, it wasn't until the last biennium that Elwell steered the company through the application process and got funding from the Minnesota State Arts Board. It amounted to a little over $12,000 in each of the two years, for a total of about $24,000.

It's not a huge amount of money in the Lakeshore Players' $264,000 annual budget. It also requires an audit which costs about $6,000 a year. But Elwell says the rigor of the Arts Board application process makes it easier for the theater to get grants from other arts funders.

Elwell says she's delighted about the extra money the amendment will raise to support the arts. But two things now before the Legislature worry her deeply.

"In some ways we are in a 'best of times, worst of times' moment."

First, there's how the money will be split. The original assumption was the State Arts Board would control about half the money, while the rest would be divided between arts education and historical sites. But lawmakers may decide to do something else.

Second, the sales tax won't be collected until July 1, 2009. Lawmakers also have to decide when that money will become available to arts groups.

"Arts organizations won't see a dime of that money for at least two years," Elwell said.

This is where we get to the dancing part.

It may not take two years for the money to start rolling in to arts groups, but it will likely be a while, and that raises fears of a funding gap.

The language of the amendment specifically states the new money is meant to augment -- not replace -- existing state arts funding. The state gives the State Arts Board just over $10 million a year, which is then distributed to arts groups and regional arts councils.

Yet the State Arts Board budget has been slashed before, most recently in the state's last budget crisis in 2003. Elwell worries it could happen again.

Sue Gens
Sue Gens is acting director of the Minnesota State Arts Board. She says she has been receiving calls from arts groups wondering when money from the new dedicated sales tax will start flowing, but has told them it's up to legislators.
MPR photo/Euan Kerr

"I am hopeful that there won't be a feeling that, 'Well, they are getting all the money from the amendment so let's just cut the arts budget,'" Elwell said, "because that would just be disastrous for a lot of arts organizations."

This is where we get into even more dancing.

Most arts organizations say times are tight, but they'll pull through. Yet word on the street is many are teetering after a poor holiday season, a drop in individual donations, and the prospect of big reductions in foundation support.

Sue Gens, the interim executive director of the Minnesota State Arts Board, says while there is potentially a great deal of new funding, in the short term some arts organizations will fold.

"In some ways we are in a 'best of times, worst of times' moment," Gens said.

She hopes lawmakers will decide to make use of the Arts Board's funding distribution system, and be aware that a misstep could really damage arts groups across the state.

"The challenge is, how do we do the right things now ,so that we are ready and poised and healthy to move forward again, once the economy starts moving in the right direction again?" Gens said.

Both Gens and Elwell say the overwhelming vote for the constitutional amendment is a clear indication Minnesotans support the arts. Now they are looking to the Legislature to follow suit.