Arts advocates argue for financial reality

For sale
The building once occupied by Theatre de la Jeune Lune in Minneapolis is now up for sale. It's just one of the high profile arts organizations which has had to fold recently. Arts advocates worry more may go under soon.
MPR photo/Euan Kerr

Money problems have fallen on some big Minnesota arts organizations in recent months, and severely hobbled others.

Theater de la Jeune Lune folded last summer. The Minnesota Museum of American Art closed its doors indefinitely in January. Intermedia Arts went dark and laid off all its staff around the same time.

Chris Widdess
Chris Widdess is managing director of Penumbra Theatre in St Paul. She says Penumbra's recent budget revisions are to protect the careful fiscal rebuilding the company has done in recent years.
MPR photo/Euan Kerr

Chris Widdess, Managing Director of the Penumbra Theatre, is one the people expecting more organizations to go under.

"As we get into it, I think it's just going to be very ugly and very sad," Widdess said.

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The Penumbra Theatre recently cut $900,000 from its budget, and to save money it is moving its final production of the spring to next season. Widdess said they are preventative measures to protect Penumbra in the face of the tough economy.

There are roughly a thousand arts organizations in Minnesota. They survive on a combination of ticket sales, foundation grants and state support. Widdess said all three are likely to shrink in the downturn.

"I believe that this perfect storm that we are experiencing with the economic turmoil will have a dramatic effect on the Twin Cities arts community because we are so large," she said.

Ann Markusen
Economist Ann Markusen studies the impact of arts organizations for the Humphrey Institute at the University of Minnesota
Image courtesy of the Humphrey Institute

The question troubling people like University of Minnesota professor Ann Markusen is will anyone notice?

"Artists will see and feel it, but the average person? I'm not really sure," Markusen said.

Markusen has been studying the positive economic impact of the arts on communities. She said it's significant, but seldom acknowledged.

According to Markusen it is made worse by the arts community's reluctance to talk about its financial difficulties.

"If you get branded as a loser, you fear that you are not going to get the help that you need," she said.

Markusen said that's unfortunate, because at a time of economic crisis, creativity, thinking outside the box, is at a premium.

Jim Farstad
Jim Farstad is Board Chair of Intermedia Arts in Minneapolis. He says the decision in December to close the organization's galleries has allowed it to find its feet and look to rebuilding its programming.
MPR photo/Euan Kerr

Intermedia Arts Board Chair Jim Farstad agrees.

"There needs to be more attention paid to the way artists think," said Farstad. "We need a new way of thinking in order to work our way through these problems. The old thinking hasn't turned out to be the best."

Farstad served as the public face of Intermedia Arts as it made its dramatic closure announcement. He said the time has come for arts organizations to openly discuss how bad things really are.

"It's the elephant in the room, and we think the way to deal with it is to be honest with people," he said. Farstad said the closure has given Intermedia Arts time to regroup. It has rented out its building, and it is now looking towards programming a season of work around the theme of community solutions in hard times.

"We are feeling good about moving beyond crisis and focusing in the future," he said.

Intermedia has also convened an ongoing discussion with other arts groups, called State of the Arts, to discuss arts survival in the new economy. At the top of group's list is sharing facilities, staff and other expenses.

Jeff Prauer
Jeff Prauer is Executive Director of the Metropolitan Regional Arts Council.
MPR photo/Euan Kerr

Another discussion already underway, and much on the mind of the arts advocates at the Capitol, is on the implications and realities of the new state sales tax for the arts and the environment. The tax is projected to pump millions of dollars towards arts activities, but it's unclear when the money will actually be available.

Also, the Executive Director of the Metropolitan Regional Arts Council Jeff Prauer warns it's far from a panacea. While the tax is projected to provide two or three times the amount the state currently gives the arts, Prauer said it's still going to be divided between a lot of groups.

"It's not going to be that much money that's going to make a difference between whether an organization survives or not," Prauer said.

Prauer is also worried that Gov. Tim Pawlenty has recommended eliminating funding for the state arts board and turning it into a private non-profit. He said the state has to weigh that against the negative economic impact of losing the money generated by the boards activities.

"The costs of maintaining a state arts council are really minuscule as part of the state budget. It's really a fraction of a fraction of a fraction of a percent," said Prauer.

The state budget deficit is now projected at $4.8 billion. The next revenue forecast on March 3rd could well predict a larger budget hole. That is when lawmakers are expected to begin serious deliberation of the arts amendment money and the rest of the budget.