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As Legacy arts funds flow, lawmakers will reassess distribution

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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 had to tell callers that's up to legislators.
MPR photo/Euan Kerr

One of the big developments for Minnesota arts this year was the availability of Legacy Amendment funding. Voters approved a sales tax for arts and environmental projects in 2008, and  the money actually started flowing in 2010. It provided millions for the arts, and was a welcome development during the economic downturn. 

However not everyone is happy, and the Legacy Fund distribution process is up for review in the 2011 Legislature.

The Arts and Cultural Heritage Fund gets nearly  20 percent of the proceeds from the 3/8ths of 1  percent sales tax approved by the amendment, which amounted to just over $43 million this year. The rest goes toward funding environmental and conservation projects. 

Minnesota Public Radio received $1.15 million in  legacy money last fiscal year, and another $1.5 million in the current year.

The State Arts Board distributes about $30.5 million of the arts Legacy money, and the regional arts councils distribute the rest. Arts Board Executive Director Sue Gens says it sounds like a lot of money, but it's spread in many directions.

"We received about 1,500 applications for grants last year, which is more than double what we would have normally received," she said. "And we were able to make about 650 grants." 

Gens expects applications to increase in coming years, as word gets out that the money is available for places not immediately recognized as arts venues.  

"Because we know that the arts are happening in a lot of places, not just in traditional arts settings, not just in the concert halls and theaters," Gens said. 

  Some of the money is going toward making the arts more accessible to people. 

"Through our regional arts council, we did a collaboration which allows us to bring artists and performers into our senior centers," said Rebecca Peterson, executive director of A Center for the Arts in Fergus Falls.  "We created a program that actually provides access for a lot of people who haven't had a lot of hands-on access to the arts." 

That program received a Legacy grant of $17,000, and Peterson said without that money, the program would not have happened.  

Sheila Smith
Sheila Smith is president of Minnesota Citizens for the Arts.
Courtesy Minnesota Citizens for the Arts

The Fergus Falls center got $175,000 in Legacy funding to run three other programs. Peterson says they employ many artists, and touch the lives of hundreds of people in Fergus Falls and nearby communities.  She says the tiny sales tax provides a lot of muscle. 

"One of our finance committee members said, 'Wow, I don't even feel this, and look at how much good work is already happening this first year because of the Legacy Amendment,'" Peterson said. 

    However, not all has gone smoothly. Down the road in Moorhead, arts groups ran smack into a geographical problem. The language in the bill distributing the Legacy funds specifies the money has to spent in Minnesota. Thus the Fargo-Moorhead Symphony, which has an office in Moorhead but its performance hall in Fargo, N.D., is out of luck. 

"It's really a disservice to the citizens and taxpayers in Moorhead and who lobbied their hearts out to help pass this amendment, and not understanding that this would backfire on us," said Linda Coates, executive director of the symphony.  

Coates says several arts organizations in the area have found themselves in a similar position. This is despite a long-standing lobbying effort to have legislators see Fargo-Moorhead as essentially one arts community. 

"It's been a blow," Coates said. "I don't think our organization will cease to exist, but it's one in a series of financial blows we are dealing with." 

Sue Gens of the State Arts Board says she understands the concern in Moorhead, and in East Grand Forks, which faces a similar situation. 

She points out that the geographical problem could disappear during the new legislative session, where lawmakers have to re-examine the Legacy funds distribution process.

"The language could go away," she said. "The language could stay. Some other language about something else could be written in." 

The money raised by the sales tax has to be spent on the arts and the environment. But pretty much everything is up for re-examination, including whether the State Arts board and the regional arts councils will continue to distribute arts Legacy funds. 

The debate will take place as the Legislature considers what to do about a looming $6.2 billion deficit. 

"It's going to be a tough conversation," said Sheila Smith, president of Minnesota Citizens for the Arts, which lobbied for the amendment. "The good news is the arts are part of the solution,  and not part of the problem of the budget deficit." 

Smith says the arts act as an economic stimulus. But she predicts long and hard debates over Legacy money in coming months.

Editor's note: An earlier version of this story was incorrect in its description of Minnesota Public Radio's receipt of Legacy funding. The current version is correct.