Artists reeling from new restrictions on Minnesota State Arts Board grants

This past legislative session, state politicians made some changes to how Minnesota State Arts Board funds are allocated.

Now, artists can only use MSAB grant money for travel within state lines.

Many artists have used MSAB grants in the past to research projects or participate in shows elsewhere in the country and internationally.

For them the move smacks of provincialism.

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Writer Bryan Thao Worra points out the new rules will particularly impact artists of color:

A key benefit [of MSAB travel grants] has been enabling many Minnesota artists from Laos, Cambodia, Liberia, Vietnam and Somalia to connect with key artisans and culture-makers, particularly the elderly whose stories would otherwise be lost permanently under present conditions.

The new regulations affect fiscal years 2014 and 2015. This means that those artists who have already submitted a grant proposal for the coming year that involves out-of-state travel will now have to submit revised applications. The revised applications are due July 5.

For author and poet Heid Erdrich the new regulations seem particularly outrageous because as a member of the Turtle Mountain Band of Ojibwe, her native homeland does not follow state boundaries. She says the change in funding guidelines is needlessly limiting:

No working toward a national or regional career with your work, no researching beyond the borders, no retreats or accepting invitations to prestigious workshops or national conferences. Nope. Everything you need to be a better artist is in Minnesota, apparently. And everyone must now compete for those few professional development activities found here.

Sculptor Jack Pavlik has received grants twice for travel outside the U.S. He says the experience made him a better artist, and improved his professional standing:

In 2005 I had an exhibition planned for a sound art gallery in Cologne. I applied for a small amount of money to help with shipping costs - $3000. This exhibition gave me more credibility as an artist, and I was also able to make contacts with other artists which I have to this day.

Author N.M. Kelby, who tours regularly to promote her books, notes artists often serve as cultural ambassadors for their home states when they travel.

It is a mistake to suggest that artists are asking for 100% of the funds in these grants, as they must also contribute their own money to take part in the experience. Since many of them live at or below the poverty level, this represents great economic stress. And yet, they feel it’s worth it. And, often, Minnesotans who read their books or watch their films or see their performances feel that this investment is worth it, too.

Actor/performer Erik Hoover will be traveling to the Catskills next month to study with former Minnesotan Kari Margolis, thanks to a MSAB grant under previous guidelines:

I'll be there for a month-long intensive with a huge amount of one-on-one time with a master artist with a lifetime of experience as well as time spent teaching peers and less-experienced students.  That's something that simply doesn't exist in Minnesota. If we in Minnesota want to continue to have a strong, diverse artistic community the ability to send our artists beyond our borders -and then have them bring their experiences back home- is an important part of sustaining it.

Sue Gens, Executive Director of the Minnesota State Arts Board, is sympathetic to artists' concerns. But as the head of a state funded agency, she's obliged to enforce the new regulations.

We understand that this is a really difficult and challenging situation, especially for those people who will need to change their proposals.  We want them to call us and we want to be as helpful as we can be. We want to hear how this impacts them, so that we can help explain it to legislators.

While Gens wouldn't qualify the tone of the debate during the legislative session, she did say that multiple legislators made reference to an article by Tom Steward titled "Minnesota artists travel the world at taxpayer expense." The article led with a stock photo of a tourist parachuting over the island of Bora Bora.

According to Steward's own reporting "114 recipients of Artist Initiative grants issued by the Minnesota State Arts Board during the past five years will have traveled to at least 40 different countries and 20 states by the end of 2013. From 2009 to 2013 the Arts Board awarded 730 Artist Initiative grants totaling $5.6 million with about 15 percent of those grants supporting travel outside Minnesota."

For the record that works out to $168,000 per year spent on artist travel outside Minnesota, or about one third of one percent of the $58.3 million the Minnesota Legislature allocated for arts and cultural heritage projects in FY2014.