Arts Board changes grant process at a troubled time

A movie marquee reads "I assure you we're not open."
A pedestrian walks past a closed Uptown Theatre in Minneapolis on March 28. Minnesota artists are struggling to survive the financial effects of the global pandemic. Now, major changes in the Minnesota State Arts Board funding program have many of them even more worried about the future.
Christine T. Nguyen | MPR News file

The Minnesota State Arts Board is making major changes to the way it awards its grants for the coming year.

The government entity — which is responsible for distributing millions of dollars in cultural legacy funds to artists across Minnesota — is suspending nine of its grant-making programs.

The move, coming as arts groups are reeling from the effects of the pandemic and Minnesota’s stay-at-home order, struck some artists as yet another hit to their incomes.

But Sue Gens, executive director of the Arts Board, said the change in fact is intended to help them. She said the move is in part a response to a survey of more than 2,000 artists who are worried about the pandemic’s impact on their ability to work.

“What we've been hearing from anybody who has contacted the Arts Board or responded to this quick survey that we put out is — ‘We need flexibility. We need general support. We're not sure how to pivot,’” Gens said. “And since no one knows [the answer], the question really was how best to use those dollars in this next year to try to shore up as much of the infrastructure of the arts community as we can.”

The State Arts Board regularly gives out somewhere between $6 million and $7 million in grants through those nine programs. Gens said her staff is working on creating new grant programs that will provide more flexible support for both individual artists and arts organizations.

If the State Arts Board approves the new programs at its next meeting in May, artists could have the opportunity to apply for grants as soon as June. Gens said the goal is that the money will actually end up in artists’ hands sooner than if they had kept the traditional grants in place.

But for many artists, the news came as a blow.

Choreographer and dancer Megan Mayer works a full-time job at a food co-op, and spent many of her recent evenings and weekends on a grant application that now no one will read. She said the State Arts Board applications are particularly cumbersome because they must meet requirements set by the state Legislature.

“It's already super cutthroat and incredibly competitive for a relatively small amount of money,” said Mayer. “I worry that whatever the new model is going to be, if it's going to be more accessible to more artists — to me, that just sounds like more competition, frankly.”

For COMPAS marketing manager Troy Linck, the change translates to more work at what is already an incredibly busy time. COMPAS works with 180 artists, placing them in schools, libraries and other facilities.

“It affects all of our efforts every day: what we communicate to our partners and whether we try to reschedule or just cancel,” Linck said. “And then that rolls over to our artists.”

Linck said adapting to funding changes in the midst of the pandemic is like a never-ending game of dominoes; every time the COMPAS staff thinks it has things in place, they find out something new that forces them to start all over again.

Painter Heidi Jeub, who lives in St. Joseph, Minn., had submitted three different grant proposals that involved multiple partnerships with schools and other community organizations. She worries that in the Arts Board’s rush to reallocate funds, individual artists and smaller arts organizations will be the hardest hit.

She pointed to the one grant program the State Arts Board did not eliminate — the Operating Support fund. In fiscal year 2020, the board gave out grants to 178 different arts nonprofits for a total of $15.9 million. Most rural arts nonprofits are too small to qualify for the program.

“I have faith in the folks at [the Arts Board] because they do amazing work managing taxpayers’ money,” she said. “I just hope that in this period they can find ways to support the underrepresented artists, small organizations and communities that are perfect for responding to this crisis. I hope that rural and nonmetro artists and organizations can get a fair shot at future funding, since this crisis is hitting everyone throughout the state in so many different ways.”

Jeub said she believes that if the State Arts Board successfully removes application barriers, great things will happen.

Gens said the new grants will serve both individual artists and arts organizations. And her team is pivoting as quickly as it can.

“We absolutely do understand that people are really, really struggling,” she said. “We absolutely hear that. We understand that. And the goal is to try to broaden who is able to be funded and to get them some short-term funding that can help them through this next six to 12 months, where we still face so many unknowns in the economy and in our society.”

Added to the mix is another uncertainty. The shutdowns created by the pandemic are already taking a toll on the state’s sales tax revenue. Gens said the State Arts Board will have fewer Legacy Amendment dollars to work with this year — just how many fewer remains to be seen.

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