The Minnesota State Arts Board is suspending upcoming grant programs in favor of more “flexible” funding — a shake-up that has some artists reeling.
In an e-mail Friday evening, the state agency in charge of awarding Legacy Amendment dollars to artists and arts organizations announced that it had made “the difficult decision” to suspend nine out of 10 of its grant programs for the coming year and would launch “new grant programs that will provide more flexible support.”
The changes come as the coronavirus pandemic has battered the arts. Theaters, galleries and concert halls have shuttered. Gigs have vanished. Ticket sales have disappeared. Some artists see the State Arts Board’s announcement as another hit.
But the board’s executive director, Sue Gens, argues that the shift will help artists and organizations weather the storm.
“We really do understand how dire the situation is for so many people,” Gens said by phone this week. “The goal here is not to destabilize the community in any way. It’s exactly the opposite of that.”
The intent, she said, is to “provide a little cushion that can help individuals and organizations get through this really difficult period.”
The board was responding to a survey that got some 2,000 responses in its first week, Gens said. The key theme that emerged: flexibility.
So the board nixed grant programs tied to specific projects. While the board decided to carry on with its Operating Support grants — which organizations view as critical to their survival — it will likely create two new grant programs, one for individual artists and one for organizations. “Both are vital and both need support,” said Gens.
When asked whether a greater number of artists and organizations will likely receive smaller amounts of funding for fiscal year 2021, which starts in July, Gens replied: “That’s certainly one of the possibilities.”
Some artists say the board should have announced earlier that it was considering an overhaul of well-established programs that provide an important source of income and work.
About 90% of the performances, workshops and classes put on by Z Puppets Rosenschnoz, a Minneapolis puppetry company, are funded directly or indirectly through the Legacy Amendment, said co-founder Chris Griffith. “Without the current grant funding we have,” he said, “we would be out of work right now.”
Such funding is never a given, he said, but the company has a track record with an application process that he called “very rigorous” and “not intuitive.”
The company is an artistic partner on three Arts Learning grant applications that were due in February. Griffith estimates that completing a single application takes about 70 to 80 hours of work. So he was frustrated to learn that “applications that have already been submitted in any of these programs will not be reviewed,” according to the board’s e-mail.
“They’re just tossing it out?” he said. “It feels particularly cruel.”
Since coronavirus shut down schools and other spaces, Z Puppets Rosenschnoz has pivoted, moving workshops online. Had the Arts Board given current applicants the opportunity to explain how they’d adapt, “we could have shown how we are already doing that,” he said. “It baffles me why they didn’t allow that conversation to happen.”
For the current fiscal year, the State Arts Board awarded $3.1 million via the Arts Learning program to 85 organizations, including schools, parks and string quartets. The average award was $36,000.
Soon, the state agency will likely be working with less. The Arts and Cultural Heritage Fund is fueled by a sales-tax stream that is being hit hard by coronavirus.
When the Arts Board meets in early May, it will sign off on the new grant programs and how much to spend on them, Gens said. It will also discuss funding for Operating Support grants. For fiscal 2020, the board awarded 178 organizations operating grants totaling $15.9 million.
Organizations that rely on operating grants have praised the decision to continue them. The St. Paul Chamber Orchestra counts the state as its single biggest funder. For fiscal 2020, it received nearly $400,000 in operating support, funding that is “essential,” said Becky Cline, the nonprofit’s director of development.
When Cline filled out the Arts Board’s survey last month, she emphasized the need for stable, flexible grants.
“The decisions were informed by the arts community,” Cline said. “We felt like they were responsive to what the arts community was telling them … We felt grateful that they listened.”
For years, photographer and videographer Ryan Stopera has been dreaming of making a film exploring addiction and grief. He rewrote the script and applied for an Artist Initiative grant — one of the programs that’s being shelved.
“I had a crew lined up, I had a cast lined up,” he said. “I just needed something to pay them.” But without the grant, the film seems unlikely.
As the pandemic shut down the state, Stopera lost “a ton of work, probably $20,000 in gigs immediately.” But he’s nabbed smaller jobs, producing remote events and editing cellphone videos.
Emergency funding for artists has popped up, but it’s competitive. Forecast Public Art, for example, offered mini-grants for 20 artists. More than 300 people applied. “We’re all just fighting for scraps,” Stopera said.
He saw the State Arts Board grant as an opportunity to create deep work that otherwise he couldn’t do.
“To lose that right now, it just feels like we have absolutely no control, no support, nothing to look forward to.”