Arts funding needs opening up

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A bill before the Minnesota House proposes a change in the way arts are funded in Minnesota.  The language proposed in HF 403 reads:

“The amount appropriated must be divided by a divisor equal to the number of regional arts councils plus one. The quotient is the amount to be distributed to the Minnesota State Arts Board.  The remaining amount is distributed by the Minnesota State Arts Board (MSAB) to the regional arts councils on a per capita basis.”

The intent is to shift funds to outstate Minnesota by fixing the amount allocated to the Minnesota State Arts Board (MSAB) and distributing the rest per-capita. If implemented as intended, more money will flow outside the metro.  

It’s an interesting proposal in light of recent reports on Minnesota Public Radio that address the way the MSAB judges applications and distributes funds. While I approve of the spirit of the proposal, driving funds into small communities, I’m not sure it will correct the central problem in arts funding in Minnesota. The organizations controlling funding are inherently conservative, focused on stability, consistency and reliability, leaving innovative artists from diverse communities statewide unfunded.

State funding follows trends at the national level. According to Minnesota Public Radio, “Two percent of all arts nonprofits in the United States got more than 55 percent of funding.” MPR finds that “23 largest arts and culture nonprofits ... get 77 percent of all private and public donations.”  Those organizations are the old-reliables of the arts world, and as MPR notes, “Not a single one of those institutions is run by and for people of color.”

Distribution of state funds in Duluth follows the same patterns. The Arrowhead Regional Arts Council (ARAC) tends to prefer stability, consistency and reliability, funding some arts events and organizations year after year after year. ARAC serves a large base of repeat customers who depend on the funds disbursed.

That’s not inherently a bad thing. ARAC is an essential engine of economic and arts development in communities like International Falls and Ely, where other sources of support for arts are scarce.  However, many of those grant recipients employ staff who also serve as board members for the council.

At the end of my five years on the board of ARAC, I asked the staff to calculate what percentage of eligible grants went to organizations who were represented on the board of the council. They reported 9 percent. One in every 11 grants, roughly, went to longstanding arts organizations whose staff or whose board members were leaders on the council who awarded funds. As an example, one organization that placed staff on the board received $54,970 in funding from ARAC over 15 grant applications in four years. Whether this constitutes a significant conflict of interest has been a subject of debate among the board members.

I’m interested in the cumulative effect of awarding funding over and over to any one organization, which reflects the organizational culture of ARAC. ARAC values stable, consistent and reliable organizations ... like those whose staff lead the council. In this way, at the local level, we perpetuate the conservative bias of arts funding at the state and national level.

There is a problem in arts funding in Minnesota. Media attention to the MSAB has helped make the problems visible. Moving forward: how do we prioritize innovation? How do we support new artists, new art forms, serving new communities, when our funding mechanisms are (by accident, not intent) inherently conservative?

Somewhere out there, there are artists waiting to be funded who will shatter our expectations, if we are prepared to fund them.