Earlier this month, the Pioneer Press published a story by Bob Shaw about arts funding in the state, and whether or not we’re “getting what we paid for.”
Statements like “getting what we paid for” regarding arts, as a general rule, make me smash. Artists spend a disproportionate amount of time having to justify what they do. Whether it’s auditioning for a part, or trying to get a piece in an exhibition, or even defending their choice of major, being an artist seems to be an exercise in convincing the world that your work is relevant, that what you do matters. It doesn’t take many years of this to make you sensitive to the topic.
But, in all fairness, this is about use of public money. And any use of public money should be up for perpetual scrutiny. So let’s look hard at this. Let’s see if we’re getting what we paid for with Legacy Amendment money for the arts.
In his article Mr. Shaw presents four points against state arts funding as it works now:
1) Public funds should be for public art “To most people, said Republican Rep. Kelby Woodard of Belle Plaine, public art means physical works of art visible to the public. ‘I was thinking of sculptures, memorials, those kinds of things,’ he said.”
2) Let the market decide
“Artists thrive when customers pay for their art, and inferior artists go out of business.”
3) Why does only one agency decide what’s art for the state?
“If beauty is in the eye of the beholder, said Woodard, how can an agency be the ‘beholder’ for an entire state?”
4) Private funding would fill the void
“The Minnesota Council on Foundations reported that $129 million was given to the arts in 2010-11 by the state's top 100 private sources, including family foundations, corporations and community groups.”
Let’s take these arguments point by point. First off, “sculptures, memorials, those kinds of things.” This argument does make a certain sense, and is certainly not a new one. Joseph Stalin was a big proponent of it. So was Kim Jong Il. Actually, North Korea is known the world over for having the best sculptors and artisans to memorialize whatever Fearless Leader you may have on hand. Now, I have a toddler, and I’m poor. I love public parks. Plazas, fountains - anywhere chubby little three-year-old legs can run around, I want to support with my tax dollars. And the beautiful thing about the legacy amendment funds is that people who make ‘those kind of things’ can apply for grants right alongside the poets and dancers.
Second point: Let the market decide. People who make this argument don’t read a lot of history. A lot of the art that is universally agreed to be “great” never translated to financial success while the artist lived. Mozart died a pauper, Long Day’s Journey Into Night, purportedly the most-produced American play in history, wasn’t published until after Eugene O’Neill was dead. Shakespeare, in his time, was less popular than a guy named Christopher Marlowe. Shakespeare thrived, in part, because he had public funding (okay, patronage, but it was from the Queen, so it amounts to the same thing). If we let free market economic theory dictate artistic success, the Guthrie would be running Mama Mia in perpetuity and we’d suffer through our days with a nonstop soundtrack of Justin Bieber and Katy Perry.
Third point: If beauty is in the eye of the beholder, how can an agency be the ‘beholder’ for an entire state? The “beholder” Representative Woodard is talking about here is the Minnesota State Arts Board, whose members are appointed by the Governor. I won’t go into the details of how democracy works, with elections and executive appointments (though I’d be happy to put anyone in touch with my 8th grade civics teacher), but this is neither unusual nor unrepresentative. Especially when you consider, as Mr. Shaw points out in his article, that a good chunk of the money the State Arts Board distributes gets funneled to regional arts councils. It’s also important to note that all these legions of local beholders don’t award money for “good” or “beautiful” art. Grants are awarded for projects that show potential for positive arts experiences, and increase access to the arts for everyone.
And finally the fourth point: Private money to the rescue. Private donors are wonderful. As Mr. Shaw points out, individuals, foundations, and corporations gave 129 million last year, and we love them and appreciate them and will never ever take them for granted. The problem with this argument, though, is twofold: first, even though artists and non-profits in the Twin Cities might be able to pick up enough private money, losing legacy money would be a major blow to smaller groups throughout the state. Most corporate donors and foundations like to give to high-profile organizations like the Guthrie or the Walker, not family-owned pottery studios in Ely.
Secondly, private donations, as much as they are appreciated (and oh, how they are), can’t be counted on. When the economy crashed in 2008, individual donations diminished and corporate giving all but disappeared. We’ve all bounced back since, but it serves to illustrate that private support is dependent on many factors far beyond anyone’s control.
Now, in his article, Mr. Shaw highlights some of the more questionable grants awarded from the Legacy Amendment, so in turn I’d like to point out just a few of the achievements of our local arts community. Since I work in theater, and this is a site devoted to theater, that’s what I’m focusing on. Let’s start with Kristoffer Diaz, a playwright who came to Minnesota because of a fellowship through the Playwright’s Center. His play “The Elaborate Entrance of Chad Diety,” produced at Mixed Blood in 2010, won an Obie Award in 2011, and was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in Drama. As long as we’re on national theater awards, Laura Osnes, and Santino Fontana, both of whom came out of the local theater community, were nominated for Tony Awards this year. Not all of these people receive direct support from the state, but the organizations that taught them, that hired them and gave them a launching point to national recognition most certainly did. Speaking of those organizations, both the Guthrie and the Children’s Theater Company have received Tony Awards for regional theater, in 1982 and 2003, respectively.
Now before I finish this, I’d like to talk about the numbers involved here. As Mr. Shaw states in his article, $23 million was distributed, all of which came from our taxes. The budget for the state of Minnesota is $57 billion for 2013, which includes everything from snow removal to Rep. Woodard’s salary. What we’re arguing over is 0.0403 percent of the total annual budget. To put it in perspective, $58,000 is the median household income of MN. 0.0403% of that is $23.37. That’s 23 bucks a year for one of the best arts communities in the country. I know people who spend more on coffee in a day.
Minnesota Citizens for the Arts did a study of the economic impact of arts in the state , but it was done in 2007. I’ve looked for more recent figures, but without success, so we’ll have to use math.
Since the study came out the year before the economy of the entire world collapsed, let’s take the amount of overall financial worth individuals and non-profits lost in the recession –about 24%. And because some sectors got hit worse than others, and mercy, as they say, is for the weak, let’s bump that up to a 30% net loss of worth for arts organizations.
So, using my trusty calculator, if the arts community in Minnesota lost almost a third of its worth in 2008, and in the past five years has not bounced back at all (it has, but we’re being merciless), that would mean that, allowing for inflation, (average 2.2% per year over five years) art is a $654.3 million industry, and the state of Minnesota receives in revenue from it approximately $73.4 million.
Did you catch that? The state makes $73,400,000. From the arts. And that is a (mercilessly) conservative estimate.
We’re giving out $23 million, and we get back $73 million.
As a red-blooded, taxpaying, food-on-a-stick eating citizen of the great state of Minnesota I am severely disappointed in the use of Legacy money for the arts. I most definitely do not think we’re getting what we paid for.
I think we’re getting one hell of a deal.