Arts Advocacy Day at the Capitol

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MPR Photo/Steve Mullis

Sitting in the Great Hall on the ground floor of the Capitol building, Sheila Smith scans her iPad. “I’m monitoring the Twitter-verse,” she says. It’s noon, but Smith, the president of Minnesota Citizens for the Arts, has already had a full day greeting, training and shuttling Minnesotans to the State Capitol for the annual “Arts Advocacy Day.”

Smith says on any given day, four or five different causes are advocating before their Senators and Representatives; the arts tends to be one of the top three groups in terms of size, and one of the largest arts advocacy days in the country. This year, she estimates 700 people made the trip, many from places like Marshall and Fergus Falls. If she’s right, that makes this one of the best attended arts advocacy days since the event began, second only to the year Paul Wellstone’s plane crashed – a tumultous political year.

Smith says Arts Advocacy Day gets its start early in the morning, specifically so those travelling from hours away can get on the road and head home (many come to town the night before). So by the time I wandered into the Great Hall several teams had already finished visiting their Senators and Representatives, stressing the two key points of this year’s event. Namely:

1. Advocates urged legislators to please maintain the distribution of fifty percent of the Legacy Amendment’s arts funding to the State Arts Board and the Regional Arts Councils. They requested specifically that legislators not earmark any of that money for the construction of buildings. “The State Arts Board funds 2,000 grants in 87 counties,” says Sheila Smith. “If you fund a building, you’ve taken a statewide funding source and given it to just a few people.” Instead advocates encouraged the Legacy Amendment be used for funding arts activities.

2. Advocates expressed their understanding that this is a difficult budget year, and asked that the Minnesota State Arts Board take no greater a cut than other beneficiaries of the general fund.

I asked Smith what argument she has for preserving arts funding, when other causes involving poverty or health care are also on the table. Her response:

“The scale for us is so tiny – we’re a rounding error in the Health and Human Services budget. Arts funding makes up 0.0009% of the state budget. No matter what you do to arts funding you will not solve the budget problem. In fact, you’re not even starting the conversation.”

Smith counters that while arts funding may be tiny compared to other areas, that small funding has an enormous impact, which is the story advocates were sharing with their legislators today.

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Advocates gather in the Great Hall of the capitol building after meeting with their representatives.

Greta Murray is the Executive Director of the Southwest Minnesota Arts and Humanities Council, and made the drive in from Marshall for today’s event. She met with a half- dozen or so legislators and talked about arts projects in their districts that are funded by the State Arts Board. This is something she’s been doing for 14 years, and this year she’s a little concerned.

“Everybody we talked to today supports the arts, but that doesn’t mean they’ll promise to protect our funding,” she said. “It’s frustrating, because it’s obvious the state is in huge trouble, but the arts are so important, and such a small piece of the funding puzzle.”

Cheri Buzzeo of Willmar Community Theatre (a.k.a. “The Barn Theatre”) says she was warmly received by her political representatives, who seemed well-versed in how their constituents were benefitting from arts funding. She’s more worried about a last minute panic-attack on the part of local politicians, should the hit they take from federal funding be worse than anticipated.

“I think we’ve done a good job today in talking about the arts, and how they bridge the gap between many different sectors. I like to think the arts are non-partisan,” said Buzzeo. She says she’s particularly proud of how well the State Arts Board and Regional Arts Councils have worked together to spread the funding out between both the metro area and the rest of Minnesota; she says she doesn’t sense any competition between the two geographic areas,

So will the hundreds of people who journeyed to the Capitol today make a difference for the future of arts funding? Sheila Smith likes to think so.

“The world belongs to to the people that show up,” Smith quips. “If a legislator gets ten letters on a particular issue, they pay attention, because it inspired people to take action. Today 700 people showed up to support arts funding. That should get their attention.”

You can find out more about Arts Advocacy Day at the Minnesota Citizens for the Arts website.

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