Arts board looks to simplify grants process in response to concerns

By Elizabeth Dunbar, Minnesota Public Radio

The Minnesota State Arts Board on Wednesday said it will work to clarify and simplify its application process for grants through the state’s Legacy Amendment.

Many arts organizations had complained that the application process was cumbersome and confusing. In addition, some applicants had been left out of consideration for grants because they were declared ineligible for reasons such as missing paperwork or overdue reports on past grants.

Responding to those concerns, the State Arts Board will gather feedback from artists and arts organizations and will work to improve the process, said executive director Sue Gens.

“We have all developed a new mantra here, which is clarify and simplify,” Gens told board members during their monthly meeting. “Whenever we can make it easier for an applicant we’ll certainly try to do that.”

The Legislature sent more than $45 million to the State Arts Board for the two-year period that began in July. That amount represents about 43 percent of the Arts and Cultural Heritage Fund, which receives nearly 20 percent of the sales tax money voters approved through the Legacy Amendment in 2008.

Gens said the State Arts Board will still be held to standards developed by the Legislature and that the Legacy grants process will remain rigorous. But she said she’s confident the board can at least reduce the percentage of applicants getting cut due to incomplete applications.

So far this year, 15 to 40 percent of the applicants were ruled ineligible, depending on the grant program. That compares to a range of 10 to 30 percent in the first two years of the constitutional amendment, Gens said.

“While we need to be rigorous about our progress, we also want to make sure an applicant has the best chance they can to complete a strong application,” she said.

Arts groups, including those that were passed over for grants this year, said they were encouraged by the announcement.

“They need to be advocates for the arts groups that they’re supporting, and part of that is helping shepherd us through this process,” said Mara Winke, development director for Zenon Dance Company.

Zenon is receiving general operating support from the Arts Board. In addition, this year the group had applied for two Legacy grants totaling $150,000 to tour in greater Minnesota and carry out a residency program in the Twin Cities and the outlying state. But Zenon was declared ineligible for both grants because of an overdue report on an earlier grant the group had received.

Winke said she understands the State Arts Board is being closely scrutinized by the Legislature. But she said her group wasn’t aware that the report was due and wasn’t contacted.

“There are some programs that aren’t going to happen that are really worthwhile because of the red tape around the application process,” she said. “If they can simplify and clarify the process, that’s great. Everybody wanted to get on the table to be considered.”

The application instructions for some Legacy grant programs are dozens of pages long. Barbe Marshall, who represents several groups that applied for Legacy grants, said simplifying the process would help both the applicants and the State Arts Board.

“Any time you build so many new grants programs so quickly, it’s a massive task,” she said. “I think simplifying is the best way to handle everything.”


Also Wednesday, the State Arts Board approved 130 grants for $6.5 million among four different Legacy-funded programs: Arts Access, Arts Learning, Folk and Traditional Arts and Arts Tour.

Of those, about two-thirds of the grants went to groups that had received Legacy money from the State Arts Board in the past. Nineteen grants went to groups or artists who had never applied for Legacy grants before.

Some board members were concerned that only 26 grants went to groups from greater Minnesota, though others pointed out that far more of the grants would benefit people in those areas. For example, many of the Twin Cities groups receiving Arts Tour grants planned to tour greater Minnesota.

Gens said the State Arts Board is always working to increase the number of first-time applicants while also funding the organizations that have long received Arts Board grants.

“One of the reasons we created very broad new project grant programs is that we know that the arts happen in a lot of places, not just in arts organizations,” she said. “We like to see new applicants; we like to see the dollars going to new places.”

At least one first-time applicant that didn’t receive a grant this year plans to apply in the future. The Minnesota Music Listening Contest, in which high school students across the state compete using their musical knowledge, had hoped to receive $10,000 to $15,000 to help students and schools that couldn’t afford to travel to competitions.

“We knew it would be a little bit of a stretch,” said Paul Grupe, the outgoing president of the organization.

Grupe said it’s been difficult to find a Legacy grant program that fits the organization. The group wanted to apply for general operating support through the Arts Board, but it would have to have an annual budget of at least $150,000.

“For us, that would be about a five or six-year budget. It’s tough for us to make a case for $150,000,” he said.

For now, the Minnesota Music Listening Contest will keep relying on sponsors but may try for a Legacy grant in the future.

“We’ll keep looking at it,” Grupe said.

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