Artists reeling from new restrictions on Minnesota State Arts Board grants

This past legislative session, state politicians made some changes to how Minnesota State Arts Board funds are allocated.

Now, artists can only use MSAB grant money for travel within state lines.

Many artists have used MSAB grants in the past to research projects or participate in shows elsewhere in the country and internationally.

For them the move smacks of provincialism.

Writer Bryan Thao Worra points out the new rules will particularly impact artists of color:

A key benefit [of MSAB travel grants] has been enabling many Minnesota artists from Laos, Cambodia, Liberia, Vietnam and Somalia to connect with key artisans and culture-makers, particularly the elderly whose stories would otherwise be lost permanently under present conditions.

The new regulations affect fiscal years 2014 and 2015. This means that those artists who have already submitted a grant proposal for the coming year that involves out-of-state travel will now have to submit revised applications. The revised applications are due July 5.

For author and poet Heid Erdrich the new regulations seem particularly outrageous because as a member of the Turtle Mountain Band of Ojibwe, her native homeland does not follow state boundaries. She says the change in funding guidelines is needlessly limiting:

No working toward a national or regional career with your work, no researching beyond the borders, no retreats or accepting invitations to prestigious workshops or national conferences. Nope. Everything you need to be a better artist is in Minnesota, apparently. And everyone must now compete for those few professional development activities found here.

Sculptor Jack Pavlik has received grants twice for travel outside the U.S. He says the experience made him a better artist, and improved his professional standing:

In 2005 I had an exhibition planned for a sound art gallery in Cologne. I applied for a small amount of money to help with shipping costs – $3000. This exhibition gave me more credibility as an artist, and I was also able to make contacts with other artists which I have to this day.

Author N.M. Kelby, who tours regularly to promote her books, notes artists often serve as cultural ambassadors for their home states when they travel.

It is a mistake to suggest that artists are asking for 100% of the funds in these grants, as they must also contribute their own money to take part in the experience. Since many of them live at or below the poverty level, this represents great economic stress. And yet, they feel it’s worth it. And, often, Minnesotans who read their books or watch their films or see their performances feel that this investment is worth it, too.

Actor/performer Erik Hoover will be traveling to the Catskills next month to study with former Minnesotan Kari Margolis, thanks to a MSAB grant under previous guidelines:

I’ll be there for a month-long intensive with a huge amount of one-on-one time with a master artist with a lifetime of experience as well as time spent teaching peers and less-experienced students.  That’s something that simply doesn’t exist in Minnesota. If we in Minnesota want to continue to have a strong, diverse artistic community the ability to send our artists beyond our borders -and then have them bring their experiences back home- is an important part of sustaining it.

Sue Gens, Executive Director of the Minnesota State Arts Board, is sympathetic to artists’ concerns. But as the head of a state funded agency, she’s obliged to enforce the new regulations.

We understand that this is a really difficult and challenging situation, especially for those people who will need to change their proposals.  We want them to call us and we want to be as helpful as we can be. We want to hear how this impacts them, so that we can help explain it to legislators.

While Gens wouldn’t qualify the tone of the debate during the legislative session, she did say that multiple legislators made reference to an article by Tom Steward titled “Minnesota artists travel the world at taxpayer expense.” The article led with a stock photo of a tourist parachuting over the island of Bora Bora.

According to Steward’s own reporting “114 recipients of Artist Initiative grants issued by the Minnesota State Arts Board during the past five years will have traveled to at least 40 different countries and 20 states by the end of 2013. From 2009 to 2013 the Arts Board awarded 730 Artist Initiative grants totaling $5.6 million with about 15 percent of those grants supporting travel outside Minnesota.”

For the record that works out to $168,000 per year spent on artist travel outside Minnesota, or about one third of one percent of the $58.3 million the Minnesota Legislature allocated for arts and cultural heritage projects in FY2014.



  • Kathryn Kysar

    Thanks for this good and quick reporting, Marianne Combs!

  • Erin Sayer

    Living in Minnesota, nationally considered a ‘flyover state,’ means working and showing worldwide are an important part of our credibility as artists. Also, inspiration gleaned from other parts of the country, connections on the coasts, and personal relationships abroad are what make our profession worth living ‘alternatively’, against the status quo, with few to no amenities, and a meager pay check. Apparently, most people who are mad about artists travelling do not see the inherent value of living in a state with world class artists and culture. Actually, it makes sense, seeing as they don’t consider travel a worthy endeavor, period. ( Who cares what’s happening around the globe? Who cares what’s going on in New York or California?) I just spent 2 months out west in Seattle, Portland, and Bend painting murals. Last year I spent the winter working in San Francisco. Little by little, these cities are realizing what a pool of talent we have here. The more Minnesota artists are recognized in other parts of the country and world, the more credibility our little state has as a cultural mecca, like it or not. In order to become a world class artist, one must travel. In order for Minnesota to be taken seriously, it needs to send its artists out into the world, instead of harboring them here in nowhereland. (Below is a mural I was commissioned to do in Bend, OR at the Les Schwab Amphitheater.)

    • Shelly Leit

      Exactly. I guess the PTB who made this restriction feel that Minnesota is such an important art hub that we are on par with San Francisco, New York, Paris. Etc. Why go anywhere else?
      If only that were true.
      If only all that I wanted to do art-wise was here in Minnesota. Such a paradise it would be….

  • VisualArtistStudio

    Thank you Marianne for reporting fairly on this issue and presenting the “other” side of coin. The fact that the legislature made such a short sighted judgement based on a very biased, slanted, unbalanced and misinformed report shows negligence both on the part of the legislature but also on the media responsible for the report. I appreciate that you have quoted artists who actually need and use the funds in a responsible manner. A key point of your report is the fiscal breakdown in your final line–less than a couple of pennies per person per year.

  • Carin Bratlie

    I am a metro area theater director. I was thinking about applying for this grant income in order to go to the Chicago Director’s Lab and the Lincoln Center Director’s Lab, which are unique and world calibre training intensives. We don’t have anything like them in MN, and I cannot afford to do them on my own. Now it is essentially impossible for me to do it.

  • RosySimas

    Important to add to this conversations is that these changes also limit who we can work with. We cannot hire artists to collaborate from outside of MN for an Artist Initiative performing arts grant project. From a MSAB letter announcing the changes
    “During the most recent legislative session the legislature placed a restriction on Arts Board use of funds that has an impact on this program. As a result, the Arts Board is no longer able to fund activities or travel for applicants to go out of the state OR bring
    individuals or organizations into the state.”

  • Presley Martin

    Obviously artists are just freeloaders sitting around, probably doing drugs, and collecting taxpayer money to travel the globe.
    Seriously though this is a bad sign, I mean funding travel grants only within your state seems a bit absurd, why even have a travel grant then. This will be the next, total elimination of the travel grant. Contact your legislator!

  • SpiritualAnimal

    I’m a freelance multimedia artist and I think this decision was an ignorant one, fueled by skewed journalism that purposefully tapped into jealousy more than facts. (If I can’t have it, why should they?) I am astounded at how fast politicians can move to vote when it serves their greedy interest. That said, I must be honest and confess I am also a person opposed to ANY public money going toward stadiums, tax breaks for corporations, and big businesses that can support themselves. I believe the government should be in place to protect our civil rights, freedoms, the natural environment, offer a safety net to the poor, and common-sense regulations that protect us. That’s about it! I am angry that our leaders continue to dump millions toward people who are already millionaires. So, as artists, they took our “one third of one percent” … ok, fine. Now let’s get serious and stop subsidizing private businesses and organizations, too. If our government won’t- then this policy change is surely a huge slap in the face to all citizens, artists or not.

  • Shelly Leit

    Figures. Small-minded legislators pretend to appreciate art and artists and now we know what they really think.

  • Andrew Wykes

    Malcolm Muggeridge once
    said, “Travel, of course, narrows the mind.” As a painter I have received two
    Minnesota State Arts Board, Artist Initiative awards in recent years, one for
    travel to Ireland (both awards were taxed). I have also been a panel member reviewing hundreds of applicants
    on the board. The awards are highly competitive, the review process is fair and
    deserving, judged an 8 member panel made up of professional artists and arts
    administrates (who also pay their taxes). Many artist rely on grants,
    commissions and shows etc, to make ends meet. We are not all Damien Hurst’s. It
    would seem to me that those on the panel, are more qualified to judge the
    significance and benefit to a artist and their community what this award can
    give. The ‘ART CRITIC’: Sen. Michelle Benson, a member of the old right wing,
    grinding away in the background, is just carrying on the regretful, narrow
    minded, anti diversity, neo-isolationist tradition in America.

    Unlike Malcolm Muggeridge I subscribe to the
    following quotes:

    “To travel is to discover that everyone is wrong
    about other countries.” – Aldous Huxley