Downtown artists strategize to limit state budget cuts

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March 31, 2003 // UPDATED 9:31 am - April 30, 2007
By: Caitlin Pine
Caitlin Pine

An area teeming with artists could have fewer if state arts funding is cut 40 percent

Whether attending a play or writing a poem, Downtown artist Michael Robins believes that democracy gets better when citizens are involved in the arts.

"Participating in a democracy is thinking, feeling and talking with your community, and that's what happens when we engage in the arts," said Robins.

Robins founded Illusion Theatre in Minneapolis 29 years ago, when Minnesota's arts infrastructure was just beginning. He attended one of the first meetings that led to the 1974 creation of Minnesota Citizens for the Arts, a statewide arts advocacy group on whose board he's served for the last eight years.

"We realized that we needed a center for arts in the state not as something for the elite, but arts for building community," Robins said.

So it's not surprising that three decades later, Robins -- now the executive producing director of the Illusion, 528 Hennepin Ave.-- would co-led a delegation of 60-plus arts supporters from Downtown and southwest Minneapolis.

The arts delegation included a bevy of arts organizations such as the heavyweight Guthrie Theatre and the adventurous lower-budget theatre company 15 Head. The goal of their Feb. 27 Arts Advocacy Day: lobby legislators for continued state arts funding.

Not a difficult task when your district is teaming with of artists, arts administrators, organizations and supporters.

However, the yearly lobbying effort, organized by Minnesota Citizens for the Arts, was challenged this year by the looming state deficit. The state projects a 15 percent budget shortfall through 2005. The artists' bottom line was humble: limit the State Arts Board's cuts to the 15 percent overall deficit. On March 12, Gov. Tim Pawlenty has recommended that the $13 million annual arts budget be cut 40 percent.

Still, the state's budget problems may have helped get 1,000 arts supporters statewide, and more than 100 from Downtown and southwest Minneapolis, to attend this year's event, doubling last year's participation.

Advocacy Day

Since his district includes so many arts organizations, Sen. Scott Dibble expected a large crowd, but he was still surprised.

"We had to move to a larger hearing room, because the turnout was so much bigger than we expected," said Dibble, a southwest Minneapolis DFLer. "I felt extremely enthusiastic about the day, the arts community did a fantastic job of engaging their membership and their legislators."

In a room filled with arts supporters, the meeting didn't provoke much policy disagreement.

"We had a different kind of conversation," Dibble said. "We talked about how to build relationships and coalitions, because the only way we are going to get anything done around here this year is one to have solid ground on the arguments and policy, and two, to cut to the politics of it, and figure out how to build common interests."

Reflecting the district's left-leaning politics, many supporters offered to give back their tax rebates, and pay the higher taxes for increased services. However, Robins said the supporters didn't fall into one category.

"I was overwhelmed by the number of people who said take back the money and raise taxes," he said. "They were young artists, arts educators, administrators, and patrons. I was surprised by the diversity of turnout," he said.

Minneapolis House DFLer Phyllis Kahn represents the Nicollet Island-East Bank area across the Hennepin Avenue Bridge from the Downtown core. She supports stable arts funding, she is pessimistic about future funding.

"I don't think it will be a 40 percent cut, but it won't be much lower than that," said Rep. Kahn.

Robins says the dim view also pervades the Hennepin Center for the Arts, home to dozens of arts organization as well as the Illusion.

"There is a lot of whispering in the building that some of us won't be here next year," said Robins.

The Arts Board

Though it is a relatively low-profile organization for arts patrons, the State Arts Board, with an 18-member staff, is the state's public arts funding apparatus. With a roughly $26 million biennial budget to disperse, the State Arts Board funds arts groups' operating budgets and makes grants to individual artists, artist educators in schools, community festivals. It also presents national talent for special performances, and among other projects, provides training and planning support for smaller arts organizations.

The board is unique in the nation because it spreads out its resources across the state, dispersing the dollars out to 11 regional councils who designate grantees.

Among its many programs, Robins sees cuts in the State Arts Board's grants for operating costs as the most harmful. The Board provides up to 10 percent of basic operating costs for established arts organizations such as rent and basic office supplies. Private granters tend to fund specific projects, not operating expenses.

"It would be devastating if we lost that support," Robins said. "No one would be able to replace that money. The results would be that we'd drop more projects, make them smaller...but we're all already so bare-bones, I don't know where we would cut."