Arts board announces simplified grant program for MN artists struggling in COVID-19 economy

Published 11:32 am Wednesday, July 22, 2020

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By Marianne Combs

The Minnesota State Arts Board has approved a trio of new grants meant to help artists and organizations weather the economic turmoil created by COVID-19. But artists say the new grants don’t go far enough to serve historically marginalized communities.

Earlier this year the Minnesota State Arts Board — which is responsible for distributing millions of dollars in cultural legacy funds to artists across Minnesota — announced it was suspending nine of its 10 grant programs.

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Since then, the government agency has come up with three new programs. One grant is for individual artists, another is for arts organizations and a third is aimed at helping arts groups recoup losses due to canceled events during the pandemic.

State Arts Board director Sue Gens said the grants are much simpler and more flexible. The board did a review of past grants and found that certain communities were underrepresented. So this year, it will give more weight to applicants who serve communities outside the Twin Cities metro area, as well as people with disabilities, and Black, Indigenous and people of color.

Gens said mainstream metro area arts organizations will only be considered if they’ve received grants from the state arts board in the last three years.

“If we have had a relationship, we know someone, we’ve worked with them. We’ve been supporting them. They have been able to access funding in the past,” Gens said. “Then this would be a way to ask fewer questions or to make the application process simpler, because we’ve had a previous experience with them.”

Artists have decidedly mixed feelings about the new grants. They’re happy to see marginalized communities targeted for grants, but expressed alarm that the LGBTQ community was not included. Artist Patrick Scully said in early communications from the State Arts Board, he was led to believe the LGBTQ community would be included.

“It was worse than if they had never included us in the first place,” said Scully. “Because now I felt like, you know, our exclusion isn’t accidental. Our exclusion is intentional.”

Some artists say they are happy to see fewer restrictions on how the money can be used. But the grants are small. Individual artists can receive up to $6,000, down from $10,000 last year. Organizations will receive between $5,000 and $15,000.

Deneane Richburg, founder of Brownbody, a company that combines modern dance, theater and ice skating, is part of a growing group of artists who are calling for more transparency and equity in the State Arts Board’s grant-making process.

She said these new grants are nothing compared to what’s doled out in the one State Arts Board program that was held over from last year — the Operating Support fund. To qualify to be even considered for an operating grant, an organization needs to have an annual budget of $175,000.

“And so that eliminates most BIPOC-led small arts organizations,” Richburg said.

In fiscal year 2020, the board gave out close to $15.9 million, or more than half its total budget, through the Operating Support fund. More than $7 million went to 11 organizations, including institutions like the Walker Art Center, the Minnesota Orchestra and Hennepin Theatre Trust.

Richburg said it’s a problem that more than half of all state arts funds go to large, white-run institutions. Especially when that money could make more of a difference to smaller nonprofits embedded in their communities.

The State Arts Board’s Gens said all arts organizations are suffering, no matter their size.

“To back away from that kind of funding would have caused even more damage in the arts community than there already is,” Gens said.

Artist Ashley Hanson said while the State Arts Board is putting grants in place to serve more diverse artists and arts organizations, the board itself is still sorely lacking diversity. She said the people voting on these grant programs need to better represent the communities they serve. She said artists need to be more involved in the process, from start to finish.

“There’s this group of incredible artists across the state who are like, ‘we’re not here to yell at you — we’re here to help,’ ” said Hanson. “We know how to design equitable systems. We know how to be really creative and resourceful. Let us help you redesign this.“

Hanson said the pandemic presents a great opportunity for artists and grant makers to work together on creating new and better funding models.

In the meantime, the arts board still is putting the finishing touches on specific grant guidelines and application forms, as well as waiting to hear from the state Legislature on just how much money it will have in its budget. Gens said the board hopes to be making grants as soon as this fall.