General 11-21-2006

Adjust Your Sails, Minnesota Artists

Michael Fallon investigates the workings of the nonprofit arts sector, and finds that it's markedly changed in the last few years, and not for the better. Email this piece to your friends and respond in the Forum: these are timely and important issues.

Michael Fallon

IN MY SPARE HOURS I think about local artists a lot. I ponder their welfare and their future. I worry in particular that, considering how hard it is to make a go of art, many talented artists in my lifetime will give up on the practice, depriving the culture of untold hypothetical art treasures. I wonder what effect this artistic discouragement will have on the collective creative soul of generations to come.

It’s easy to be concerned about artists in America, especially once you learn more about how things are stacked against them. According to recent studies by the Urban Institute and the Rand Corporation, Americans say they love and appreciate art but, basically, do not care much for art makers. Considering this, it’s no wonder many artists are consummate pessimists, and why many stop making art or give up eventually in favor of more lucrative work.

Given all this, it seems important to be practical in dealing with prevailing cultural attitudes; after all, complaining is not going to change minds about artists; only practical action will make any difference. A good start may be for artists to step outside the studio and learn what’s really going on in their communities regarding arts policy, arts funding, and arts appreciation. If artists are to pragmatically trim their sails, they need to know which way the wind is blowing.

In the case of Minnesota, despite perceptions about how great artists have it here, the truth, once measured, is both more unnerving than one might expect and more addressable. Plainly put, artists need to be aware that Minnesota is, like elsewhere, not a great place to make art these days, but there’s no reason we can’t do something about it.

In the hopes that a better awareness of real conditions in Minnesota arts helps lead to better lives for artists, here’s a quick primer on what everyone should know about the current art-world weather.

1. The Ship’s Rudder is Rotten

The status of the arts in Minnesota in many respects starts and ends with our arts board. The Minnesota State Arts Board is one of the oldest such agencies in the United States and has a rich history of supporting art and artists; however, recent times have not been good to the board. Perhaps you’re aware that in 2003 the state legislature, at the prodding of the governor’s office, cut arts appropriations in the state between 30 and 60 percent, depending on which budget line you’re looking at, and not a dime of this funding has since been restored. Perhaps you’re also aware that we’ve been without a State Arts Board director for nearly a year, ever since Bob Booker stepped down last December. But you probably don’t realize the Board itself, perhaps because of the above factors, is a mess, deflated by its inability to hire a top candidate, preoccupied with staff issues and conflicts, and lacking focus in leading up to the recent legislative budgetary request. (I know these things first-hand, after attending recent State Arts Board open-to-the-public meetings.)

The core issue with the State Arts Board is stinginess. Even without the recent cuts, the Board’s inability to land a viable candidate for its director position comes because it can only afford to pay wages well below the norm. For instance, the offer range for our director position was $20,000 to $40,000 below equivalent positions recently listed in Indiana and Ohio. Further, State Arts Board program officers here make markedly less than their colleagues in similar positions elsewhere. A recent State Arts Board hire—a program officer for the one-percent program for public art–earns a bit more than $40,000 per year, whereas the same position for the city of Phoenix was posted at $60,000+. This means, curiously, the Minnesota program officer makes about $20,000 less to run the public art program for an entire state than someone does to run a program for a city.

Payroll disparity is no doubt paramount among reasons the director position for our State Arts Board remains unfilled, why the Board is having personnel issues, and why it has had, of late, a dysfunctional relationship with the legislature. In fact, now that the position has to be reposted, expectations are that we won’t have a permanent director for possibly another six months. I wonder, as should every artist or art lover in this state, if we can afford to be rudderless that long.

2. Something Smells Down in the Cargo Hold

While the ship of Minnesota art drifts, those doing the hard work below decks to keep the arts afloat are languishing. Having been on the job market of late in Minnesota, I know just how poorly compensated most local arts-related jobs are, when such jobs can be found. Consider this: the last director of Minnesota Film Arts, the organization that runs our Twin Cities Film Festival and the Oak Street Cinema, made less than $40,000 per year to run an organization with a yearly budget of $750,000. That is, he did before he missed a major grant deadline, pushed the organization nearly into bankruptcy last year, and helped force the Oak Street Cinema to close last April. In comparison, Pittsburgh Filmmakers, a similar organization in a metropolitan area a tad smaller than ours, runs a surplus annually, never has missed a major grant deadline, and successfully runs a festival and three repertory movie houses. Oh, and the director of Pittsburgh Filmmakers earns about three times what our film organization can pay.

Now, local artists may shrug at all this, saying no one gets rich on art locally, so why should we even care? But the fact is, everyone is affected when ground-level arts managers and organizers are inadequately compensated. Economic law dictates, of course, that poorly paid pools of talented workers will simply seek better conditions elsewhere—either in new job fields or other locales. It’s no big stretch to imagine the devastation left behind when capable managers and organizers quit. The current results up and down the scene—listing organizations, bankruptcies, budget cuts, cuts in services to artists—reveal that we may be facing the beginnings of a leadership void.

If this large view doesn’t convince the average artist to care, keep in mind that the drastic, across-the-board cuts made to arts appropriations in Minnesota in 2003 meant not only that administrative jobs were lost and salaries frozen, but granting programs to artists and arts orgs were essentially halved. The State Arts Board’s current leadership void and overall ineffectualness is particularly disappointing, because several important players in local arts had hoped since last December that the time was right this year for a new leader, with new energy and vision, to push the legislature to restore some of the arts funding lost in 2003.

3. Meanwhile, Everything’s Roses Up on the Ratlines

It’s difficult to truly determine how bad off artists are today, mostly because accurate details about the artists’ economy are rare. A recent survey determined that 90% of artists nationally earn less than $10,000 per year on art, but there are so many variables of place, experience, genre, professional status, and secondary employment that no data about artist earnings are wholly accurate. However, local artists should be aware that a fairly large-scale attempt to survey the local artist population is currently underway. If you gain nothing else from this article, do know that you should go out and get counted—if only so we’ll better know the prevailing truth about our artist community’s economic life in order to do something about it.

While we don’t know all the details about artist poverty, we do know that a select handful of people—the proverbial exceptions that prove the rule—are getting rich on the arts in Minnesota. Directors at local top-heavy arts institutions earn as much as some corporate CEOs, and senior program officers at our foundations make between $100K and $200K a year. This disparity of course asks the question whether arts leaders are becoming increasingly out of touch with the common artists who make one-tenth or one-twentieth, or less, the money they do.

This is crucial, as the local art institutions and three local foundations in particular—Jerome, McKnight, and Bush—attract to Minnesota countless young hopeful artists and other creative types. Of these organizations, only the McKnight Foundation continued to appear proactive in growing funding initiatives to support local artists after the economic downturn in 2001-2003. The others have—due to budget problems and endowment shrinkage—curtailed new programs, cut existing programs, and postponed funding any new initiatives due to tenuous finances.

Even as local foundations struggle, they also seem intent, perhaps due to a shifting of public attitudes and national policy trends, to move away from straight support of artists and toward programs that offer some sort of socially measurable return on investment.

Artists can see this happening at one local foundation in particular if they read between the lines of its recently announced new programs focusing on arts. What was left implicit in the announcement was the fact that most of the plan’s new initiatives and a large percentage of the money formerly earmarked for local artists are being shifted to fund rural craft and traditional native artists. In other words, the foundation is moving its wonted support from working fine artists, even as the demand from the local pool of artists grows, to a kind of arts-based social benefits program for non-urban regions, meant to support something that arguably vanished, as a real cultural force, a generation ago. (It also makes one ask, why are these activities being separated from the title “art”? To make rural and traditional craft into a ghetto ignores its arts functions, and walls out rural makers from the far larger world of global art and design.)

This is nevertheless perhaps a fine and noble goal, and a foundation is fully within its rights to undertake it. It just seems deceitful for the foundation not to explain this shift in focus more explicitly to local artists. It also does not sustain the idea that this state continues to be particularly supportive of its working population of artists.

In a nutshell, then, with the exception of the McKnight Foundation, local foundations have done nothing more to help artists, and in fact seem to be turning away from them, in a time when all other sources of direct support are drying up. In a quick estimation, this coming year will now see a further reduction of artist support to levels that are only at about 50-60 percent what they were before 2002.

Considering that things have only gotten worse in the arts here since 2002, a good question to ask, then, is why have Minnesota’s major art institutions grown by leaps and bounds? After all, since that cruel year we’ve seen major, multi-hundred-million-dollar building initiatives at institutions like the Guthrie Theater, Walker Art Center, the Children’s Theater, and the Minneapolis Institute of Arts. Outwardly, this boom may seem like a boon for local arts, but I wonder about the downside of this explosion for local artists and local ground-level arts consumers.

Aside from sucking up all available arts money in the state, these expansions have another problem, seldom remarked: they are quite removed from the mainstream of local artistic production. The boom, primarily sponsored by major corporations like Target, U.S. Bancorp, Medtronic, et al., has dictated the building of structures that are rather disconnected from the needs of individual humans and more akin to corporate headquarters than art structures. (A subject for a future essay, perhaps.) One new building’s exterior, for example, is often compared to an Ikea store—its too-big plasticky blue structure is mostly blocked from view from the downtown by a hideously ugly parking lot, and its prefab interior seems more suited to a corporate conference center than an arts venue. Another expansion has been decried for its cramped hallways, lack of ingress, and other spatial quirks that remove the experience from human-level praxis. “Unattainable,” wrote Minneapolis sculptor Allen Christian of the place. “Really a disconnect with the community.”

In the end, I can’t help but worry as small organizations feel the squeeze, as individual artists continue to struggle, and as most foundations offer nothing new to artists, if the huge drain of local arts resources by institutions to erect tributes to big corporations and to the egos of their leaders is not murderous to the local arts community.

4. The Storm Will Pass

There are doubtless a number of reasons for the current poor state of affairs in the arts in Minnesota. Perhaps we have been complacent, patting ourselves on the back far too long, stuck in our cozy echo-chamber of self-appreciation, and unaware of what’s truly happening with art in our culture. Perhaps we have just been struggling against the current political winds, against general economic trends, against the times.

Whatever the case, I hope you realize that I write these things not out of pessimism or despair. I don’t intend to discourage anyone from continuing to pursue the art or craft that they love. Instead, I write with hope that a critical mass of the arts lovers in this state will open their eyes and ears to learn what’s going on. With major changes in our state’s legislatures looming after the recent election, time seems particularly right for artists to take charge of their own destinies.

So, artists: Inform yourselves! Learn the truth! Tell others! Make your voice heard! Perhaps with determined action we can straighten things out and steer this state’s arts community back into the halcyon days of yore.