General 7-9-2007

Thomas Proehl’s New Stage: Minnesota State Arts Board

Michael Fallon spoke with Thomas Proehl, the new head of the Minnesota State Arts Board and former managing director of the Guthrie Theater, about the direction and means the MSAB will have in the near future.

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Thomas Proehl took over as interim director of the Minnesota State Art Board this past December after the position had been open for nearly a year, and he was appointed to the permanent post a few months later. Mr. Proehl’s background is in theater. After graduating from Moorhead State with a degree in theater in 1988, he moved to New York and worked in the theater business there for more than ten years before returning to Minnesota in 1999. Proehl became the general manager at the Guthrie Theater that year, and in 2002 he took over as managing director, a post he held until just after the 2006 opening of the theater’s new $125 million complex on the Mississippi River.

Proehl spoke with me recently at the offices of the State Arts Board in downtown Saint Paul. At 44 Proehl still has the boyish good looks of a theater person, although he’s acquired also the air of a scholar.

To start, I’m curious about your background. How did you first get the theater bug?

It was in my senior year in high school. A friend of mine and I were just hanging out doing nothing. He was a theater guy, and he said I should audition for this show. I did, and I got a part. It was a melodrama, which was kind of fun. The second time, I auditioned for a musical. It was Oliver! and I played Mr. Bumble. I just thought this was so cool. And that was it. That’s all I’ve done since that time.

What did it touch in you?

I think it was just the sense of creating a character, and being an entertainer, and being on stage, and being able to share with others. It was amazing. My father was a music major, a music teacher, and a theater person, so I was always kind of living vicariously through my father. But it was amazing—the experience of working together with a whole group of people is a great thing.

We’ll talk more about the rest of your career in a bit, but I’m curious—you went to New York and wanted to work as an actor in the theater there?

Yes, I did it very briefly. I ultimately moved to New York hoping to be an actor and realized that I didn’t have the … personality, maybe, to continually be rejected. So I thought there’s gotta be a way for me to be in the arts, because that’s all I wanted to do. I found that there’s the back track, which is the administrative track to support what’s on the stage and what’s being presented. So that’s the route I took.

Were there any important lessons you learned as an artist and in your artistic practice that helped you in that administrative role?

Absolutely. It helped to understand what the needs of an artist are, that artists don’t think specifically black and white, that there aren’t any right and wrong answers. It’s all about trying to figure out a way to do things and come to a solution, politically. I learned ultimately that “no” was never my first answer. Instead it was always, “let’s see how we can work on this and we’ll find a way to do it.” “No” just shut down the whole process. And in the creative process, when you shut it down it’s really hard to start up again.

So, it’s always been one of those nurturing roles. I learned you have to nurture; if you want any results, you have to mine for them. That’s probably one of the best things I learned.

When you were first starting out in theater in New York and had all those hopes and dreams, did you ever think you’d end up in this position that you’re in now?

No, I never thought of government specifically. I guess I never knew where my path was going to lead me. I didn’t really plot out my methodology and my path. I just said, well, some things are ahead of me—I’ll just take the opportunities. And that’s what I’ve done my entire career.

Were there any key experiences that you think led you specifically to the State Arts Board director position?

I think being at the Guthrie, being at one of the major institutions, and the Arts Board being one of the major funders of the Guthrie and many other institutions. I think it was interesting for me to see the other side, to be on the side doing the grant applications and understanding what the grant application requirements are for this state.
Also, when we built the new building for the Guthrie, we got bonding money, which is state money. And it’s for the people—from the people, for the people. So I think it was kind of one of those organic things. We just built this huge institutional building for the people with the people’s money. And I wondered, what does the other side look like? It wasn’t one of those conscious decisions again.

There was the opportunity to do it [the Arts Board directorship] on an interim basis, which is what I really went for, because I thought it would be a short period of time. But then I started getting down the road, and I found I wanted to start working on things. I didn’t want to just abandon them. I thought about it differently, and said, okay, let’s look at how we can put all of these things together and use my experience on the receiving side and put it to work on the giving side.

I know that with the Guthrie you worked a lot with the legislature and the governor’s office. How was this legislative session, your first as the director of the State Arts Board?

It was truly a learning experience. I learned there were some things you can say, and some things you can’t. I learned that process is very … government is all about process, and it’s frustrating. Patience is something that’s truly been mined from within for me, because you have to go through the process, you have to go through the hearings and everything else. And for me it just seemed like a lot of time to get to the ultimate result. But what was interesting about it was trying to take the point of view of a citizen of the state of Minnesota. That’s who we are here to represent. So, I put that into the context of saying who are we serving, how are we serving them, and looking at all of the different places in Minnesota and how we make arts participation available. I think it was really interesting to be able to talk to legislators one-on-one about what they have in their communities and what they don’t. It kind of gives us, or me, some food for thought about how do we serve better. It was definitely a learning experience.

It’s a very complicated thing—supporting the arts around the state. Did you get any sense of the direction we’re headed in terms of state support for the arts?

What was really encouraging this year was that the governor put money into our budget immediately, so we weren’t fighting against an increase or a decrease. What we were looking at is getting back to restoration of the full amount of money that we had back in 2003. . . . What was wonderful about it was it was kind of a seal deal, we knew we were going to get something. So we’re moving forward. I think we have a long way to go to make the arts imperative in this state. I think it is about education, and making sure that people know what we do and what the arts do for the population of the state. I think a lot of that has fallen apart because of our schools. The arts education component is missing, but we just need to be very forceful in standing up for the arts.

I think what’s really been difficult in the legislative session is trying to explain creativity. There’s no common language. When we talk about economic impact and people served, that speaks to legislators. It’s unfortunate that you have to talk in two different languages, but that’s what helps us. When you look at the economic impact, that’s what legislators respond to. Trying to find that common creativity language, a lot of people are afraid of that.

What are your specific priorities for the Arts Board? What areas or programs are you seeking to foster?

Right now we’re starting our strategic planning process, which will probably take about a year. We’re going to do convenings across the state—meet with artists, meet with institutions, meet with educators—and try to truly understand how we can support them. What do the artists need, what do the institutions need? We don’t need any more programs where people need to jump through hoops. We just need more funding. That’s ultimately what we’re hearing. So how do we truly serve the changing face of Minnesota—demographically, regionally, and where the populations are moving—and how do we do that with great effect? I think ultimately I’m looking at working with our regional arts councils, of which there are eleven, and truly working in collaboration, and working with some of our grantees, and some of the service organizations, to collaborate and make things better, rather than redundant. And put our resources into creating a stronger network of resources, putting our financial resources together so that we can create resources for artists, for arts institutions, for educators. It’s truly about making sure that we are serving the state’s population in the best way that we can.

You’re focusing on the process of figuring out strategies by looking at your various stakeholders, but do you think there are any particularly big looming challenges ahead?

I guess coming off this legislative session when we got a 19 percent increase, all I can think is: We need more, we need more.
I think our biggest challenge as a society is arts in education. And we don’t have enough money to make an impact. There’s not enough funding for arts in education. So, how do we use our money to the best advantage, and how do we espouse the belief that arts in education and arts education is important to children in their learning and in their life experience? I think arts in education with no child left behind—I think all educators will agree that that’s a challenge. There’s always only right or wrong answers, there’s no nebulousness allowed.
So what we need to do is figure out how do we truly impact that. How do we get artists in schools, or how do we get the schools to support the arts experiences to the kids. And this can’t just be that we bring them to the theater, or bring them to the opera. It has to be something that they can participate in. And this means going to them and trying to figure out how to best serve all the students.
I think we have some great opportunities, potentially with the sales tax amendment, which would provide another 30 million dollars a year to arts. And then you can have some impact. So we’ll see what that brings…

In 2003, when a lot of the states all over the country were forced by the bad economy to cut the level of their arts funding, I spoke at the time with somebody at the National Assembly at State Arts Agencies who was surprised at the level of cuts that our legislature was considering and eventually passed. This is because this state has long been a leader among states in terms of arts support. That all said, what is your sense now, four years later, of the state of the arts now in Minnesota?

There’s a huge amount of activity here. There’s activity everywhere you go. There are artists creating everywhere you look. I’ve been all around the state, and it’s amazing. We’re underfunded, though. There’s not enough to sustain it. It’s basically tokenism in a lot of respects, because we’re not being able to fund things to the fullest extent. So I think the state of the arts is great.

The state of arts funding is a little bit precarious. One never knows. What we have done over the past five, six years is we’ve placed a lot of the burden [of funding] on individuals. And individuals are very good people to give. But their tastes change, so there’s no real consistent funding source.
And foundations and corporations—foundations are truly flavor-of-the-month, what’s popular this year, and they change their guidelines to fit that bill. And corporation funding is not truly philanthropy now; it’s a lot about marketing, it’s bang for buck. So I think individuals have really had to pick up a lot of the funding.
And I think there’s a whole missing sector—the government. We don’t fund a lot, we don’t give a lot of money out. Last year’s budget was 8 million dollars, and the return on that investment was a billion dollars in this state. You look at that and say there’s gotta be something more, there’s got to be a bit of stability. I don’t know what that looks like right now, but we’ll find a way to get to that by talking to our stakeholders and figuring out where our resources should go.

In a recent talk by local economist Ann Markuson, she described strong leadership groups in the arts in places like Seattle, San Francisco, and Austin. These are organizational leaders who have joined together to form a cohesive voice that affects arts policy. And she suggested that our local arts culture has maybe languished a little bit because there isn’t a strong leadership voice from the local arts community. Do you think that there is a leadership gap in the arts here, at least on the systemic level? Especially now that leaders at the MIA, the Walker, MRAC are stepping down and there has been changeover at the foundations?

I think our best voice is MCA, which is the Minnesota Citizens for the Arts. They’re the ones that are actually knocking on the back doors and creating some policy and influencing some policy. Since I’ve been in Minnesota there’s never been a cohesive arts community. There’s no arts coalition, there’s no Minnesota cultural institution—there just never has been one. And I don’t know why that is, or why that isn’t.
I don’t think we do a very good job uniting. We’re slow to pick up and we’re slow to respond, and we’re not proactive in our approach to things. We become very reactive and try to defend rather than to promote. I think it’s a shame.
With all of the leadership change that’s happening across the country, the baby boom generation is now getting to that age of retirement. And those are the managers right now, those are the leaders, and who’s coming up next? We don’t know. So I think it’s just going to be a big change across the country.

I also think in Seattle, Austin, San Francisco the cities themselves have strong connections and commitments to the arts. Minneapolis-St. Paul, though they are very welcoming to the arts, don’t have much of a cultural policy, I don’t think. They have a plan, but there’s no money to support the plan. There’s no real money for support—except St. Paul has the Star Program; Minneapolis doesn’t have it. So it’s like they’re living off the rewards of the arts community but not supporting them with anything financial. So you look at it that way, you see it kind of comes from the top. If the city really espouses the belief that the culture is important, then it will thrive. If you look around the state at some of the smaller towns that have created cultural centers, they’ve revived [those towns].

Do you have a personal philosophy about the arts? What sorts of arts or approach to arts or art practice do you espouse?

My feeling about art is that it’s a huge part of my life. It is, I think, a hugely important part of everyone’s life, and some people just don’t realize it. I am truly about allowing the creation to happen and letting people experiment and find their own voice and their own palette… But just having people find their own path to creativity, and allowing it to happen, and not squelching—I think that’s the most important thing. Supporting creation, that’s what we do here. We do not produce anything; we do not present anything. We support the creative activity.

I like to watch people create. It’s amazing.

In the last few years, there has been a lot of national debate about whether or not government have a role in supporting the arts. I would assume that you’d say, yes it does. But what would you answer to critics who say, no it doesn’t?

The challenge for any government funding for anything is, number one, it’s limited, and number two, it is public money. When you’re using public money to support the arts or to support anything, the majority rules. So, when you have critics, you have to answer them. It’s not about the confrontation, it’s about the explanation. It’s about what does this mean? I always felt that anytime somebody feels uncomfortable with art, it’s actually doing its job. It’s making you think. It’s making you feel something that you didn’t naturally know was there.

It’s hard because I’m sometimes in the minority—as a state employee and as a state arts agency leader. And since I’m new I haven’t adopted some of the rules yet. I haven’t been exposed yet to what can and can’t be done. My feeling is all creation is good, and I will support it to the best of my ability.
I think there is a limit on what the state will do, or what the government will do and what it should do. But I don’t think that it should be all about safe art and things that aren’t objectionable, because then it isn’t art. Then you’re stymieing creativity. . . . There has to be a delicate balance, and we have to figure out what that is. I don’t know where we are with that, and I’m sure I will find out soon, [laughs] from my board.

But there are rules, and my feeling is if you don’t want to play by the rules, or if you object to the rules as an artist or as an institution, then it’s your opportunity to say, “No, I don’t want your funding,” and to turn it down. As with anything, there’s always been some foundation moneys that people have turned down. . . . It’s all about your own personal philosophy also. As an artist or as an institution, if you feel that accepting money from the government is going to hinder your creative process, then it’s your opportunity to say no to it.

One last question: what advice do you have for a person beginning to take on a life and career in the arts?

Convene with other artists, and understand what people are doing and how they’ve gotten there. Don’t try to recreate the wheel when it comes to policy and understanding what things are. Somebody’s already done it, and there are resources out there—so look for them. Join, or any artist org, because that gives you a presence on the web. It gives you something to point to. Just use the arts community, use your peers and mentors to help you.

No one does anything alone. You can only succeed if you’re willing to work together and to find a collaborative way to do things and to understand how things work. You don’t have to experience all of that on your own. Leave your creative energies to creating, and all the other stuff that you need to deal with—the business side of things and how to market your art—there are ways to deal with that. There are people that are providing those services or helping provide those services. So, look for those people, because they will help you, and then focus more of your energy on creation.

And then just stick to it. If you have the passion, and that’s all you think about doing, just do it. Because you’re not going to be happy if you don’t.