For just a couple hours early Wednesday evening, about 175 people escaped the recession and dined on fresh figs and succulent shrimp in the McKnight Foundation’s lobby above the Mississippi River.
The occasion was a celebration of McKnight’s 38 artist fellows for 2009-2010, each of whom receives $25,000 to support their artistry and themselves. McKnight is spending about $1 million a year on individual fellowships and is the No. 1 private funder of the arts in Minnesota. (Here’s a full list of the fellows.)
“I was moved, and I kind of teared up a little bit,” James Sewell Ballet executive director George Sutton told me as we walked out of the Mill City Museum in Minneapolis, where the foundation has its headquarters. “It’s just very moving to see all of the artists up there.”
Seeing beauty instead of bleakness
Up there was a long line of artists to either side of the podium, where McKnight President Kate Wolford and board director Noa Staryk, whose great-grandparents founded McKnight, heaped praise on the fellows and the arts community.
“You see beauty where others see bleakness,” said Staryk before sharing an amusing story about her artist mother, who also saw beauty in the bleakest of places including a garbage-strewn lot in London where she once got her hands stuck in a fence trying to free a roll of gold cellophane. (Note to Noa: Please type up your handwritten story and share it on the McKnight website. It’s terrific.)
Said Wolford: “The toughest economy since the Great Depression has put extra stress on artists already facing hurdles in their pursuit of living wages, employment, housing, and reasonable health care. Our nonprofit arts partners have to be at least as attentive to their business model as to their creative expression. Even now, this economy continues to test artists’ resources, budgets, and audiences.”
Nonetheless, Wolford spoke of “some amazingly good news,” which brought resounding applause from the audience. “Less than a year ago, more than 1.6 million Minnesotans voted to amend our state’s constitution with the Clean Water, Land and Legacy Amendment. In doing so, Minnesotans cast a historic vote to supplement traditional sources of funding to preserve and enhance the state’s cultural and environmental assets. Minnesota will rank second to New York for arts appropriation, and has the highest per capita arts appropriation of any state. Ours is the only state with the arts written into its constitution.”
I asked Sutton and others if the remarks felt like a pep talk, but they insisted it was a “celebration.” Artists being artists, they probably eschew terms like pep rally. After all this is a McKnight event in the historic Mill City Museum complex, not a Vikings game in the Metrodome.
A young attention-getter
The youngest attendee appeared to be 9-month-old Gavino Limòn, who drew lots of attention riding around in a handcrafted Ojibwe cradle board on his mother’s (Rachel Limòn’s) back. The board is made of lightweight cedar and oak and features intricate beadwork of a turtle design by his father, artist Doug Limòn, a board member of the Northside Arts Collective. (Rachel also is a board member.) But extended family members cut the wood and stitched up the cloth, altogether a 200-hour effort including 100 hours on the intricate beadwork.
“It’s all held together with sinew, and woodworkers have been impressed with the design,” Doug Limòn said. He hopes to make four a year at some point, but is busy with other art commissions just now.
I couldn’t resist posing a crass question from my inner cost-conscious consumer.
“This one is priceless,” he responded. “But off the top of my head, I’ll probably charge $10,000.”
Limòn hopes to land a McKnight fellowship one of these days.
Individual artists are a priority for McKnight, Wolford told the crowd. “Going forward, all McKnight’s arts funding will be channeled to support an environment in which artists are valued leaders in our community, with access to the resources and opportunities they need to succeed.” (Read more about the new emphasis here.)
I wish I could’ve spent more time milling with the artists and funders. But I needed to get home for President Obama’s speech on health-care reform, something of great concern to artists, whose uninsured rate is nearly double the overall rate in Minnesota.
On my way out, I take one last look at artist fellow Aldo Moroni’s fascinating fountain containing 30 24-inch ceramic stoneware buildings, including the Mill City Museum.
All in all, the evening seemed a restful respite from the recession and the rancor of the health-reform debate.