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MCA’s Sheila Smith on COVID-19 and the arts: ‘It’s devastating’

Sheila Smith, executive director of Minnesota Citizens for the Arts and chair and project manager for Creative Minnesota, has a big-picture view of the arts in Minnesota: the organizations and people, why the arts matter, the economic impact of the arts on the state.

The marquee above the entrance to Brave New Workshop
The marquee above the entrance to Brave New Workshop on Hennepin Avenue in downtown Minneapolis.
MinnPost photo by Jim Walsh

Sheila Smith – executive director of Minnesota Citizens for the Arts (MCA) since 1995, chair and project manager for Creative Minnesota since 2013 – has a big-picture view of the arts in Minnesota: the organizations and people, why the arts matter, the economic impact of the arts on the state. We spoke with her yesterday by phone. This interview has been edited and condensed.

MinnPost: What is your perspective on how coronavirus is affecting the arts in Minnesota?

Sheila Smith: It’s devastating. Events and gatherings are the lifeblood of Minnesota’s arts community, and every single thing has been closed down. The economic damage to arts organizations, artists and livelihoods is immediate.

It’s going to take a while to get our arms around how bad the damage will be. There are so many unknowns, including how long this will last. We’re looking to Wuhan to see how long it’s taking them to get back to normal. They’re not back to normal, and their crisis started in December. So is it a two-week problem? A two-month problem? A three- or four-month problem? Ticket sales are often critical to financial survival. Some organizations will not recover. We’re going to lose organizations.

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The arts sector relies heavily on gigging artists. Arts workers who go from organization to organization, event to event; who stitch their lives together that way. I saw a Facebook friend say, “Everything that I have been putting together for the next six months has been cancelled.” They’re afraid of losing their homes.

MP: What’s important to know and keep in mind right now?

SS: It’s important to know that the arts organizations are doing their part. Everyone understands the need to slow down the virus and save lives. There’s not an argument about that.

It’s going to affect a lot of businesses, restaurants and bars, obviously, but I think the damage to the arts sector is going to be particularly bad.

Arts organizations are community connectors. Arts activities are one of the ways we create a civic society, where we learn about and understand each other and have experiences in common, regardless of political background. Music brings people together in a way that a lot of other things can’t.

Zooming out, the damage will be in the millions of dollars, both to institutions and their workers and gig economy artists. And the longer it lasts, the worse it’s going to get.

MP: It’s still very early, but what’s being done?

SS: One of the things we’re doing [at Creative Minnesota] is getting together with other leaders in the arts community to figure out a response — to develop as many supports and resources as we can for artists and organizations affected by all of this. Because these are such early days, it’s hard to know exactly what we can build, but we’re all talking about it.

The Creative Minnesota team is made up of statewide arts-supporting organizations and representatives from all the funders. We put that project together collaboratively. It seems like a natural group to bring together to talk about what is everybody doing, what are you thinking about, how long is it going to take, are there things we can work on together, how can we support each other and the community? We’re going to gather by Zoom [a remote conferencing service] this week and see what we can come up with. Also, just to find out what resources are already out there.

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Researching online, I’m finding various emergency relief funds for individual artists. We’re starting to post them on a special page. As we find things that could be helpful to the community, we’ll be posting them there. A lot of organizations are putting up resource pages. We’re not the only ones. But to the extent that I can make ours really robust, with lots and lots of resources, we’re going to be doing that.

Another really important resource for the arts community is Springboard for the Arts. They have an emergency relief fund for artists on We’ll have a community push to have people donate to support artists so they don’t lose their homes, et cetera.

MP: What can we all do as individuals to support artists and arts organizations?

SS: First of all, if you’ve bought a ticket to an event that’s been canceled, don’t ask for a refund. Rather, make it a donation to the organization so they can carry on. Consider making additional donations to arts organizations to help them get through this period. If you have favorite artists, find them online and donate to them.

A lot of artists are thinking of doing online concerts so people can donate while these are going on. There have already been some, but because they happened so fast, I don’t think there was a lot of public knowledge about them.

Sheila Smith
Photo by Adam Kissick
Sheila Smith: "Events and gatherings are the lifeblood of Minnesota’s arts community, and every single thing has been closed down."
Over the next couple of weeks, you will see artists and arts organizations figuring out how to provide access to cultural experiences online, and hope that people will donate as part of getting access. [The Minneapolis Institute of Art] has posted a page called Mia from Home, offering all their online resources and activities to people. That’s the first one I’ve seen from an institution. The Minnesota Orchestra performed to an empty hall Friday, which was eerie and beautiful.

Because these are such early days, everybody’s trying to figure out how do we respond to the new reality, and how do we get through it? Arts organizations and artists are part of their communities. We’re experiencing the same things everybody else is. As artists tend to rise to the occasion, I think you’ll see a lot of responses to the situation in terms of the arts they create.

I should mention that the arts have a huge economic impact in Minnesota. The most recent Creative Minnesota study found over $2 billion in economic impact from 1,903 arts and culture organizations and their 23 million attendees, and our 108,000 artists and creative workers, all of which will be affected by this.

MP: You said in an email that you will have data on the impact next week. What kind of data?

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SS: We’re collaborating with Americans for the Arts on a national survey of organizations to find out what’s been cancelled and what’s the impact so far. Hopefully we’ll know next week what that looks like. They’re going to have people [take the survey] again over time, so we can see the cumulative impact as we go.

MP: What else should people know right now?

SS: Artists and organizations should document the damage from the coronavirus closures. If we manage to get any kind of relief package from the feds, it’ll be important that people have records.

MP: Can artists expect any support locally?

SS: I have no idea. The Legislature is dealing with the immediate crisis – hospital capacity, respirators, tests. The things we’re talking about are probably farther down the road. We’re not pushing the Legislature for anything at this moment. We need to get our own thoughts together. I think the answers for the arts community are probably the same answers for the larger community. How do you support the gig workers who aren’t covered by unemployment insurance? I don’t know. It’s still too early.


Resources mentioned in this interview:

Minnesota Citizens for the Arts Coronavirus Resource Page

Springboard for the Arts

Emergency Relief Fund for Artists During COVID-19

Americans for the Arts 5-Minute Survey: The Economic Impact of Coronavirus (COVID-19) on the Arts and Cultural Sector

Creative MN Study (2019)

Highlights of Mia’s art collection

Don’t forget:

Minnesota Citizens for the Arts’ annual Arts Advocacy Day, scheduled for this Thursday, March 19, will be Virtual Arts Advocacy Day this year. Take five minutes online and thank legislators for funding the arts in Minnesota.