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The Minnesota State Art Board’s Sue Gens: ‘I’m so grateful to the arts community’

Sue Gens
Minnesota State Arts Board
Sue Gens: "Right now we don’t have any grant dollars left for the year."

If you’re an artist in Minnesota, or someone who works for an arts organization, you’re familiar with the Minnesota State Arts Board (MSAB). You may be, have been, or hope to be a grantee. If you attend arts events in Minnesota, you have almost certainly experienced one or more that were supported by grants from the MSAB.

Each year, the MSAB awards millions of dollars in grants to hundreds of arts organizations, artists, and arts projects or activities across Minnesota. As a state agency and part of state government, its job is to provide financial support to keep the arts community strong and connect Minnesotans to the arts. It also serves as the fiscal agent for 11 regional arts councils (RACs) throughout the state.

Its funds are 100 percent public dollars. A small amount comes from the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA). Most come from the Minnesota Legislature as state appropriations. These include money from the state’s general fund and money from the arts and cultural heritage fund, one of the four funds created when the Clean Water, Land, and Legacy Amendment (aka the Legacy Amendment, for short) was passed by Minnesota voters in 2008.

Each year, the MSAB reviews about 1,400 grant applications and makes about 600 grants. For FY 20 (the state’s fiscal year runs July 1-June 30), the MSAB was appropriated around $40 million.

Sue Gens has been executive director of the MSAB since 2008. We spoke with her by phone on Monday evening. This interview has been edited and condensed.

MinnPost: Where is the MSAB now in its grantmaking for FY 2020?

Sue Gens: The Arts Board every year frontloads its grantmaking. We start awarding dollars right away in July. The goal is to get them into the hands of individuals and organizations who can use them for programing and activities rather than having them sit in an account at the state of Minnesota.

By January, we had awarded all of the dollars we have available for this fiscal year. Which in any other year is fabulous, because it allows us to get the money out into the field as quickly as we possibly can. This year it’s challenging, because right now we don’t have any grant dollars left for the year. We have no new way to create a grant program for the last three months of this fiscal.

Some of the regional arts councils spread out their grant awards throughout the year, and some of them do have dollars left that they are repurposing now. If someone is reading this, they should check with their RAC and see if they still have FY 20 dollars available to grant. Not all, but some do. [Note: Find your RAC here.]

An image from a metalwork class at North House Folk School in Grand Marais, a Minnesota State Arts Board grantee.
Courtesy photo
An image from a metalwork class at North House Folk School in Grand Marais, a Minnesota State Arts Board grantee.
MP: How is COVID-19 affecting the work of the MSAB?

SG: What’s different for us now, at this moment, is that in April we would start having our panel reviews. Citizen reviewers look at all of the [grant] applications and award them. Those are always in-person meetings. A task force of staff members is developing a process to have that worked on virtually somehow. We’re having to redesign that process.

This is the time of year when we would normally be putting our FY 21 budget together. We are doing that, but we are having very different conversations about what that budget might look like. None of us knows how long activities will need to be on hold. None of us knows how deep the economic impact will be on the arts and culture sector. We know it will be profound. And we don’t know at what point organizations will start being able to produce activities again and generate income.

Everyone was operating at full speed, and on March 13, the brakes were put on. I’m so grateful to the arts community that when the directive came out from Governor Walz and Commissioner Malcolm, the arts community stepped up immediately and put everything on hold or postponed or canceled or made changes. They made very quick, very difficult decisions to help save people’s lives and keep people healthy.

MP: Some organizations and foundations are delaying application deadlines. Is this something the Arts Board might do?

SG: We haven’t done it yet. When the board comes together to talk about options, that certainly will be one of the things we talk about.

MP: The Arts Board has 10 different grant programs. They cover a broad spectrum, from operating support to touring and folk art. Do you have the flexibility to shift funds between different programs, depending on need?

SG: Each time we have an appropriation from the Legislature, they give us some broad guidance. We generally mirror what’s in the state Constitution. We request funds for arts and arts access, arts education and preserving cultural heritage. They earmark dollars in those categories, but the categories are pretty broad. So long as we are true to the Constitution, we have some latitude. That’s what we’ll be talking about in upcoming board meetings, when we’re thinking about how best to use the resources we’ll have available in FY 21.

People are talking about having as much flexibility as possible. Many organizations and individuals are talking about how to do things virtually – how to deliver the work they do online. As more and more people rely on technology, how can the arts take advantage of those new mediums? When it’s possible for people to start being out in public again and at events again, what kind of funding will organizations need to start the engines and get those projects going?

We’re also worried about people who work in the arts sector. Many are losing their jobs. Many are being furloughed. Many self-employed artists don’t qualify for unemployment. So how do we take care of the people?

I’m told there are some things in the new federal stimulus bill that might be helpful. I’m trying to find out what are the opportunities there for Minnesota’s creative individuals and organizations. One thing I do know that’s in that bill is an additional $75 million from the NEA. It will be up to them to communicate with us whether we will receive some of those funds, how much we will receive and the purposes for which we can use them. We’ll get guidance from the NEA.

MP: Where do you think we’ll be in a year from now?

SG: I don’t know. We don’t know where we are on the COVID-19 curve. A year from now, will there be a vaccine? Will it come back every season, like the regular flu? And the economic side. Is this a short-term economic impact? Will things come roaring back quickly, or will it take longer? That’s way above my pay grade.

I can say that in the arts community, there will be many individuals and organizations that will be struggling even a year from now. The longer we are doing social distancing to keep others healthy and alive, which is what we need to do, the longer people are going to be losing revenue, and the less stability they will have to plan and create a season.

MP: At this moment, what is your greatest area of concern?

SG: That none of us knows how long the virus will continue to spread, how many people might become ill, how many more deaths there might be. That’s first and foremost. When will the virus be controlled, whatever control means? That’s what dictates everything else that happens. When people can start going out again. When they feel confident of their own resources so they have money to spend or contribute.

Every time we face a challenge like this, we don’t go back to exactly the way things were. We go back to something new that’s different. We don’t know what the next normal will be. Life will go on for people who are lucky enough to still have their health, but we don’t know what that will look like.

An image from “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” by the Great River Shakespeare Festival of Winona, a Minnesota State Arts Board grantee.
Courtesy photo
An image from “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” by the Great River Shakespeare Festival of Winona, a Minnesota State Arts Board grantee.
MP: What can you say to reassure artists at this point in time?

SG: One is that Minnesota has a number of arts funders who are very aware that this is a difficult time for artists and the people who work in arts organizations. All of these entities are working as quickly as they can, and trying to be as creative and flexible as they can, to provide support so those individuals can continue to get the kind of support they might need. We have an infrastructure in place in Minnesota. We all represent different parts of that infrastructure and we do different things, but we all understand this is a really difficult time for the arts.

The other thing to keep in mind is that people in Minnesota care deeply about the arts. In any given year, about 25 million people participate in some kind of arts or creative activity. People are going to be eager to get back to those activities when it’s safe for them to do that.

We have funds coming from the federal government. There will be state funds as soon as we can get to our next fiscal year. The private foundations are thinking about this. Here in Minnesota, we have, I think, a stronger infrastructure for the creative community than in many other parts of the country. That doesn’t go away at this moment. I think those resources are going to be stretched pretty thin. But we know that the arts and cultural traditions, and the people who make those possible, are vital to the quality of life that we care deeply about in MN.

I would just say again what we talked about earlier: that I’m really grateful to the arts community for putting things on hold to save people’s lives.

Comments (4)

  1. Submitted by David Markle on 04/01/2020 - 11:40 am.

    it seems to me that a lot of the activities funded by the Minnesota Arts Board and the regional arts councils–if they are indeed worthwhile activities–are Education (note capital E) including life-long education. Which suggests institutional deficiency in our education system.

    At the same time we have an institutional problem in our government arts agencies, and a concomitant problem in the fact that so much of the governmental arts funding supports “arts administration,” not the arts. I’m old enough to remember a time when the term “arts administrator” was rarely used and meant museum administrator, theater manager, orchestra manager and the like, if used at all.

    Here in brief is what I mean by that institutional problem. There’s a kinship between the way we’ve set up our governmental arts funding agencies and those of fascist governments.

    I don’t mean the well-known and ultimately lurid nature of those totalitarian regimes, much less the Jewish holocaust. Monarchies still existed in most of the early 20th Century European countries, and European governments generally included ministries of culture that sprang from their governmental and cultural traditions. The early fascist movement promoted values that can seem very liberal by comparison, as shown in the Fascist Manifesto of De Ambris and Marinetti (to quote from the Wikipedia article on fascism): “proportional representation on a regional basis; government representation through a corporatist system of ‘National Councils’ of experts, selected from professional and tradespeople, elected to represent and hold legislative power over their respective areas . . ..”

    That’s an apt description of the National Endowment for the Arts, and for the similar state governmental arts agencies including Minnesota’s, except that our agencies do not have proportional representation on a regional basis and only hold executive power over governmental funding in their respective areas. Our agencies lack the power of censorship, but every so often someone involved as an advocate or with a potential recipient will voice the opinion that the award of a governmental grant can and should act as a “Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval” for “stakeholders” and private donors.

    Quite aside from the funding of well-established and respected arts institutions, the basic problem, as I see it, is our arts agencies divergence from the best American traditions of fairness and open-mindedness, as embodied in the Bill of Rights’ protections of due process and equal protection. For government to act on the basis of vested interests’ and supposedly expert opinions to award funds based on judgements of whose art is better than whose lies outside the bounds of best American practices. Wouldn’t it be seriously out of line if Medicaid were run like a beauty contest? Doesn’t it also seem improper for the National Endowment and State Arts Board to operate in that way, like a ministry of culture or a private foundation?

    There are excellent ways for government to minimize disregard of due process and equal protection in this area: by evaluating larger patterns, appraising the value of whole broad types of activities that may need help, in order to equitably provide aid within such categories, and by focusing on promoting the availability of artistic goods and services to the public. History suggests that such an approach would make the particular efforts judged artistically worthy in the long run stand a better chance to succeed. In contrast it appears that our present highly judgmental and selective process only insures support for mediocrity.

    This topic deserves a longer exposition and discussion. I’ll only add that progressively minded, concrete plans as described in the preceding paragraph–apropos, may I describe them as “non-fascist”?–have been set before Minnesota lawmakers. They would tend to put less into administration and more into arts. But Minnesota legislators ignored those proposals.

    • Submitted by RB Holbrook on 04/01/2020 - 05:01 pm.

      “it seems to me that a lot of the activities funded by the Minnesota Arts Board and the regional arts councils–if they are indeed worthwhile activities–are Education (note capital E) including life-long education. Which suggests institutional deficiency in our education system.”

      Or not.

      Before he was elected to Congress, the late Bruce Vento was a science teacher at my junior high school. One afternoon, a friend and I were walking with him on our way out of the building. He remarked that he was on his way to a class he was taking. My friend, trying to be funny, said something like “Ha, ha, you’re still in school!” Mr. Vento chuckled, and said “You can never stop learning, K.”

      Education shouldn’t stop.

      • Submitted by David Markle on 04/02/2020 - 11:28 am.

        You’re right. I knew Vento slightly when he was still in the Legislature. Another very big advocate of life-long learning was Senator Jerry Hughes from Maplewood, who chaired the Education Committee at the time. If he had been the main Senate author of our bill to fundamentally change the procedure of the agency, things might have turned out differently. And he did want to do it, but a much weaker author had already taken it on. Our house author withdrew his name from the bill (a highly unusual gesture), after it got hacked to bits in the Senate.

  2. Submitted by Kathryn Nettleman on 04/01/2020 - 02:06 pm.

    Thank you for this interview. I really appreciate reading Ms Gens’s point of view, and appreciate all that the MSAB and the general public of Minnesota do to promote a vital and robust arts scene. Please keep conversations like this going as we move ahead and learn more about what’s coming our way logistically and economically.

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