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After $563 million in funding for the arts, Sheila Smith steps down

In her final week as executive director of Minnesota Citizens for the Arts (MCA), Smith talks about her tenure, the arts scene in Minnesota, and her plans.

Sheila Smith: "For 25 years, I did everything I could to get as much money out of the Legislature for the arts community as possible."
Sheila Smith: "For 25 years, I did everything I could to get as much money out of the Legislature for the arts community as possible."
Minnesota Citizens for the Arts

That $563 million figure – to be precise, $563,640,627 – surprised Sheila Smith when she saw it earlier this week. In her final week as executive director of Minnesota Citizens for the Arts (MCA), the nation’s strongest arts advocacy organization, Smith had finally gotten around to adding up the dollars appropriated to the arts by the Minnesota Legislature during her 25-year tenure.

“The last time I looked, it was $300 million, and I thought, holy cow,” she said by phone.

Some of the money has come from the state’s General Fund, but the lion’s share has flowed in from what’s commonly called the Legacy Fund, created when Minnesotans voted yes in 2008 to a constitutional amendment that increased the state sales tax by 3/8 of 1 percent. With passage of the Clean Water, Land and Legacy Amendment, Minnesota became the only state with 25 years of dedicated arts funding in its Constitution, through 2034.

Co-authored by arts champion Sen. Dick Cohen, who has since retired, the amendment passed because Smith and MCA formed a statewide coalition of arts and conservation groups, led the Vote Yes Minnesota campaign, and trained and mustered hundreds of arts advocates from around the state to lobby the Legislature. Passage of the amendment tripled arts funding and spread the wealth to all corners of the state, increasing access to the arts in every community. From 2008 to 2019, attendance at arts events in Minnesota more than doubled.

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Today MCA works with 40,000 arts advocates around the state. Each non-pandemic year on Arts Advocacy Day, hundreds of members of the Minnesota arts community gather at the Capitol to encourage legislators to keep supporting the arts. In 2020, as COVID-19 rolled in, Arts Advocacy Day jumped to email. This year’s Arts Advocacy Day became Arts Action Week and meetings with lawmakers took place on Zoom.

During her time at MCA, Smith also developed and chaired the Creative Minnesota project, a group of arts and culture funders and statewide arts service organizations. Its purpose: to collect and report hard data about the creative sector every two years for analysis, education and advocacy. Hard data is increasingly important to funders of all kinds. Arts advocates can now use facts from Creative Minnesota reports to bolster their appeals to legislators.

Sheila Smith, state Sen. Dick Cohen
Minnesota Citizens for the Arts
Co-authored by then-Sen. Dick Cohen, right, the Clean Water, Land and Legacy Amendment passed because Sheila Smith, left, and Minnesota Citizens for the Arts formed a statewide coalition of arts and conservation groups.
A St. Olaf graduate who majored in Shakespeare, then earned a master’s degree in arts administration from St. Mary’s University, Smith was hired as MCA’s sixth executive director in 1996 and has been its longest-serving. Her knowledge and understanding of the arts in Minnesota is profound, her love of the arts is real (she’s an artist herself), and she feels deeply about the devastation COVID-19 has rained down on the creative community. Plus she’s 99 percent jargon-free, a miracle for someone who works closely with government.

Smith was the first person we called last March, when COVID-19 closed all the doors, and we have reached out to her regularly since for perspective and insights.

This conversation has been edited and condensed.

MinnPost: How has the pandemic affected your work over the past year?

Sheila Smith: Well, you know, like everyone else, it was a sudden and terrible shock. We were supposed to be holding Arts Advocacy Day at the Capitol four days later, and a week ahead of time I called it off, because I could see this coming, that we wouldn’t be able to gather at the Capitol. So we just told everybody, send emails [to your legislators].

Mark [Albers, MCA’s operations manager] went home, and our intern, Jenny [Gilles] went home, and I went home, and that was that.

I moved the office to my home, set up a home office, forwarded the mail for MCA to the house, and forwarded my parents’ mail to my house so I could pay their bills. All in the course of 48 hours. And then we just got on with it.

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MP: Has there been a silver lining?

SS: I really like working at home. I like not commuting. And I love hanging out at my house with my husband, so that’s a big plus. I didn’t spend money anywhere, so I’m saving money.

But I miss my friends. I miss seeing people. So much of MCA work was running around meeting with people, giving presentations, talking about what’s going on and what do we do about it. All of a sudden, the only way that was going to be accomplished was on Zooms. That was a big adjustment, but it was for everybody, so it’s not like I’m special.

MP: You had been thinking for a long time about retiring after 25 years. When COVID came, were you tempted to stay on for another year or two?

SS: So much was happening so fast, and so much had to get done, that I didn’t have time to think about it. We had to figure out MCA’s response. We had to work on succession plans. We had to figure out – what happens if I die? What happens if Mark dies? What happens if our lobbyist [Larry Redmond] dies? We suddenly had a lot of new things to worry about.

And then the community itself shutting down and not being able to perform, or do shows or anything, and artists being suddenly out of jobs. How’s the community going to survive this, and how long is it going to be before people get back to normal? You’re carrying the burden of worry for the whole community.

During her time at MCA, Sheila Smith developed and chaired the Creative Minnesota project, a group of arts and culture funders and statewide arts service organizations.
Minnesota Citizens for the Arts
During her time at MCA, Sheila Smith developed and chaired the Creative Minnesota project, a group of arts and culture funders and statewide arts service organizations.
MP: Looking back over your years with MCA, what are you most proud of?

SS: I think it’s the network we’ve built of people who have been trained to be advocates. Thousands and thousands of people have been in an Arts Advocacy Day and learned how to hone their message and how to keep a meeting on track. Those are skills they will keep taking with them to meet with legislators long after I’m gone.

And the Legacy Amendment, of course. Twenty-five years of dedicated arts funding in the state Constitution. The passage of the Legacy Amendment meant that Minnesota as a state has invested in arts and culture opportunities for all Minnesotans over the long term. And because of all the positive benefits to civic culture from the arts and culture, Minnesota will be a healthier, more thriving place than other states because of it.

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It’s fun to think that kids who weren’t even born yet are now 11 years old, and they’ve always lived in a state that has the Legacy Amendment. I enjoy that thought.

MP: What would you have done differently?

SS: I might have focused on building more staff over time. We figured out how to do a lot with very few people, but it really wore us down. And I think we would have benefited from spending more time and attention on full-time permanent staff.

MP: What have you left undone?

SS: I don’t feel like I left anything on the table. I exhausted myself doing everything I possibly could. If I could do it, I did it. And I have zero regrets.

Everybody defines their own universe. Out there in the field, there’s a million problems and there’s a lot of different people working to solve those problems, but the question is whether or not you take something on as your own personal problem. That is a different thing. For 25 years, I did everything I could to get as much money out of the Legislature for the arts community as possible.

MP: How has the arts scene in Minnesota changed over 25 years?

SS: Technology is completely different. Artists have the capacity to get online and sell themselves, whereas before they had more gatekeepers between them and the public. There are obviously still gatekeepers, but entrepreneurs can get out there in a billion ways that they couldn’t before.

We have a lot more arts organizations than we did. There’s been steady growth over 25 years. When I started, we had a list we called the “Big 100,” which was basically organizations with annual budgets of over $100,000 a year. In business, that wouldn’t be very big at all, but to us, if an arts organization got over $100,000 a year, we thought it was a big deal. When I started [at MCA], there were about 100 of those, and now there are well over 200.

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There was natural growth over time, but I also think the Legacy Amendment helped sustain projects that became organizations.

MP: And word spread that Minnesota is friendly to artists.

SS: I think it’s really good for the state of Minnesota to be an attractive place for creative people. Our future as a civil society is going to benefit from drawing creative people from around the country. That’s a no-brainer.

MP: Do you think our arts community will come back from COVID-19?

SS: It will. I have no doubt. People have a hunger for being with other people now, and as soon as we’re allowed to, they’re gonna go crazy gathering and doing and being out there in the world. The 1918 pandemic was followed by the Roaring 20s, and I think that’s what’s going to happen next.

MP: The Legacy Amendment continues through 2034, which isn’t that far away. What should Minnesotans be doing now to make sure it’s renewed?

SS: People should be documenting the impact as much as possible. That’s part of what Creative Minnesota is about – documenting impact.

Sheila Smith: "I don’t feel like I left anything on the table. I exhausted myself doing everything I possibly could. If I could do it, I did it. And I have zero regrets."
Minnesota Citizens for the Arts
Sheila Smith: "I don’t feel like I left anything on the table. I exhausted myself doing everything I possibly could. If I could do it, I did it. And I have zero regrets."
The Legacy Amendment is four different funds: land, water, parks and arts. What’s interesting is how much of that money is being funneled through local government units, like municipalities and counties. By raising awareness of how important the amendment is to city and county budgets, you’re going to get a lot more local government support for renewing it than we had in the beginning, back when we did it the first time. Because people are seeing impact on so many things – clean water, land preservation, parks and trails, arts and culture – I think it will get a lot of support, when they renew it.

MP: If President Joe Biden asked your advice about the arts, what would you tell him?

SS: I would say to put a czar of the arts and culture on the Cabinet, whose job would be to identify opportunities to use America’s fantastic arts and culture sector to advance interests abroad, treat veterans with PTSD, enhance kids’ experiences in schools, heal communities that are so divided, and build back better with the arts.

MP: Who would you appoint to that position?

SS: First of all, this person needs political skills and an understanding of how the federal government works, because the goal is to integrate arts and culture policy in other policies. It’s not an arts job, it’s a political job. It would be nice to have an arts person who was like a figurehead and drew a lot of attention, but it’s functionally more than just inspiration, so the person really needs to understand government. Who would that be, I don’t know.

MP: Who are some people you admire and look up to? Not as potential arts czars, just in general.

SS: I have really admired Governor Walz’s approach to the coronavirus crisis. He’s been put in a really tough spot, and nobody could be perfect in that role, but he’s trying to keep people from dying and should get a lot of credit for that.

I admire Stacy Abrams for her revitalization of voters’ rights in Georgia, and for organizing people to get them to the polls to vote. And I admire Dessa. She’s a very interesting person.

Sheila Smith: "I have really admired Governor Walz’s approach to the coronavirus crisis. He’s been put in a really tough spot, and nobody could be perfect in that role, but he’s trying to keep people from dying and should get a lot of credit for that."
Minnesota Citizens for the Arts
Sheila Smith: "I have really admired Governor Walz’s approach to the coronavirus crisis. He’s been put in a really tough spot, and nobody could be perfect in that role, but he’s trying to keep people from dying and should get a lot of credit for that."
MP: What’s the first thing you’ll do when you can do whatever you want?

SS: On the 28th of February, my last day with MCA, I have an appointment to go to Mia [Minneapolis Institute of Arts] and look at some art in person. Because I’ve missed that a lot.

I have not left my house since March, other than to help my parents and go to the office to back up my computer. I mean, I have not been anywhere, so my gift to myself is going to Mia. They have reduced attendance and social distancing, and big, big spaces that are well ventilated, so I feel I’m safe to go.

MP: What will you miss most about your work at Minnesota Citizens for the Arts?

SS: Obviously, the people. I’ve always enjoyed working with the board, and I’ve been so lucky to work with such a great board. I’ve heard horror stories from other people who work with boards. Things can apparently go very wrong, but I’ve never had that experience.

MP: At 57, you’re young to retire. Is there an opportunity or position out there somewhere that could tempt you back to work?

SS: I’m taking a year off as a sabbatical to help my family and reconnect to painting. In a year-plus, who knows?

I want to make a lot of art, but I think I need a lot of training. I’m an amateur everything and I just want to get better. Especially in oil painting and wood carving.

I might just follow my nose, which will be fun. Try something out, and if I like it, find more opportunities to learn about it. If I don’t like it, drop it and go in a different direction.

MP: It all sounds wide open.

SS: Which will be a complete change from 25 years of living and dying through the legislative cycle, where you can predict things 10 years in advance in terms of what month you’ll be doing what.

The freedom of not knowing is really exciting. I’ve always been very much of a planner. I love that there’s no plan.

MP: What about travel?

SS: I’ll go back to traveling some, whenever I get vaccinated. My folks have a house in Arizona and it’s sitting empty and I would like to visit it. I’d like to go back to France for painting, and Iceland for painting.

Iceland fits totally into my worldview. I love cold, windy places. I love the North Shore. To stand on the rocky shore and have the wind whip your hair back, and you feel like it’s scouring your soul. That’s my favorite thing.