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Minnesota’s budget: Cutting the arts is counterproductive

The last time Minnesota confronted a really frightening budget deficit — less scary than the current one, but hair-raising, true enough — in 2003, one of the legislative responses was to slash funding to the arts by a third.

The last time Minnesota confronted a really frightening budget deficit — less scary than the current one, but hair-raising, true enough — in 2003, one of the legislative responses was to slash funding to the arts by a third. The results were disastrous. Staff and programs were cut everywhere, from the State Arts Board to the smallest local arts organizations. Nobody has recovered yet. And everyone’s anxious about what’s coming.
   
Gov. Tim Pawlenty has proposed phasing out funding for the State Arts Board — cutting its budget by one-third in 2009 (to about $7 million), to about $3.5 million in 2010 and to zero in 2011. He also wants to make the board a private nonprofit organization instead of a state agency.

However the Legislature tweaks the proposal or doesn’t, cutting the arts is counterproductive in the extreme. There’s a long history of doing so, which makes it seem defensible, or at least less unpleasant than other tactics. When a school district faces a budget crunch, what’s the first department they whack? If arts programming in your elementary classrooms is varied and strong — or, more to the point, if it even exists — you’re more fortunate than most.

An anti-solution
Defunding the arts is an anti-solution, not least because the dollars that went into those programs were small to begin with. But there are other considerations.
   
We’ve been documenting for thousands of years what creative self-expression (aka art) does for the human body and spirit. It flat-out makes us healthier, happier, safer.

People with backgrounds in the arts are more tolerant of diversity. They’re more flexible, more adaptable in unfamiliar circumstances. Their areas of reference are wider and deeper. As students, they perform better provably on everything from achievement tests to college entrance exams. As employees, they’re more desirable for all of the above reasons; also, their communication skills are generally well developed, either broadly or in one or two modes or media in particular. In this total global environment, the only thing more critical than artful communication is cool water.
   
Recently, we’ve been documenting what art does not only for quality of life but for the state’s economy, in studies commissioned by the McKnight Foundation and implemented mainly by Minnesota Citizens for the Arts. As happens in work like this, the numbers are a little outdated by the time they’re public information, but what these facts mean hasn’t changed.

Art in Minnesota accounts for almost $840 million in annual economic activity, generating nearly $100 million in state and local government revenues. In the Arrowhead Region alone, it’s $30-plus million in commerce, accounting for $17 million in household income in northeastern Minnesota.

Every dollar invested equals a return of $11
Every dollar the state invests in art — by way of the State Arts Board or the Regional Councils or any other way — guarantees a return on investment of $11. When was the last time you heard your Economic Development Agency talking about art in its incentive and stimulus discussions?
 
And remember: The McKnight Foundation is not in the habit of funding smoke-and-mirrors research. This math is strict input/output analysis, using Nobel Prize winning economic-theory models.
   
Another calculation: When someone comes to your town, even from just a few miles away, to see your community-theater group or orchestra or a world-famous touring production, they’re going to spend, on average, $45 per person, and that’s not counting show tickets. It’s for food and lodging and gas, locally handcrafted coffee mugs, a funky novelty tie for the geezer uncle back home. Shopping. Even the locals will drop twenty bucks, before tickets, when they go out to a play or concert or “Bambi on the Hood.”
   
It’s what we leave behind
But perhaps most telling: Art outlives us. It’s what we leave behind, our marker. It connects us to what’s past and what’s next. Our cities fall down, or get bombed or buried by volcanoes. Our political institutions morph and implode. Faiths go up in smoke. Celebrities are forgotten. But art survives. We’ve got it from as far back as we go, as a species, and if we ever lose sight of this … don’t finish that thought.
   
And think of the word, the idea. In its very earliest Indo-European roots, we find this meaning: fitting together, or joining together. And of course art is itself the root-word of Heart. There’s nothing coincidental or nonessential about this. It is core stuff.
   
The arts took a disproportionate hit the last time our state’s budget tanked. We need to protect the roughly $10 million currently appropriated for the Minnesota State Arts Board and the 11 Regional Arts Councils. Prospective funds related to the Clean Water, Land and Legacy Amendment, overwhelmingly approved in November, are still months and years down the road. They’ll have no bearing on any arts organization’s current budget woes.
   
And honestly: To a $5 billion shortfall, what’s $10 million?
   
Steve Downing is the development director of the Reif Arts Council in Grand Rapids, Minn.