Small arts groups say programs would suffer if Legacy funds directed to stadiumby Elizabeth Dunbar, Minnesota Public Radio
St. Paul, Minn. — At hands-on art classes, a new group called Veterans in the Arts is trying to give struggling military veterans a chance to express themselves as they overcome the lingering stresses of their battlefield experiences.
"It's not a therapy session, but little bits and pieces of shared experience come out," said Tom Youness, a Vietnam veteran at a clay class at a Minneapolis ceramics studio. "You come out of there feeling very refreshed and you don't feel alone."
Thirty-one veterans have taken the classes since the group first started offering them in March. Veterans are charged $80 for a class that typically costs $395 — and the fee has been waived for some homeless veterans, said Youness, who is also on the group's board.
Organizers say the low-cost classes could not happen without grants Veterans in the Arts has received through the state's Legacy Amendment. Grants from the amendment's Arts and Cultural Heritage Fund brought in $24,000 — 60 percent of the group's total operation.
Minnesota voters approved the constitutional amendment in 2008 to send a three-eighths-cent sales tax to the outdoors, clean water, parks and the arts. Arts and cultural programs get nearly 20 percent of that money, and so far thousands of arts programs have received grants for as little as a few hundred dollars.
Interactive chart: Legacy funds distribution
But DFL Gov. Mark Dayton and Republican legislative leaders are considering future Legacy money among a myriad of possible funding sources for a new Vikings stadium. The uncertainty comes at a time when some of the smallest arts groups that received the funds say they owe their existence to the grants.
Supporters of using Legacy money for a stadium argue the Vikings are a cultural asset to the state. But arts groups say losing funding would mean a drop in the quality and quantity of art programs statewide. The funding has been extra money for some groups, but it's helped others expand programming and cover expenses.
In the Twin Cities area, the Metropolitan Regional Arts Council distributes grants mostly to small groups with budgets of $75,000 or less, said council program director Bob Burns. "We are one of the first funders for many groups," he said.
That's also true of the other regional arts councils in greater Minnesota.
"That amendment has meant a lot to us," said Dick Miller, treasurer of the Blue Earth Valley Concert Association in southern Minnesota.
The group, which organizes an annual concert series attended by families and senior citizens, received $10,000 in Legacy grants in the past two years, making up a big part of the association's $15,000 to $20,000 annual budget for those years.
"We're providing quality concerts I think to an audience that ordinarily would not be able to attend those, because you'd be talking about driving to the Twin Cities at a much greater expense," Miller said.
Miller said the group helps communities in the Blue Earth area by bringing artists to them, such as Metales M5 Mexican Brass, a group from Mexico City.
Some groups are concerned diverting funding could put a stop to innovative programs that play a bigger role in areas where there is less of a concentration of the arts.
"It's really important to the quality of life in rural Minnesota. It's not just art for art's sake. It draws people to our area," said Don Hoffmann, a member of the Staples Area Men's Chorus who is also vice president of Wadena Madhatters Community Theatre. Legacy money made up at least a third of the funds the two central Minnesota groups took in during the past couple years, Hoffmann said. The chorus received $21,325 in Legacy funds in the past two years, and Madhatters received $19,892.
The chorus was able to continue to perform for communities in central Minnesota when ticket sales and donations didn't pay all the bills. And, the funding allowed Madhatters to replace its standard 'Sound of Music' fare with a more original drama about grief and loss that drew smaller audiences.
"We never considered doing them before because you know you're not going to make the money you need to produce the show, so you don't even try it," Hoffmann said.
For larger groups, including CLIMB Theatre in the Twin Cities, the Legacy funds helped them make it through the recession — and even expand when some traditional funding sources dried up.
"It has kept us alive," said Peg Wetli, CLIMB's executive director.
CLIMB was forced to cut staff salaries in recent years as libraries and school districts cut their programming budgets. The group, which had a $1.1 million budget in the last year, has four full-time staffers, three part-time staffers and hires actors for its productions.
CLIMB has used the funds to perform plays about bullying in schools and has brought theater to preschool children to help them with cognitive and social skills. CLIMB also worked with communities and performed plays about reintegration for troops returning from fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan.
"We overcame the barrier of, 'oh the theater is for the elite, educated and people with money,'" she said. "We overcame the geographic barrier. We were there in people's communities and we performed for free."
In the first two years of the Legacy Amendment, about $93 million was distributed to thousands of arts and cultural programs and events across the state. The total for the two-year period that began in July was $105 million. About half of those totals went to, or will go to, organizations competing for grants through the State Arts Board and Minnesota Historical Society.
About 16 percent of the arts Legacy money was distributed to zoos, museums, and public TV and radio stations, including Minnesota Public Radio, which spent $2.6 million in the first two years of the amendment. Smaller percentages went to the state regional library system, the Minnesota Center for Humanities, the state Indian Affairs Council, county fairs and the Perpich Center for Arts Education.
Plans for a public role in funding a new Vikings stadium are still being debated. And if Legacy arts money is used for a Vikings stadium, it's unclear how much would be diverted. Lawmakers could choose to take away funding for a certain category of arts recipients. Or, they could reduce arts funding across the board, which would likely decrease the number of grant recipients.
Other Legacy arts grants recipients pointed out a major difference between the Vikings and the small arts groups that receive Legacy funds is that the arts groups offer low-cost or free arts to their communities.
Doug Ohman, a Minnesota author and photographer, received $250 plus mileage to speak about his book, "Libraries of Minnesota," at 70 free events across the state. The money came from the libraries' portion of Legacy funds.
Ohman knows there were others who charged higher speaking fees, but he said he was thankful public funds were available to allow him to share his book.
"You don't have to buy a ticket," Ohman said. "Anyone could walk in."
- All Things Considered, 11/21/2011, 4:50 p.m.