With proposals to eliminate federal arts funding looming, five of Minnesota’s arts leaders gathered to talk strategy. The second Star Tribune Arts Forum on Monday night delved into how that funding helps local groups and ultimately, what might happen to Minnesota if it were cut.

The evening’s theme was “Arts in the Crossfire.” And it was a timely topic, given President Donald Trump’s proposal to do away with the National Endowments for the Arts and Humanities (NEA and NEH), which funds projects and poets across the state.

But the conversation, before an audience of 250 people at the Children’s Theatre Company in Minneapolis, covered much more than politics: the “trauma” of applying for grants as a small arts organization. The importance of amateurs in supporting the cultural marketplace. The strength of creative expression in rural Minnesota.

The panelists were Kevin Smith of the Minnesota Orchestra; Randy Reyes of Mu Performing Arts, Springboard for the Arts’ Laura Zabel; Uri Sands of TU Dance and U.S. Rep. Betty McCollum, the ranking Democrat on the House Appropriations Subcommittee that oversees funding for the NEA. Former Star Tribune arts reporter Graydon Royce moderated. The conversation was wonky, funny and — no surprise — considerably gloomier than last year’s.

On arts bridging the urban/rural divide

Zabel: “The NEA funds in every congressional district in the country and plays a really important role in a lot of rural communities.” She cited Springboard’s office in Fergus Falls, Minn., which parlayed $145,000 in NEA funding over several years to attract an additional $1.5 million in investments to that city of 13,000 people. “People are creative, people have cultural expression … regardless of what size community you are in.”

Folks at Springboard are worried not only about Trump’s proposed cuts to the arts and humanities, she added. They’re also concerned about the proposed cuts for regional development authorities across the country. “To me, those things are all connected,” Zabel said. Such groups play a big role in building strong creative communities, she said.

Sands: When the dance troupe performs in a rural community, such projects go “well beyond the work we do in that theater.” School and community center visits are planned as well, he said.

“You start to dissolve a lot of these preconceived notions on who we might be or who they might be,” he said. “You actually start to dissolve we and they. ... That’s funded in part by public dollars. That’s advancement of humanity that’s being funded by public dollars.”

Which is why those public dollars are “so necessary,” Sands continued. “It’s so we can obliterate these preconceived notions that we have about each other.”

On our state’s special case

McCollum: “I love being able to say I’m from Minnesota when I’m on the House floor. We’re the only state in the nation that passed a constitutional amendment — and thank you to all of you who worked on it — to say the arts and the environment are important.”

Smith: The mix of funding from the Legacy Amendment, the state arts board and regional councils is “fabulous,” offering arts groups not only money for projects but general operating support. “I think that’s what makes Minnesota a destination for the creative sector.”

On the trouble with nabbing grants

Reyes: “I don’t think people realize the trauma of applying for grants. I’m not using that word flippantly. The resources that it takes, and then not getting something. ... The whole system is traumatic. There’s got to be a better way to do it, especially with organizations that have proven their work for decades. I really feel like the system needs to change.”

Grant-making organizations ought to recognize long-standing organizations like Mu, which have supported marginalized voices for years. Having to explain, on applications, how they will incorporate diversity into a project just doesn’t make sense, he said. “We’re an Asian-American company doing Asian-American work for 25 years. That should be the only sentence you have to write for that part. ...

“For us, equity, diversity and inclusion is not a program,” he continued. “It is not a play. It is a mission.”

On the idea that art is for the elite

Zabel: “There’s a whole political movement that has happened on the far right. But I don’t want to let us in the arts and culture sector off the hook.” Arts groups have had a role in creating that situation, “in part because of letting go of the idea that art belongs to everyone,” she said. “Even the event tonight: It didn’t escape me that the photo that was used was older white people dressed up in tuxes sitting in velvet chairs. ...

“I think we’ve let that stand as a symbol for what art is in a way that’s been enormously detrimental.”

On what small groups need

The Star Tribune’s senior arts and entertainment editor, Tim Campbell, stood up to ask: “What is it that you need that you’re not getting now?”

Sands paused: “I really want to make the right wish.”

“I just wish we had a chance at bat,” he said. “We’re fortunate enough to have some really incredible relationships with major funders. But when we talk about getting to the next level. ... We don’t have half the infrastructure or resources or network” of an organization like the Minnesota Orchestra. “We’re just not even in dialogue with those corporations. It’s like … we exist outside the ballpark, watching the game from the street.

“And all I’m saying is give us a chance at bat, get us into the park.”

On threats to public funding

Audience member Davu Seru, communications manager for the north Minneapolis youth nonprofit Juxtaposition Arts, asked what had thus far gone unsaid:

“Say they win,” said Seru, referring to those who want to eliminate public funding for the arts. "What are we going to do locally to keep art central to the culture of the state?”

“Look, I believe in public funding. I believe in infrastructure,” Zabel responded. “But those things aren’t what make art and creativity possible. Art will always exist, culture will always exist. It persists, it resists.”

While it’s important that communities build an ecosystem that supports creativity, “I also think it’s really important that we don’t get confused,” she continued. “Infrastructure isn’t art, and art comes from human expression, from human connection.

“And that will always continue and it will always find a way.”

A minute later, after some talk of reinventing the funding model, McCollum spoke up.

“I’m going push back on that just a little bit,” she said to Zabel. Some lawmakers who oppose arts funding are making a similar argument right now, McCollum said. They say artists will find ways to make work on their own, and with private support. “And I think both things need to happen.”

While NEA funding has declined over the years — from a total of $167 million in 2010 to $148 million this year — it’s still hugely important, she said. “So I agree with you, but the warrior in me right now says, don’t give up.”