Loss of Legacy funds angers arts groups

  • Article by: GRAYDON ROYCE , Star Tribune
  • Updated: December 9, 2011 - 11:51 AM

Arts Board denies applications on technicalities, some claim. The review process has changed, board says.

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Zenon dancers Scott Mettille, Leslie O’Neill and Laura Selle Virtucio showed dance movements to hearing-impaired students at Humboldt High School.

Photo: David Joles, Star Tribune

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If you don't cross every t and dot every i, you can kiss your cultural Legacy Amendment money goodbye.

More than a dozen Twin Cities groups that received Legacy Amendment-funded grants through the Minnesota State Arts Board in past years were stunned this year to find their applications rejected on what some say are technicalities.

That means Zenon Dance Company will not be able to tour outstate Minnesota, the Loft Literary Center will not get money for a program that served writers who have disabilities and Mixed Blood Theatre will shelve a $100,000 project aimed at improving access for audiences. The Guthrie Theater, Ordway Center, Intermedia Arts, VSA Minnesota and the Center for Book Arts are among those whose applications were ruled incomplete.

The Arts Board's more exacting approach comes in a charged political atmosphere that is focusing greater scrutiny on state funds intended for the arts. Some leaders from organizations whose applications came up short complain the Arts Board lacks the staff to answer questions and help applicants through what they say is a byzantine grant process.

"It's heartbreaking, but I don't blame the Arts Board," said Jack Reuler, artistic director of Mixed Blood. "They used to be more flexible, but they have been clear that they're under more scrutiny and they're not going to operate that way anymore."

Sue Gens, the board's executive director, said the review process always has been rigorous, but admits that the atmosphere has changed.

"Especially in light of the recent office of the legislative auditor's report on Legacy funding, one person's technicality is another person's accountability," Gens said. "We're not a private foundation where we can say, 'You're right, that's a good reason, go ahead and send something in late.'"

The Arts Board fared well in the auditor's report released last month, but some legislators have wondered whether Legacy money for culture could be diverted to, say, a new football stadium. Conflict-of-interest concerns have been raised about the outdoors share of the pie, and some arts grants last year drew fire.

Some applicants say their biggest gripe is that they have no recourse once the Arts Board makes its decision, and that the process felt punitive.

How funds are divided

About 20 percent of the money that comes into the state's Legacy program is dedicated to culture, and the State Arts Board distributes roughly 43 percent of that cultural slice. So, of the $230 million that the Legacy program collected in fiscal 2010, the Arts Board controlled about $19.5 million. Much of that is re-granted through regional arts councils, and Gens said she anticipates the Arts Board will award approximately $6 million in grants for access, touring and learning. Last year, the Arts Board distributed 134 grants under the access, touring and learning programs. For fiscal 2012, 302 applications will be considered.

"All of a sudden they have been putting the screws down," said Linda Andrews, artistic director of Zenon. "I don't know if it's the Legislature putting pressure on them. Sue [Gens] said that everyone is trying to get that Legacy money away from the arts. This is really damaging to an organization our size."

Zenon had grant applications for about $150,000 to support a tour of outstate Minnesota, including the White Earth Reservation, and to fund outreach work with the deaf and hard-of-hearing, and in schools. Its application was disqualified because it omitted a report on the results of a previous $3,900 grant program.

"So that $3,900 report wiped out a year of touring and all of our outreach work," grant writer Mara Winke said. "The tour and the work are exactly what the Legacy Amendment was created for -- to bring arts to underserved areas."

It also means dancers will miss several weeks of work.

Was notice sent?

Some arts organizations say the Arts Board warned them their applications were incomplete. Others say they were never contacted.

At Mixed Blood Theater, Reuler received a reminder from the Arts Board that their application was deficient. Jocelyn Hale, director of the Loft, said her organization also received an e-mail saying it had left out a required 990 tax form. She said the Loft then sent in an electronic copy. Winke, however, said Zenon never was contacted, and when she inquired, "they said they were under no obligation to do that."

Jane Minton, executive director of IFP/Minnesota, said she felt her group was not informed until the 11th hour about a problem with its grant request. She said the wording of a clause in an application form was unclear on whether it was asking for one set of material "or" another. Minton said she later was told the Arts Board needed one set "and" the other.

"I know there's a lot of scrutiny on Legacy funds," Minton said. "And I know the staff is overwhelmed, but they need to give people more notice."

Gens said that grant applications are private information, and that she could not comment on specifics until after the board makes its final awards in January.

"Every grant round, we have applicants that are declared ineligible for one reason or another, and we get calls," she said. "If other applicants have been able to meet the requirements, then all should."

Graydon Royce • 612-673-7299

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