Lileks: Legacy stadium funding for Zygi and the Vikes? Yikes!

  • Article by: JAMES LILEKS , Star Tribune
  • Updated: October 27, 2011 - 7:44 PM

The governor has suggested spending Legacy funds on a football stadium. Makes sense. The special money is supposed to go for the environment; the stadium would, technically, be located in the environment.

Legacy money also goes for arts, and there's a certain "performance art" aspect to football. It's ballet with concussions. Theater requires suspension of disbelief; so does every new Vikings season.

But many Minnesotans heard the proposal and thought: We knew this would happen. Approve a special sales tax for arts and nature, and the next thing you know it's spent for something completely different, like a campaign to reduce cynical attitudes toward government.

The Legacy tax -- a strange levy that benefits both fish and poets -- has been in the news for other reasons. Minnesota Public Radio reported that three years after the measure was passed, there's no big public list that says what they're doing with the money -- and a quarter of the $456 million isn't accounted for on the project's website. No one's alleging fraud; maybe it fell down between the cushions.

But there's also the matter of whether the funded work was actually done, and whether it's any good. You won't find that on the website. It scrolls on and on for pages and pages, and you wonder why we have a fireplug gushing money for interpretative dance when the rest of the state has the cold dry hand of Austerity wrapped around its windpipe.

Let's take a look at some Hennepin County grants:

Lots and lots of oral histories, possibly including an oral history of oral historians.

These are easy to scoff at, but oral histories help assemble the stories that would otherwise be lost. I just worry that an "oral history" from such a closed-mouth people as Minnesotans consists of lots of dead space on the tape, as the subject struggles to overcome his inbred hesitancy to talk about himself. Perhaps they buy lots of Sodium Pentothal.

It also is difficult to imagine anyone wandering into the Minnesota Historical Society building in St. Paul, sauntering up to the information desk and asking if they have an oral history of pioneering Finnish dental hygienists. (The clerk's response: "You'll have to be more specific.")

$6,998 to publish a three-volume work, "Patriots of Brooklyn: Suppressors of the Great Slaveholders Rebellion," profiling more than 200 Civil War veterans. That's Brooklyn Park and/or Brooklyn Center, right? Because I'm not sure we signed on to the tax to pay for stories about New Yorkers.

Perhaps the grant request was for $7,000, and when it came in two bucks short they had to cut the chapter about the guy who moved to Hopkins. (Note: the title is typical; if you want a grant, call your work "Title Before the Colon: Subtitle After the Colon," and say it's a study of grant proposals. Bingo. Cash money.)

There's half a million to Ducks Unlimited, a group whose name makes some uneasy. Look, we're all for ducks, and hunters need ducks, but I don't think it's paranoid to say we should have some limits on ducks. I'm not talking about making them adhere to civil law, but another name might reassure people that there is, indeed, a theoretical limit to the number of ducks we are expected to bear. "A Reasonable Amount of Ducks," perhaps.

"Funding Amount: $7,000. Source: Arts & Cultural Heritage Fund. To properly abate asbestos and improve public safety at the Golden Valley History Museum."

A rich, multi-media experience, this work will use song, puppets, shovels, masks and small pieces of twine to tell the story of improperly abated asbestos -- no, wait, that's a grant to improve a building. Never mind.

There's money for Northern Spark, a "new Minnesota festival modeled on a 'nuit blanche' or 'white night' festival -- a dusk-to-dawn participatory art event along the Mississippi and surrounding areas." Poof: $125K.

It happened last June. Completely missed it. Sounds fun, but is it churlish to wonder whether this is the most efficacious use of public dollars?

Some might say: "Hey, great, glad the hipsters aren't bored at 3 a.m. on a school night, but my kid's school has 42 children per classroom and the textbooks are so old they call Marie Curie 'our greatest living scientist.' Priorities?"

Understandable. But at least that's what the tax was set up to fund. If you read the list, you'll think Waste! Ridiculous! Silly! Absu--... hey, that sounds cool.

But a stadium? No.

An oral history of Vikings fans might qualify, though. Even if it's 10 volumes of people doing nothing but sobbing.

jlileks@startribune.com • 612-673-7858 More daily at www.startribune.com/popcrush

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