Tevlin: Politicians, artists butt heads over grant money

  • Article by: JON TEVLIN , Star Tribune
  • Updated: June 24, 2013 - 9:03 PM

In 2009 Andrew Wykes was invited to become fellow at the Ballinglen Arts Foundation in County Mayo, Ireland, which works with internationally acclaimed landscape artists.

Ballinglen paid for Wykes’ studio and house for two months.

A Minnesota Arts Board grant of $6,000 helped pay for Wykes’ other expenses, including flight, rental car and food.

The work Wykes did was shipped back to Minnesota for a very popular show at Groveland Gallery in the spring of 2010.

Wykes said his show was meant to display the connection between County Mayo and Minnesota, and “the rich diversity of man’s influence on the land throughout history.”

Now word has gotten out to the arts community that in the final days of the past legislative session, lawmakers decided money shouldn’t be going to artists to leave the state to study or present their paintings, literature, dance or drama. Likewise, it should not be used to bring artists from outside the state into Minnesota.

In the past week, performers and artists have taken to social media to criticize the change as shortsighted.

“I mean, if we want to be provincial, fine,” said Wykes, a painter and professor of art. “I think [bill author] Sen. [Michelle] Benson thinks these are just vacations for artists or something.”

The change actually had bipartisan support, as legislators struggled to justify money to send artists on trips, including to Bali and Tahiti.

“It’s not on our hierarchy of needs,” said Benson, R-Ham Lake. “If you polled Minnesotans, I don’t think they would support paying for artists to travel to places they never will” when education and infrastructure are priorities, she said.

Benson would prefer spending arts money on programs to encourage gifted students in the arts, for example. Historically, artists have relied on benefactors like the Carnegies, not government, Benson said.

Sue Gens, executive director of the Minnesota State Arts Board, said funds from the Legacy Amendment already banned travel outside the state for artists. The new law extended the same restrictions to general funds the board gets. She said the total amount over several years in the artist’s initiative program was about $5.6 million, but only a fraction of that was used for travel.

“It is the law — it’s not a recommendation,” Gens said.

Wykes has been on the panel that approves funding for projects, and says they are extremely competitive and bring prestige to the state.

“These grants help put Minnesota on the map,” Wykes said.

Erin Sayer, a muralist, argues the small amount of money involved in travel grants makes other cities aware of “flyover land” as a cultural oasis, and brings them here.

Sayer has recently done murals in Seattle and Portland, Ore. “So many people are recognizing Minnesota as a creative place,” she said. “I understand that people who can’t afford to travel might not support giving money to an artist. But I have lived in Italy and Ireland, and all my experiences form how I paint.”

Peter Rothstein, founding artistic director of Theater Latté Da, used his first Minnesota arts grant to attend an international directors program sponsored by the Museum of Modern Art.

“There is no way I could have had that experience here,” Rothstein said. “It was like three years of grad school in two weeks.”

He also used a self-funded trip to Europe to help him write “All is Calm: The Christmas Truce of 1914,” which he turned into a holiday staple that will tour at the Kennedy Center this year. The play “has employed actors and singers for years,” Rothstein said.

Benson says that shows art can be done without government help.

I’m guessing some of the people who voted to help out the Mall of America, Mayo Clinic and Minnesota Vikings with billions of dollars balked at, say, helping a Flamenco dancer go to Spain to study. (Benson did not, so she is consistent.)

Susana di Palma won a 2012 Artist Initiative Grant to spend a month at La Bienal de Flamenco festival in Seville, Spain, and brought back a lifetime of knowledge to share in Minnesota.

“I would like to express my sadness and concern that other artists will be deprived of this kind of life-changing experience,” said di Palma.

Maybe next year someone will embrace the new rules instead and paint a picture of Ole and Lena standing in front of a farm house, and call it Minnesota Gothic.

 

jtevlin@startribune.com • 612-673-1702

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