The City Council appears poised to let the Savage Art Studios close. It can't justify spending the money to keep it going.
It's an inspired idea but the cost to taxpayers may be too steep.
That appeared to be the sentiment of the Savage City Council after sizing up a local nonprofit's request for city dollars to take over a struggling downtown arts studio.
Leaders of the Savage Arts Council made their pitch to absorb the now privately owned Savage Art Studios & Gallery into their nonprofit.
Arts council leadership said they'd need $103,000 in city aid for rent, salaries and building updates next year, but city staff crunching their own numbers estimated the plan would actually cost the city $138,000 in 2013.
The City Council was expected to vote on the arts council proposal on Tuesday night. The Council's vote came after press time, but at an August work session council members appeared reticent to fund the request.
"We know the City Council is listening and they do understand the value of art in the community. Our overall proposal is a little bigger than the city may be able to take on at this point in time," said art council board member Denise Baerg a few days after the pitch.
The studio with its classroom, work space and gallery has become an artist enclave for the fledging Scott County arts scene, arts council leaders explained. But an awkward silence followed Baerg's presentation to the City Council on Aug. 27. Then, the tough questions started coming.
"The council is having a very difficult time rationalizing the cost with everything else they have on their plate," said Savage City Administrator Barry Stock a day after the meeting.
The council is trying to keep the city's $12 million levy flat, even in the wake of rising expenses for essential city services including fire protection, Stock said.
"It boils down to: am I going to take care of basic needs or a basic want? I know some in the art world say it's a need, but I have to prioritize that," said Council Member Al McColl days after hearing the pitch. "I have to keep our purses open for adding additional firefighters for daytime response."
Other council members raised questions about oversight of city funds.
"We'd be doling out money that we've lost control over," said Council Member Jane Victorey.
They also questioned if enough Savage residents utilized the arts studio to justify the cost. The studio sells 300 to 500 class units each year. About 40 percent of those are purchased by Savage residents.
Crestfallen arts supporters sitting in the audience tried to revive the conversation. They testified to the high quality of the classes and said the studio is putting Savage on the map. They also pointed out that the city is willing to spend millions on athletes and sports programs and should give arts program a little consideration.
But the artists and arts patrons couldn't seem to change the momentum of the meeting.
Founded in 2006, the all-volunteer arts council now hosts three annual arts events in its hometown -- the Scott County Art Crawl, the Minnesota River Arts Fair and a juried art show. Since its inception, the nonprofit has worked closely with the privately owned arts studio and its owner, Jo Storey.
Storey, an artist and Savage resident, opened the studio in a downtown storefront owned by the city. The city offered Storey reduced rent to establish the business.
Storey said the bad economy has ravaged the art business. Last winter, she notified the city she'd be closing the studio. The city lowered her rent to $1 a month to allow the arts council time to draft a proposal to take over the space.
"I am heartbroken," Storey said days after the work session. "I don't think they understand the value of it and they don't understand the vision behind it... They just spent $4.9 million on a [sports] dome. I wish I could completely support it like everyone else does. They can't find $50,000 for us?"
She's not sure what will happen with the studio. Her lease with the city runs through the end of the year.
Baerg said the arts council will continue their mission to bring arts to the community and hasn't abandoned their vision of partnering with the city in some way. Arts council leaders will have to get creative because the studio has played a critical role in their marquee events.
The studio was a stop on the Scott County Arts Crawl, and it hosted the juried art show.
"It could be a definite scramble. If the doors of the studio close, we really have to look at how we are going to operate some of our programs," Baerg said.
Baerg said the City Council focused on the number enrolled in art classes, but she pointed out that more than 5,000 people attended arts councils events in the last year.
"That's a significant portion of people. Our events touch 8-year-olds and 88-year-olds, all different income brackets and different physical abilities," Baerg said. "That's the great thing about art. It transcends demographics."
Shannon Prather is a Twin Cities freelance writer.