NEW LONDON, MINN. – One by one, they took the stage and told their stories. A man in his 80s, leaning on a cane. A teenage girl. A retired farmer.
"Times were good for farmers in west-central Minnesota in the 1940s," Ed Huseby began his tale about a tractor that went rogue.
In the audience, residents laughed, cheered and, after one man described how lung cancer cut short his wife's life, cried. They were gathered for a Sunday afternoon "story show," organized by the owner of the Flyleaf Book Shop. The one-page program didn't mention funding from the Legacy Amendment. But like all shows onstage at the Little Theatre — and most arts events in this small but growing city two hours west of Minneapolis — that money played a key role.
Legacy funding cuts the cost of renting the theater to $100. It pays the part-time salary of the manager who greeted audience members and pulled closed the curtains. Soon, it'll fund a new projector and screen.
"Community theaters, we can't operate without that kind of help," said Ginny Lief, vice president of the Little Theatre's board. "Without it, we basically would have to fold."
New London, like small cities across Minnesota, has felt the influx of dollars from the Legacy Amendment, passed a decade ago. Since 2009, Legacy funding has provided more than $440 million to historical, artistic and cultural projects and events, with about $200 million going specifically to artists and arts organizations across the state. In 2009, before that funding began, Minnesota ranked ninth in the nation for per capita public funding for the arts. Today, it ranks first. The state spends about $6 per person on the arts, according to the National Assembly of State Arts Agencies, pulling well ahead of states such as Hawaii and New York.
The impact is clearest, leaders and artists say, in outstate Minnesota, where grants have boosted artists' projects and rooted fledgling organizations.
"It's been a huge boon to the rural economy," said Aaron Spangler, a nationally known sculptor who lives and works in Park Rapids, Minn. "You can see the difference. A few thousand bucks in a rural area means a lot … where you wouldn't necessarily feel that dent in the Twin Cities."
Legacy dollars helped fund more than 18,000 grants — ranging from a few hundred dollars to hundreds of thousands — to artists and arts organizations between fiscal years 2010 and 2017. (Spangler himself nabbed a $10,000 grant in 2011.) The Minnesota State Arts Board receives and disperses almost half of the sales tax revenue that flows to the Arts and Cultural Heritage Fund. (Minnesota Historical Society and others get funding directly.)
"In the Twin Cities, there's a pretty established arts infrastructure," said Sue Gens, executive director of the Minnesota State Arts Board. Now Legacy grants are helping build that in communities across the state, she said: "If that's one of the things that Legacy does, that's fabulous."
'The life of a town'
In New London, pop. 1,355, such grants have funded a summer music festival. A 10-foot-tall sculpture that stands near the Middle Fork Crow River. And a wood-fired kiln in Bill Gossman's backyard.
Gossman is a potter, one who whistles while he digs his thumbs into a piece of porcelain clay. He's also the mayor.
"A harmonica playing, pottery creating mayor with a mustache like Water Days cotton candy," as the bookstore's owner, Heather Westberg King, described him in an essay.
In 2010, Gossman won a $7,000 Legacy grant to add a large new chamber onto his kiln, which is fueled by firewood, giving his pots, vases and vessels an earthy glow. Last month, as they do each year, potters from across the state trekked to Gossman's place. They drank coffee, chopped wood and packed the massive chamber with hundreds of their pieces.
TOP 10 NONPROFIT RECIPIENTS
|Minnesota Historical Society||$42.6 million|
|Minnesota Public Television||$6.2|
|Walker Art Center||$3.9|
|Ordway Center for the Performing Arts||$3.6|
|MacPhail Center for Music||$3.2|
|Hennepin Theatre Trust||$2.9|
|Minnesota Public Radio (MPR)||$2.6|
|Minnesota Children's Museum||$2.6|
Having a potter for a mayor matters, residents said, because he understands how the arts can support individuals, build community and fill storefronts. When Gossman took office in 2008 "everything was going down the toilet," he said. The recession had weakened a local economy in flux with the consolidation of family farms. The grocery store had closed, and the hardware store was about to. For-sale signs hung in Main Street windows.
Today, not a single empty storefront remains. Galleries and gift stores line the compact downtown. On a recent Sunday, a sign outside Goat Ridge Brewing Co. advertised brews and "pickin.' " Inside, a handful of musicians sitting in a circle played a Tom Petty tune on banjo and guitar.
"There's a rising awareness of the benefits of investing in the arts and culture, even in the smallest towns," said Sheila Smith, executive director of Minnesota Citizens for the Arts. "People want … amenities to draw young people, especially in places where they're losing people to the big cities.
"Having a vibrant arts and culture community contributes to the life of a town."
Last year, Smith's advocacy group published a report titled "Creative Minnesota" that showed that attendance at arts and culture organizations has swelled since the Legacy Amendment's passage — from 14.5 million in 2006 to 22 million in 2017. The economic effect of those arts groups grew 65 percent over that time, the report argues. Those numbers come with a caveat: The organization has gotten better at finding and counting arts groups.
More arts organizations mean better businesses, new studies suggest. The National Endowment for the Arts found in a November survey that businesses in rural counties with two or more performing arts organizations were 50 percent more likely to be innovators than businesses elsewhere. If a county claims four or more arts organizations, that rises to as high as 85 percent.
But rural arts groups face challenges: Nearly a third of their visitors travel "beyond a reasonable distance" to visit.
Creativity on Main Street
The Office of the Legislative Auditor recently began a deep look at the Minnesota State Arts Board, the state's largest recipient of Arts and Cultural Heritage Fund dollars. Its staff hasn't yet released the questions its evaluation will answer, but it will likely examine how lawfully the arts board allocates and monitors Legacy funds, including to the state's 11 regional arts councils. Results are expected in January 2019.
A Star Tribune analysis of Legacy dollars shows that from fiscal 2010 to 2017, the biggest recipients of funds via the state and regional arts boards was the Guthrie Theater, which was awarded $5.3 million. The Minnesota Orchestra got $4.8 million. The Walker Art Center, Ordway Center for the Performing Arts and MacPhail Center for Music came next.
But outstate Minnesota has received its fair share of Legacy dollars, several arts leaders in rural areas said. That's largely because of the 11 regional arts councils, established in the 1970s, that broadened the reach of public arts funding. The Legacy Amendment pumped more money into those existing systems, delivering arts money to every Minnesota county. Before, the Southwest Minnesota Arts Council — which grants to groups in New London — awarded $140,000 in state money. After, that amount more than doubled: In fiscal 2010, the council got $380,000 from the state.
"Just because we are very rural and very prairie does not mean our constituents are oblivious to the arts," said Nicole DeBoer, the council's executive director. "We have lots of requests and never quite enough to give out."
It's easier to nab a grant from a regional council than the Minnesota State Arts Board. While the state board funded 42 percent of the applications that it received from 2010 to 2017, the regional councils approved 69 percent.
"By the nature of how it was created, it does provide opportunities for Greater Minnesota, for smaller communities and rural areas," said John Davis, founder and executive director of Lanesboro Arts in southeastern Minnesota.
Thanks in large part to Davis, Lanesboro was already becoming a mini arts mecca when the Legacy Amendment passed. The city since tapped into that state funding, pairing it with local grants and national money. Over eight years of funding, Lanesboro Arts has been granted more than $350,000 in Legacy dollars, about the same as the Jungle Theater or Minnesota Fringe Festival in Minneapolis.
Arts turned Lanesboro into a nationally known hub for artists and tourists, with an arts-driven economy that belies its small size. "We're a teeny tiny town of 762 people," Davis pointed out, with a volunteer fire department.
Speaking at rural conferences across the country, Davis always mentions Minnesota's Legacy Amendment, which other places regard as a model. "I would not be surprised if in 2020 that other states look at implementing their own type of amendments because of the amazing impact the Legacy Amendment has had in Minnesota," he said.
But the amendment isn't perfect, Davis said. He believes that some arts funds should be set aside for rural capital projects, as many small cities struggle with infrastructure challenges in the wake of waning tax revenue and cuts to Local Government Aid.
"Right now an organization could get money to host a ballet, but if their roof is caving in … they can't access it," Davis said. "I think that was something that just out of the gate was a structural flaw."
New London looks a little like Lanesboro did a decade ago. It looks very different from the New London of Heather Westberg King's youth.
"It was a really quiet town," said King, 42, with insurance companies lining Main Street, rather than galleries. King and her three children moved back to New London in 2014, after she separated from her husband. "I knew I was going to need my parents," she said.
She also knew what had grown while she was away: "a supportive community of people who like to do creative things." Last year, King opened the bookstore inside a Main Street coffee shop with the help of a community foundation loan. She expected to sell a few books a day that summer. Instead, she sold a few dozen a day.
Similarly, the storytelling shows surpassed her expectations. While living in Minneapolis, King produced the popular Listen To Your Mother story series. "Bringing that back here, I knew it was going to be a challenge," she said, "because in any Midwestern small town, it's a challenge to get people feeling things — and to be comfortable airing such personal stuff in this public way.
"But I wanted the community to learn how that connects all of us."
Data reporter Jeff Hargarten contributed to this report.