Sheila Smith has spent 25 years in small towns and at the State Capitol, transforming how Minnesota funds the arts.

A force behind the Legacy Amendment, Smith announced Tuesday that she'll retire at the end of February as executive director of Minnesota Citizens for the Arts (MCA), a post she has held since 1996.

"I really, really love the arts," Smith said by phone. "And I really love arts people. Working with them has always been a joy." But she's ready to step aside for new leadership. "It was a tough decision, but I think it's time."

The nonprofit will soon start searching for "the right leader for the next 25 years," board co-chair Ross Willits said in a statement. "Sheila leaves a tremendous legacy — a safe harbor for the arts in our state for many years to come."

Smith, 57, championed the state's Legacy Fund, public support for culture that is envied by arts boosters nationwide.

"For the last quarter of a century, she's been spectacular for MCA," said Sen. Dick Cohen, DFL-St. Paul, the amendment's co-author. "It's clearly the single best arts advocacy organization in the country."

Cohen has spoken to folks in some 20 states interested in replicating Minnesota's funding mechanism. But so far, no state has. "It's clear they didn't have the advantage we have here — an arts advocacy group as effective as MCA."

Under Smith, the nonprofit's Arts Advocacy Day at the Capitol grew from a hundred people in a conference room into a major lobbying event attracting more than 1,000 attendees. She also helped launch "Creative Minnesota," a series of reports tallying the economic impact of the arts.

But her long tenure might be best remembered for the unlikely union of hunters, anglers, environmentalists and artists that won passage of the Legacy Amendment.

Many mornings, Smith would pile into a van with leaders of those other groups, trekking to small towns and making their case for a constitutional amendment to raise the state sales tax. It passed with 56% of the vote — a margin even bigger than Barack Obama's in winning the presidency that year — "because it brought together disparate groups who together wanted to support and preserve the best of our state," Smith said.

Before that 25-year funding commitment kicked in, Minnesota ranked ninth among states in per capita public funding of the arts. Today, it's first. The state spends about $7 per person a year on the arts, according to the National Assembly of State Arts Agencies, more than Hawaii and New York.

In 2009, Smith won the Alene Valkanas Award from Americans for the Arts, a national advocacy group.

"Sheila represents the gold standard," said Ann Graham, executive director of Texans for the Arts. "If I look across the landscape, nobody has what Minnesota has."

Graham attended an Americans for the Arts conference in Minnesota and noted the Legacy Amendment logos on signs and in programs. She knows that behind that logo is a decadelong process. "You don't just snap your fingers and get an amendment like that."

Smith is known as a powerful public speaker. But Graham sees her as a "keen listener," too: "She's really paying attention. That is what you need to be able to navigate something as political — I'm not saying partisan — but as political as we all do."

Growing up, Smith's father served as a campaign chair for Republican candidates, and her mother took her to Republican state conventions. "So I got to live in a house where political activism was expected of you," she said. "It was fun for me to translate the political world to the arts."

At St. Olaf College, Smith majored in Shakespeare and, during an interview to become Cohen's legislative aide, the two talked about the Guthrie Theater's recent production of "Richard III."

"I credit Shakespeare for everything," Smith said.

Cohen said that MCA's strength comes partly from its focus on rural areas and Republican lawmakers. In other states, he noted, the arts can be stereotyped as an urban cause — or a Democratic one.

Smith, who recently served as volunteer co-chair of Minnesota Arts for Biden, believes the arts transcend political and geographic boundaries.

"It would be better for our culture and our society to think more about the ways we can work together on things we have in common," Smith said, "than to go back into our corners and yell at each other."

The "Creative Minnesota" reports, which debuted in 2015, grew out of years of frustration about how to communicate the value of the arts.

"We were always complaining about the same thing — there was no hard data," Smith said. "How do you advocate for something you can't define?"

So MCA teamed up with other organizations, including the Mc­Knight Foundation and the Minnesota State Arts Board, to measure spending and attendance for the arts. In 2019, the report counted some 1,900 nonprofit arts and culture organizations in Minnesota that served 23.2 million attendees. It pegged the arts' annual economic impact in the state at $2.2 billion.

The effort, which Smith chairs, has done that kind of analysis on a smaller scale, too, tallying the economic impact of the arts in a single city or a region.

Those focused reports give artists a way to advocate for themselves using a language local officials know well. "To me, arts advocacy is about educating," Smith said.

Smith is retiring from MCA but perhaps not from work altogether. For now, she's hoping to paint and, post-pandemic, to travel. An artist herself, she used a sabbatical several years ago to paint each day. She realized that she needed subject matter, so she asked her Facebook friends to send her photos of their dogs.

The resulting portraits capture their scruff, their bow ties and their wild eyes.

Jenna Ross • 612-673-7168 • @ByJenna