As theaters and galleries, bookstores and music venues stopped and shuttered, canceled and postponed, Sue Gens knew the financial hit they were taking. The executive director of the Minnesota State Arts Board knew, more than most, what they were grappling with.

Still, despite the upheaval, they streamed.

“It’s been fascinating to watch,” Gens said. “Every artist and every arts organization is dealing with the issues related to postponing or canceling. But quickly, they’re also saying: How can we continue to connect with an audience? How can we continue to bring people together? How can we continue to bring this important gift of creative, artistic expression into their lives when they’re concerned, when they’re uncertain, when they are craving connection to other people?”

Gens spoke recently about what the Arts Board — the state agency in charge of awarding Legacy Amendment dollars to the arts — is doing to help as the coronavirus pandemic endangers Minnesota’s cultural landscape. The board is a key part of that landscape, awarding millions of dollars of public funding to artists and organizations each year via some 600 grants. The conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Q: What questions or requests are you getting right now?

A: Much of what we’re hearing is: “How is my current grant going to be affected?” “What kind of changes can I make to these projects?” We’ve encouraged people to talk to their program officer, and we are going to be as flexible as we can be.

 

Q: What are the limits of that flexibility?

A: At the moment, all of the grants we have awarded are project-specific. So if somebody called up and said, “I want to just take this project funding and use it all to pay the rent on our building,” that might not be something we could do.

Mostly, it’s been: How do we convert this into virtual programming? We’re not going to have to rent the venue, so can we move those dollars out of paying for a theater and pay the artist more? Or have somebody work with us to broadcast this?

Q: Can the Arts Board give out new emergency grants?

A: We try to get our grant dollars out as early in the year as we possibly can. So at our January board meeting, we approved our last grants for fiscal year 2020 [which ends June 30]. We want the money out in the field as early as possible. The Legislature appropriates dollars, and they give us a time limit to use those dollars.

So at the moment, we don’t have any more fiscal 2020 funding to allocate — which in any other year we would be celebrating right now. Some of the regional arts councils have not yet spent all of theirs. I’ve told them: If you have fiscal 2020 dollars and you want to redirect them for some other kind of grant program or infrastructure emergency program, we will work with you.

Q: Can you give an example of a council that’s shifting to emergency?

A: The Metropolitan Regional Arts Council was the first to do it. They put some money into the emergency relief fund at Springboard for the Arts. The regional arts council that’s based in Duluth did something similar, redirecting dollars for self-employed artists.

 

Q: What is the next round of funding? Can you change anything there?

A: Three of our deadlines have passed, and we have three sets of grant applications in hand. Normally at this time we would be reviewing those applications and work samples, preparing the panelists to come together in open public meetings to discuss and rank them.

Citizen involvement really is one of the best things that we do — asking Minnesotans to be part of the process of deciding how dollars are awarded. We want that to continue even if it continues in a different format. Most likely conference call. The panels are scheduled to start meeting on April 30, so we’ve got a pretty tight window.

Normally at this point, the panelists would be going out and doing visits, physically going out and meeting with applicants and discussing their proposal and asking them some questions. We’ve turned all of those into calls. That work, even though it’s not being done physically in person, it’s continued.

We’re trying to think about how best to use the dollars appropriated for fiscal 2021. How can we invest those dollars in the best way, knowing that next year is going to be a transition year, a period of rebuilding the infrastructure. And when I say infrastructure, I don’t just mean organizations. It’s also the people that do the work.

How do we shore up and strengthen the infrastructure of the arts communities so that as the economy improves, as people feel they have discretionary income, as they are able to be out and about, that they will be able to recover as quickly as possible?

Q: The dollars that have already been appropriated: Do you have the ability to give those as general operating funds versus project funds, to give groups more flexibility? Is that something that you would recommend?

A: The first thing that we’re trying to do with the Legislature is ask for more time. A joint letter has gone from a number of us who are receiving Legacy appropriations, including the Historical Society and others, saying, “One thing you could do that would be very helpful to our communities without spending another dime is to give us more time with the dollars we have.”

The question about whether we can change an existing grant contract — that one we’re going to need to get some advice on. The state is very specific about contracts.

Q: What should the state be doing to help?

A: At this point, the governor and the Legislature have been primarily focused on health, on getting money for emergency medical facilities, doctors, hospitals, equipment to save lives. The Legislature has not really taken up any bills about the economic impact. If you listened to any of the floor debate, they were saying that’s going to be the next phase — the economic impact of all of this, certainly on the arts community, on the small business community, on the self-employed, on the human services sector.

Now, in the federal stimulus bill, there were additional dollars for the federal cultural agencies, which is good news. Exactly how that money might come to Minnesota, we don’t know yet. But it’s important to note that Congress did not forget about the arts.

Q: Legacy funding could be dramatically affected by this crisis, right?

A: Yes. All of the Legacy funds come from sales taxes. So if people are buying less, which they certainly will be while they are staying at home, there’s a lot of sales tax generated there. The money has to come into the fund in order to spend it.

 

Q: Tell me about the survey you put out.

A: There was a conference call [recently] with people who are either funders or service organizations, and we were all talking about what each of us could contribute in this effort. Because we have probably one of the most extensive arts mailing lists in the state, I offered that we could send out a survey. Something simple to get a sense of two primary kinds of questions.

One was to help the state and regional arts councils understand what we could do: What do you need from us? And then there’s a broader question beyond your work in the arts: What else do you need? We launched the survey on March 19. In a week, we got about 2,300 responses. We’re going to start analyzing the data that’s come in already. But we’re going to keep the survey open for the foreseeable future.

 

Q: You are a frequent arts-goer. What are you missing most at this moment?

A: Normally it’s really hard to juggle all of the things on the calendar. It’s very strange not to be doing that.

I think about the performances that I had tickets for that have been canceled. In some cases they’re asking to convert it into an artist fund, which is great. Because then those artists and the creative team that put that work together still get to be paid something.

There are lot of empty nights on the calendar. But we’ll come back. Those nights will start to fill up again.