I want something more than money from Minneapolis

by Alan M. Berks • Aug. 17

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I'm about to disagree with Michelle Hensley, Marianne Combs, and Leah Cooper. Have mercy on my soul.

Earlier this month, while many people including myself, were freaking out about the coming Fringe Festival, Michelle Hensley received an non-financial award from the Minneapolis Arts Commission. Awards are nice, but especially in this economic climate, financial support is better. She took the opportunity provided her to point out that while Minneapolis brags about what a strong arts community it houses, it gives almost no financial support to the arts. Actually, unless you're a public water fountain designer, none. Zero. Nothing.

Marianne Combs at State of the Arts proceeded to write about that odd fact and used some stunning data from other cities to drive the point home. Wichita, Kansas, for example, spent $3.9 million on the arts in 2009. The mind boggles.

Subsequently, Leah Cooper (Minnesota Theater Alliance Program Director, freelance director, co-creator of this website, and my lovely wife) posted a link to the article on our MinnesotaPlaylist Facebook page urging people to tell their council member that Minneapolis can do better. Because the MinnesotaPlaylist Facebook page is connected to my personal Twitter account, people around the webs re-tweeted a message that appeared to come from me.

The only problem is that I happen to disagree with Michelle, Marianne, and Leah--which, considering how formidable each of them are, kind of frightens me a little.

On the one hand, yes, I suppose Minneapolis should give more money to support the arts. I believe the arts contribute an amazing amount of value to the quality of life of the city and the individuals in it. And I believe that has been proven by data over and over, again and again-- so much so, in fact, that anyone who doesn't believe it at this point, is just being willfully obtuse. Matthew Foster wrote a great rant about it here.

On the other hand, I suspect that Wichita, Kansas doesn't have the kind of foundational support that we have in Minnesota, nor did they just pass the Legacy Amendment which has dedicated a nationally-noticeable amount of money to the arts for the next 25 years, directly from the state. So, comparing absolute numbers of city support isn't necessarily a fair comparison. If I knew someone else was paying my parking meter, I wouldn't waste time putting coins in the slot either.

Don't get me wrong. Of course, we could always use more money. Even at Legacy Amendment levels, the arts still get a minuscule amount of government funding compared to both the public good they provide, and the revenue they bring back to the city.

I just think that the argument about money obscures a much more important issue:

The City of Minneapolis gives nothing to its arts community, though it takes a great deal of pride in it; more importantly, the City of Minneapolis ASKS nothing of its artists. Money is beside the point until the mayor and the city council and the citizens who voted for them see the arts as more than just a tourist attraction.

Michelle Hensley runs a theater company that takes high-quality theater to prisons. Mixed Blood Theatre tours incredibly well-written shows about various cultures to schools all over the state. Pillsbury House Theatre has won awards for the Chicago Avenue Project where kids from difficult homes and neighborhoods see their own words performed on stage by the best actors in town. Artists around the city work in schools, low-income communities, and with adults and youth with disabilities. In the theaters, they interact with people from a variety of income levels all the time.

Dear Mayor Rybak, are you under the impression that the only thing these people know is how to light a stage?

What really really bothers me is the sense that the city of Minneapolis doesn't believe that arts and artistry have anything to contribute to the public policy that runs this city. Unless I'm missing something, creative artists are barely included in the discussions of how this city should be run. Businesspeople are. Social service organizations are. Academics are. People who spend their lives in cubicles and call themselves public intellectuals are. Teachers' unions are. Etc., etc. . . But, it seems, the general consensus is that artists don't know much about much except making pretty pictures. . . What place, exactly, do you think inspires those pretty pictures?

I think that when we say we want more money from the city, in a state with more funding opportunities than many many others, we cloud the issue. Yes, more money would be nice, but what may be even nicer is for the city to genuinely take advantage of the incredible knowledge, skill, creativity, and passion of the artists that live here. (I suspect the money would follow then anyway.)

I can't help but look at the City of Chicago with envy--where Mayor Daley has worked the arts into the very fabric of every decision the city makes. If a storefront is empty, fill it with art. If a building is getting built, make sure you consult artists. In a speech I saw a few months ago, he acknowledged what seems obvious once you hear it: "Politics doesn't bring people together; artists bring people together." And: "If you don't have art, you don't have a community."

Yes, I want more support for the arts, but I also want the city to ask more of me. I want to give support from the arts, and I'm afraid that when we complain about Minneapolis' level of funding we just look like we have our hands out. I really want to use my hands to pitch in.

What would that look like?


Yo, Wichita is in Kansas,

Yo, Wichita is in Kansas, not Nebraska. (Both states are very nice, but very different.)


Last month I said Tyrone Guthrie was a actor rather than a director. This month I put Wichita in the wrong state. . . Fringe show made my head come apart. Will start putting it back together.

Thanks for the correction.