Sunday, May 1, 2011

Advocating for The Arts

Originally Posted on March 19, 2011

I felt like the White Rabbit from Alice in Wonderland a couple of Tuesdays ago. I was late. I forgot that it was Arts Advocacy day in every state of the union.

The Minnesota Citizens for the Arts facilitated this particular lobbying event in St. Paul at the State Capitol building. The main gist of this event was to lobby members of legislature to ensure that state continues their support for the arts. Part of this support is slated to come from the new sales tax addendum voted in 2008 known as the Legacy Amendment. As stated in this new state constitutional amendment, certain percentage of the sales tax revenue is supposed to go directly to fund the State Arts Board and the regional arts councils.

Of the additional sales tax revenue, the MCA was advocating that the legislature earmark 50% of those funds to the State Arts Board and the regional arts councils. That way, the funds go towards building the infrastructure for these creative communities to continue providing an integral piece of culture in every county of the state.

Why was this important to advocate? Minnesota had been one of the models for the nation in terms of state support for the arts and culture. Understanding that there needs to be budgetary prudence in order for the state to cut as much of the deficit as possible, the amendment was designed to ensure that the funds will always be to continue creating these cultural communities statewide. Otherwise, this state will lose many outlets for its citizens to participate in a creative economy.

As I arrived to the state capitol, my small group of arts advocates met with the local legislators to my current place of residence: Senator Ann Rest (D-MN) and Rep. Lyndon Carlson (D-MN). What I heard were two divergent thoughts on the same subject. Senator Rest did not support the sales tax referendum. Rest also made it clear that any funds going to the State Arts Board and the regional arts councils should be based on arts programs – not administrative costs. Our visit with her concluded with her talking passionately to use the funds towards renovations of the state capitol building. It appeared she was quite passionate about this project.

On the other hand, we found Rep. Carlson very receptive and welcoming of our message. Carlson was the chair of the House Finance Committee when the Legacy Amendment was brought up. He supported the amendment and made it clear to us that he supported the arts wholeheartedly. You can tell there was some concern in his voice as the 2010 elections yielded a switch in the makeup of the legislature since Carlson and the DFL are now in the minority in both houses.

Even though the arts have the support of the current Governor Mark Dayton, there are still actual calls to dive into the funds created by the Legacy Amendment to balance the remaining portions of the general state budget. By diving into the Legacy Amendment would not only be unconstitutional and against the wishes of 56 percent of the state’s voters, it will also threaten everything from environmental programs to Senator Rest’s pet project to restore the state capitol building.

Let’s not forget that every state legislature is under close watch since the bill to eliminate collective bargaining provisions for unionized state workers in Wisconsin was introduced to the anger of tens of thousands of citizens of that state.

How the split in ideas between my two representatives of my current neighborhood affect me was seen in subsequent conversations and actions after my visit to the state capitol. As I am trying to convert my graduate studies towards a new professional track, I am not encouraged by various elements preventing me from getting a good entry-to-mid-level position at an arts or multicultural organization. The big number I keep hearing has been the 50 percent of all non-profits ion Minnesota are running into deficits fiscally. Not to mention the growth in my own graduate program would create a greater gulf between a potentially small amount of open positions in our field against an increasing number of applicants in the local arts community.

When I look outside the state for arts positions, I have to remind myself that Minnesota has it better than the rest of the nation. This had been the message all along at Saint Mary’s with anyone visiting our classrooms or teaching our classes who are working in the arts and non-profit fields. Yet, this state has to ensure its leadership amongst other states in terms of providing funding for the arts in turn to satisfy the needs of its citizens for a creative community that continues as a tradition in Minnesota.

But, what if the legislature all of the sudden denies funds for the arts, even within the Legacy Amendment? What if the state decides that the arts are too frivolous to support through public monies? Of course, I’d ask the reasoning for a state to backtrack on a commitment made decades before to ensure the state’s cultural heritage and the pursuit to continue Minnesota’s creative edge would be reversed even to fill the deficit in the state’s general fund.

It would make my future job, along with the jobs of my other fellow Saint Mary’s students and alumni, much harder to execute.

If you’re reading this and think I’m preaching to the choir, you know what to do. If you missed Art Advocacy Day, circle back to your legislative representatives and ask where they stand on arts funding through both the Legacy Amendment and the general budget. Ask whether they would allow funds going through the State Arts Board and the regional arts councils to be used to administer their programs rather than just the programs themselves. It takes the people behind the scenes for the art to be presented. I also ask whether they would uphold the state constitution for the will of the voters that supported the Legacy Amendment to keep those funds away from the general funds of the state and execute the funds intended use as stated by law.

I would like to know whether my future job would be to fight and apologize rather than develop and create within the context of the arts or in support of multicultural communities. As much as I am concerned about Senator Rest’s views on the arts and cultural heritage in terms of the Legacy Amendment, I hope that Rep. Carlson’s views will win over both houses for Governor Dayton to fulfill his promise to the cultural and creative communities of this state – myself included.

That is why I am an advocate for the arts here in Minnesota.

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