Money In, Art Out

Arts funding and the cost of free money

In theatrical terms, it is known as "upstaging," as in: Minnesota Gov. Arne Carlson was recently upstaged by a philanthropic cheesehead. During the last week of July, Wisconsin businessman Jerry Frautschi announced plans to donate $50 million for the development of a "culture district" in downtown Madison. While giddy politicians there clamored to give thanks and theaters and galleries began to compile wish lists that would give Santa pause, Minnesotans might have experienced a twinge of arts envy.

A little more than a year has passed since Carlson galvanized the culture trust from the stage of the Children's Theatre with a surprising pledge to spend an extra $12 million on the arts in Minnesota over two years--a windfall that now seems the equivalent of hitting five out of six numbers in Powerball. The arts, Carlson said then, represent "the soul of our community, and reflect the history of our community." With the Madison millions, the price of a municipality's soul just got a little dearer.

Of course big-ticket arts funding looks a lot like business as usual: the same old political gamesmanship, the same fiscal legerdemain, the same cast of characters. Two years ago the Minneapolis Downtown Council selected as its president and chief executive officer Sam Grabarski, a Juilliard-trained woodwind player and the former head of the Minnesota State Arts Board (whose budget he increased by more than $6 million a year during his 12-year tenure). Lee Lynch, then chairman-elect of the Downtown Council (and also a major investor in Historic Theater Group, the for-profit company which operates the Historic and State Theaters) trumpeted Grabarski as "an exceptional and proven manager and lobbyist," while the Strib declared, "Former Arts Board head recruited to make 'slam dunks' for business."

Meanwhile John Labosky, the man Grabarski replaced at the Downtown Council, took over the St. Paul equivalent, Capital City Partnership. In addition to Lawson Software and the Minnesota Wild, he and Mayor Norm Coleman have tapped the public coffers to bring downtown St. Paul their version of culture: a new children's museum and a new science museum. (One can only imagine the future of state arts funding should Coleman be elected governor.)

A decade ago the preferred tool of urban revitalization was the publicly subsidized shopping center. Today it's the publicly subsidized entertainment corridor. Witness the paved expanse called Block E, which at present plays host to the vacant Shubert Theater, a few hundred parking spaces, and a free jukebox that bombards shiftless youth with Vivaldi in an amateur psychology experiment. The Minneapolis City Council has pushed for the construction of a retail temple--but this is truly yesterday's kind of monument. Other proposals envision an "art park," a rehabilitated Shubert, or a downtown Guthrie.

Any of these things could come to pass--or none of them. The only notion that seems fixed is that this space will be made to appeal to the same folks who gather at the State and Orpheum theaters for the Hennepin Avenue "Broadway" season. They will be enticed to come, and once they've come they'll spend money. To this end, they will be shielded from the--how to put it delicately--local color. As Theater Live! publicists noted in a press release a few years back, "Minneapolis Mounted Patrol and the newly expanded downtown beat patrol will be present for performances to ensure a safe theater-going experience for patrons."

Arts funding doesn't only come in the form of big-ticket building projects such as Block E. It also involves individual grants to writers, performers, and other artists. Two years ago City Pages writer Julie Caniglia rattled that scene with an article called "Why Art Sucks," in which she argued that the recent proclivity for "identity art"--works whose merit is directly proportional to their creators' personal pain--has led to the debasement of aesthetics. As some of the writers who contributed to this edition of City Pages will attest, the debate about funders' influence on artists' priorities continues, and has at times spawned the same kind of paradoxical rationalizations that inspire the backlash against affirmative action. Even free money exacts a price.

In assembling this issue of City Pages, we set out to survey the many facets of arts funding with an eye toward their common principles: They all involve grand schemes to spend someone else's money, and most ultimately reflect the social agenda of the institutions doing the giving. In that vein, frequent contributor David Brauer writes about the potential relocation of the Guthrie, and a scheme that would use the theater to help tie the city's old-money neighborhoods to new housing and park projects on the near north side.

Staffer Kelly Wittman follows the Minnesota Orchestra's unsuccessful search for a summer home in the wilds of wary suburbia.

Neal Cuthbert, arts program officer at the McKnight Foundation, reveals some wrong assumptions about giving--including the theories he used to hold when he was looking for dollars from the other side of the desk.

Local artists and writers Wendy Knox, Syl Jones, and Mark Anthony Rolo discuss what they would not do for money.

Novelist Alexs Pate offers a previously unpublished excerpt from his upcoming murder mystery Multicultiboho Sideshow, which centers on a $500,000 arts grant and the eight candidates vying to make this killing.

The City Pages staff provides a handy reference guide to writing your own grant application and a tutorial on the secret lexicon that could bring you fortune.

Contributing writer Anne Ursu profiles a nearly 60-year-old theater that operates according to the artistry of the bottom line.

And finally, we present extensive previews and listings for the fall arts season. You've probably already paid for some of this art. Might as well check out what you bought.

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