How Trump’s plan to gut the NEA could hit Minnesota musicians

Chris Koza

Chris Koza Darin Back

There’s been no shortage of alarming news coming out of Washington, D.C., this winter, but one bit of information had artists and the organizations that support them particularly rattled.

On January 19, The Hill reported that the incoming Trump administration was considering the total elimination of the National Endowment for the Arts. Such a drastic shift in the federal government’s arts policies could significantly affect the Twin Cities arts landscape — including our local rock and hip-hop scenes.

You might think that grant funding all flows to classical ensembles and other high-art endeavors. How, then, could the NEA’s demise possibly slow, say, Hippo Campus’s nonstop upward trajectory? But local arts organizations, including music-affiliated nonprofits, create the environment in which artists thrive, and these groups depend in part on NEA grants.

“If there was a cut in NEA funding, the state arts board and the regional arts councils would both feel it pretty significantly,” says Ellen Stanley, executive director of the Minnesota Music Coalition, a statewide network for independent musicians. “That impacts how much money they can give in direct grants to artists, as well as money to organizations that hire artists.”

In 2016, the NEA issued 81 grants in Minnesota, totaling $5.6 million. These didn’t go directly to individual artists, though many went to arts organizations such as Minnesota Public Radio, MacPhail Center for Music, and the Cedar Cultural Center. And yes, many classical ensembles and organizations received grants too, including the Minnesota Orchestra, the Minnesota Opera, and VocalEssence.

NEA funds are also disbursed through partnership agreements to organizations like the Minnesota State Arts Board. The MSAB then passes the money along to artists and to the organizations that support them. These arts groups perform a number of different functions. They lobby legislators on behalf of artists. They train, employ, and educate artists. And they fund venues, projects, and individual arts events.

She Rock She Rock, a nonprofit that teaches music as a form of empowerment for girls, women, and female-identifying people, has used funds from the Minnesota State Arts Board to help fund events like their Girls Rock n Roll Retreats and Beats by Girlz, which teaches girls electronic music production.

She Rock She Rock program director Sam Stahlmann worries about losing services the MSAB provides to nonprofit organizations, helping them write grants and navigate the revenue streams available to them. Arts-oriented nonprofits tend to be staffed by artists themselves, Stahlmann says, so organizations like hers value guidance from state agencies.

“It’s myself and one other person who work year-round for the organization as employees,” says Stahlmann. “We’re both trained musicians who are now trying to learn everything we can about running a nonprofit.”

The Cedar Cultural Center performs two of those functions listed above: It’s a performance venue that also educates. The Cedar received $90,000 directly from the NEA last fall, $10,000 toward its annual Global Roots Festival and $80,000 for Midnimo, a series of live events featuring Somali musicians. Considering the venue’s annual budget of around $2 million, that $90,000 may seem relatively small, but executive director Adrienne Dorn is concerned about the precedent that elimination of the NEA would set for future cuts.

“A lot of other things happening in the political climate negatively affect our organization as well,” Dorn says. “In the midst of all of this it just means a lot of anxiety and confusion around what to expect and how that’s going to affect our programing and our community.”

The Minnesota Music Coalition’s Stanley says that while independent musicians do not rely on grants, they would still be affected were the NEA eliminated. The MMC, which receives funding from the MSAB, organizes resources and opportunities for independent musicians throughout the state, with a membership ranging from Communist Daughter to Dessa to the Suicide Commandos.

“A lot more of our musicians that we work with in the popular music genres, I wouldn’t say the majority of them regularly access this funding,” she says. “I think where they would feel it more significantly is in that indirect way, like the venues that employ them that might not be able to give them the same kind of guarantees, and that would really significantly affect their ability to make a living as a musician.”

But some individual musicians do receive grants directly. When Chris Koza of Rogue Valley secured MSAB funding, the grant not only gave him more freedom to work on his music, but also made him a sometime music educator, working on songwriting and performing with students through school residencies, often in rural areas.

“There were a couple venues in smaller towns that wanted to book me or book one of my projects, and it was contingent on them getting a grant for something, like an operating grant,” he says. That gave him the idea to apply for grants on his own.

Due to competition, a few venues lowering the pay for performers because of funding cuts could mean that all of them eventually pay less, Stanley fears. She adds that even fairly successful musicians often continue to offset their music careers with other types of work, and suggested the private sector would need a deeper understanding of the modern music economy before it could be expected to step up and fill a government funding gap.

“I think there’s an impression in the public that, especially popular musicians, they’re like, ‘Oh, well they get paid to play the gig,’” Stanley said. “So there’s so much education that has to take place, and I would say not just with the general public, but certainly with some of our legislators because that’s just not the reality.”

At the center of our arts funding infrastructure sits the Minnesota State Arts Board. The MSAB received $770,300 from the NEA this year. That’s just under 2 percent of its $39.5 million budget, but Dorn says the possible impact if that money were gone should not be underestimated.

“While that funding directly from the NEA is important and valuable, what would be really devastating would be to decrease the ability of the Minnesota State Arts Board to support arts and culture organizations here in Minnesota,” she says.

And yet, Minnesota has some advantages over other states. If the NEA is eliminated, we’ve still got the Clean Water, Land, and Legacy Amendment to the state constitution. The Legacy Amendment uses a slight state sales tax increase to boost four funds, including the Arts and Cultural Heritage Fund, which supplied $31 million to the MSAB’s budget this year.

“Minnesota is wonderfully unique in that we are the only state that has the arts written into our constitution,” Stanley says. “If Minnesotans really want to stay true to these values, we should be fighting to keep as much funding as we can for the arts.”