Chiseling Away

A few choice words about our governor’s assault on the arts

Tim Pawlenty will someday sit, as all former governors of Minnesota do, for his official portrait. T-Paw better hope the artist doesn’t know him from JWoww.

This is the governor, after all, who in 2005 not only nixed naming a state poet laureate (a proposal requiring zero funding), but smarmily suggested that to do otherwise would spawn “requests for a state mime, interpretive dancer, or potter,” as though the arts were some kind of infectious disease. Now, he’s seeking a 33-percent cut in funding this biennium for the Minnesota State Arts Board, which distributes the state’s arts dollars, and the complete elimination of the agency by 2013. This would dry up all state support for the arts except what is funneled through the new Legacy Amendment tax (which was intended to be above and beyond appropriations to the Arts Board), effectively setting us back to 1903. That’s when Minnesota—despite having fewer citizens than Chicago, more lumberjacks than painters, and exactly zero interpretive dancers—created the predecessor to the Arts Board and began its storied rise from tundra territory to cultural enclave.

The arts are now arguably as Minnesotan as walleye. In fact, we’re the number-one arts state in the country, a bragging right that annually costs us each just $5.80, less than a bucket of minnows. And it’s more than paid off, with an estimated economic impact about equal to revenue from fishing. Moreover, given our notable lack of oceans, mountains, and circulation, the arts are what attract others to us. Our top museums regularly draw more patrons than our professional sports teams. And, in fact, about the only thing garnering the state more national press in the last five years (“Seven best arts cities,” “Who put the art in heartland?”) has been our collapsing infrastructure. The arts are so identified with Minnesota that we overwhelmingly voted in 2008 to additionally support them through the Legacy Amendment. For an elected official to ignore this importance isn’t just going against the grain, it’s going rogue.

But then, at this point in Pawlenty’s all-but-declared presidential campaign, he might not recognize a Minnesotan if one showed up at his Washington fundraisers in a parka. He even brags in a recent Esquire about defying “the history, the tradition, the culture” of Minnesota, calling himself “quite a departure.” Indeed, he’s a departure even from his fellow Minnesota Republicans: Governor Arne Carlson approved the largest funding increase for the arts in state history, some of which probably even supported a mime.

No, this isn’t about donkeys and elephants. It’s about the 800-pound gorilla in the capitol: Pawlenty’s misguided notion that if we cut things like the arts and dropped Minnesota’s overall tax burden (currently about the 12th-highest in the country) closer to that of the average American, we’d somehow be better off. It hasn’t worked out so far—from 2004 to 2008, Minnesota was actually the only state in the union where median household income dropped—and it likely never will. Because we’re not average Americans. We’re Minnesotans, well above average by almost any measure but temperature. And if we chip away at the things that make us unique, like being the number-one state for the arts, we become less Minnesotan, and, sadly, more average.