How will the arts tax be spent?

Most Minnesotans are aware that a constitutional amendment passed in the last election creating a small tax benefiting the outdoors and the arts. Much less is known about how the money for raised for the arts will be allocated. In fact, no one does — it has yet to be determined. But the process began last week with the convening of the 2009 Legislature–yes, the appropriations will be determined by politicians.

The main committee considering the options is a new one called the House Cultural and Outdoors Resources Finance Division, chaired by Rep. Mary Murphy, a DFLer in her 17th term from the St. Louis County (Duluth) area. Considerations will also be made in the Senate, specifically the Economic Development and Housing Division chaired by Sen. David Tomassoni, coincidentally another DFLer from St. Louis County.

The outstate affiliations of the folks in charge may well mean the funds won’t be siphoned off by the usual downtown suspects. And frankly that’s the hope of Minnesotan Citizens for the Arts, the arts advocacy group that had the most to do with winning voter favor for the amendment. The group is angling for at least 50 percent of the money to go to the Minnesota State Arts Board and Regional Art Councils, so that it has the potential of reaching a wide swath of the state.

The State Arts Board is indeed a state agency, and if that rings of art a ala bureaucrats--committee-organized exhibitions celebrating the state and community diversity dances–you’d be thankfully mistaken. Sure its website offers an online directory of Minnesota Folk Artists, but the State Arts Board is recognized throughout the artists community for its broad and generous grants to individual artists and organizations (indeed, the Guthrie Theater is slated to receive $453,318 this year; In the Heart of the Beast Puppet and Mask Theatre some $37,480). If there’s a common denominator it’s broad public engagement with a touch of uplift — among the playwrights receiving grants this year, for instance, are Alan Berks for a piece exploring the intersection of our private and public personas “at the place where we reach for intimacy” and Jeanne Calvit for travel to Africa to research a cross-cultural piece called “We Are All Africans.”

Of course, that’s just the plan for 50 percent of the money. What would you do with it? Not that there will be much to distribute until the funds start accumulating. For now, the Citizens for the Arts are trying also to preserve the arts’ general state allotment. And in light of the amendment plus the deficit, that may not be easy–the last time we hit a crunch like this, the arts funding was slashed 30 percent.