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Arts Advocacy Day 2009. Photo courtesy of Minnesota Citizens for the Arts.

Arts Advocacy Day 2009. Photo courtesy of Minnesota Citizens for the Arts

Hundreds of arts-friendly folks are expected to descend on the capitol this Thursday to lobby their legislators on behalf of Minnesota artists and arts funding. The statewide advocacy organization, Minnesota Citizens for the Arts (MCA), expects more than 700 people to turn out for this Thursday’s Arts Advocates Day in downtown St. Paul. The day will begin with a rally at the Minnesota History Center at 8:30 a.m., featuring a live performance of “America the Beautiful” by the New Standards to get everyone fired up. Then, the assembled advocates will head over to the capitol for a morning of meetings with state legislators to talk about the arts issues and concerns important to them this year.

Since 2008, when Minnesotans voted to amend the state’s constitution to slightly increase the sales tax for the sake of dedicating funds for conservation, clean water, parks and the state’s arts and cultural heritage, the annual event has focused on preserving and fine-tuning the distribution of those so-called Legacy Amendment funds. MCA’s press release states, “Last year arts advocates had to fight off legislative suggestions that the Arts & Culture Fund be used to build a stadium. In the end, the legislature secured other resources to build the stadium and left the Arts Fund alone.”

Again this year, MCA’s advocacy efforts center on how those Legacy Amendment dollars will be spent: They’re asking lawmakers to distribute a full 50 percent of the arts-specific funds gleaned from the amendment to the Minnesota State Arts Board and Regional Arts Councils (up from 43 percent currently). Applicant demand for those grants has far outpaced revenues available thus far; the state arts board can now only fund about half the eligible incoming requests for grants and services. MCA’s director, Sheila Smith, says funneling more of Legacy Amendment monies to the state arts board also ensures that grants drawn from the Arts and Cultural Heritage Fund will be fairly distributed across all of the state’s 87 districts, according to a rigorous, transparent adjudication process. “We are concerned about some bills that would earmark the resources intended for all Minnesotans to benefit only a few,” allocating a disproportionate share of the fund to benefit one district at the expense of the others, she says.

Additionally, the group will urge legislators to vote against tax reform proposals that would extend new sales taxes to cover nonprofit organizations’ activities (including ticket sales, e.g.). MCA argues that such an expansion effectively “puts a tax on donations,” because ticket sales, along with charitable giving and volunteer labor, add up to a vital part of Minnesota nonprofits’ fundraising strategies. What’s more, “taking away the sales tax exemption for nonprofit tickets increases costs just when nonprofits are reeling from the effects of the recession,” the press release reads.

I ask Smith if she’s worried about the trickle-down effects of across-the-board cuts from the federal “sequester” on Minnesota’ own budget battles. Specifically, should those sweeping cuts linger and begin to have real local impact on how state and city government funds the arts, is she concerned that some legislators might find it tempting, once again, to try to poach from those Legacy Amendment funds for other projects?

In an email response, Smith writes:

From most press accounts the sequester will have less of an effect on Minnesota than it will on other states. However, I do know that the National Endowment for the Art’s budget will be cut by about 5 percent, or $7.3M. I have not heard how that will affect potential grants to Minnesota, but we’ll be watching that. The 5-percent, across-the-board cut will also hit the U.S. Department of Education (which administers the federal Arts in Education program) and many other cultural agencies such as the Smithsonian, the Institute of Museum and Library Services and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. The state’s budget will be affected in other areas, however none of these things should affect state funding for the arts.  The four Legacy funds (for Land, Water, Parks and Arts) are dedicated and can’t be spent on other things. So far, legislators have been vigilant in protecting Legacy funds from external pressures (like the idea to use it to fund the Vikings stadium, which was soundly shot down), because the Constitution itself says it can’t be spent on other things. I am confident that they will continue to honor the state’s constitution.

The registration deadline for participation in this year’s event has passed, but Smith says even if you can’t make it to Arts Advocacy Day in person, there are still plenty of ways to get involved and advocate for the arts if you’re so moved. She writes, “If you can’t get to the capitol on Thursday, you can send a letter to your legislator asking them to support the arts and to oppose new taxes on nonprofits here: https://www.votervoice.net/MNARTS/Campaigns/30242/Respond.”

Smith argues that if you value the arts and want to ensure the longevity of the civic supports that keep Minnesota’s cultural scene vibrant, it’s important to pipe up and let your representatives know it’s a meaningful priority for you. She writes: “Make your voice heard! Legislators know an issue is important to their constituents when people take the time to speak up. I’ve heard from many legislators that if they receive just 10 letters on a topic, they know it’s an important one.”

This year’s Arts Advocacy Day, presented by Minnesota Citizens for the Arts, is Thursday, March 7. Volunteers and advocates will meet at the Minnesota History Center at 8:30 a.m. for a rally, then proceed to the capitol to lobby their legislators in meetings until 1 p.m. For more information, visit www.mncitizensforthearts.org.

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