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Art supporters ask for Carlson's help in making sure state budget cuts are fair

From left, Sandy Kaul, a public art consultant and director emeritis of Bemidji State University's Talley Gallery, Kelly Grossman, director of the North Country Museum of Arts in Park Rapids, and Sandy Finboh, owner of Blue Sky Beads in Akeley, listen to Sen. John Carlson, R-Bemidji, respond to questions about state funding for the arts. Pioneer Photo/Anne Williams

Josh Wise, a Minnesota Citizens for the Arts representative, expects art funding will be cut this year. But with enough support from state legislators, Wise said those cuts could be limited.

More than 60 art supporters from Bemidji and surrounding areas convened Saturday morning at the Headwaters School of Music & the Arts to meet with Wise and Sen. John Carlson, R-Bemidji. With a projected $6.2 billion deficit overshadowing the state, Carlson was asked by attendees to find a way to lessen the blow of the chopping axe.

"We know cuts are going to happen," said Lori Forshee-Donnay, executive director of the Bemidji Community Arts Center. "All we ask is that they be fair and even across the board."

Carlson is on the State Government Innovation and Veterans Budget and Policy Committee, which oversees agencies such as the Minnesota State Arts Board.

Minnesota provides funding for the arts through the State Arts Board and a system of 11 nonprofit organizations known as Regional Arts Councils. The Region 2 Arts Council in Bemidji serves Clearwater, Hubbard, Lake of the Woods, Beltrami and Mahnomen counties.

The state board and the regional arts councils act as one system, receiving funding from the state's general fund and from funds allocated by the Legacy Amendment. Enacted in 2008, the Legacy Fund dedicates three-eighths of 1 percent of sales tax revenue to land, water, parks and art/history projects.

"We do have constitutional protection for the arts through the Legacy Fund," Wise said, referring to wording in the amendment that states arts and history revenue must be used as supplemental sources of funding for arts, arts education and arts access and may not be used as a substitute.

"We want to advocate that 50 percent of the arts and cultural heritage funds are from the Minnesota State Arts Board and regional arts councils (versus the state general fund). We were 46 percent last year. We're trying to get that back to 50 percent."

According to Wise, the way Minnesota uses the state board and regional arts councils to fund arts around the state is unique.

"It's a community process," he said. "It is members of a community deciding the worth of the projects in their area."

Terri Widman, executive director of the Region 2 Arts Council in Bemidji, said many people depend on Legacy grants and grants from the state's general allocation fund.

"That really has kept the organizations alive," Widman told Carlson. "These nonprofit regional art councils all run very minimally with minimal staff and they get a lot of money out the door, which fuels our economy."

Carlson listened as, one by one, art supporters expressed their concerns about the impact cuts would have on communities.

After listening, Carlson offered a long-term solution, which he said would fix the state's budget deficit.

"What I would personally like to advocate for is that our state needs to fix the structural problem of not having a 90-day rainy day fund," he said. "Had Minnesota done that in the past, we would have a rainy day fund of almost $4 billion. And all of a sudden, we wouldn't be talking about cuts."

Bill Sanford, manager of Lakeland Public Television, said one of his big concerns is state legislators pulling back on general fund dollars and assuming Legacy Fund dollars are enough to fund the arts.

"The concern we have is while the Legacy funding is a wonderful gift, it's dedicated for certain things," he said.

According to Sanford, Lakeland Television uses Legacy funding for its "Common Ground" television series.

"We do get money to help support our general operations like the electric bill for the transmitter," Sanford said. "But if funds are cut, we'll have the money to make a wonderful program, but no money to put it on the air. It's a big concern."

Janet Brademan, executive director at the Headwaters School of Music & the Arts, said the school receives funding from the Region 2 Arts Council and also from the State Arts Board. But without funding from either entity, she said, the school would not likely be in Bemidji.

"We converted an old funeral home into something that is absolutely sought after on a daily basis from families as far away as Canada," she told Carlson. "Without that state funding and the Region 2 funding, it would not, it could not be here. We are so dependent on that funding. We really need your help."

Carlson, a graduate of Akeley High School, related to their concerns by recalling a time when he played trumpet in his high school band.

"I was really proud of that," he said. "To this day, I still have that horn. Art is important; there is no question about it."

But Carlson's words were not enough for some listeners, like Paula Swenson, a visual artist from Bemidji, to be confident the cuts will not do significant damage.

"I'm happy I was able to talk to the senator," Swenson said. "I'm pessimistic about what's going to happen, but I guess I'm glad he came and was able to hear what people had to say about it. I don't think he really understands how desperate things are right here. The economy is so bad. There are so many people in need."

Widman said she expected 30 people to show up to the forum and was surprised to see the number doubled.

"I think it went really well," she said after Carlson left. "I think a lot of people got their points across. The needs of the arts funding is very important to all of us that we don't get cut too much so we can continue to be here. So everyone is dependent in some way for funding."

This year is important for the art community speak up, Widman said, because of the larger state deficit and because Carlson is new as a legislator.

"I hope that he is somewhat educated now about how the arts funding impacts our region," Widman said. "Hopefully he got the message that we want him to be fair about the general state allocation, that we should cut the same percentage and that the Legacy funding is important to us."