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State Sen. Tom Saxhaug, DFL-Grand Rapids, wears a red and black Paul Bunyan plaid vest and is surrounded by arts advocates, representatives from arts organizations and thankful grant recipients at the “Coffee Party to Advocate for the Arts” hosted by the Bemidji Community Arts Center in the Carnegie Library building on a sub-zero Saturday morning. Patt Rall| Bemidji Pioneer

BEMIDJI – An overflow crowd braved sub-zero temps Saturday morning to meet Sen. Tom Saxhaug in the old Carnegie Library here.

Saxhaug, DFL-Grand Rapids, appeared in Bemidji for the “coffee party to advocate for the arts,” an event hosted by the Region 2 Arts Council, the Bemidji Community Arts Center and the Minnesota Citizens for the Arts.

MCA Executive Director Sheila Smith began the event by welcoming everyone and reminding them to address the issues at hand: increasing the percentage of money allotted to the arts, or at the very least, no decrease in the amounts. And keep at bay the requests that were considered by the Legislature last year: taking money from the arts to funnel it to a new Viking’s stadium or refurbishing the state capitol.

Terri Widman, Region 2 Arts Council executive director, stressed quality of life issues that depend upon arts funding. Region 2 is presently distributing money to 56 percent of those individuals and organizations who apply for underwriting. The percentages range from 40 to 60 percent among the 11 regional arts councils in the state of Minnesota.

Because of redistricting, Saxhaug was there to hear from representatives from three different regional arts councils (Regions 1, 2 and 3) how much the state’s funding for the arts and the legacy funds have impacted artists and the general public.

Surrounded by a friendly crowd in the main BCAC gallery, Saxhaug patiently listened for nearly an hour while attendees introduced themselves and explained why they were there to meet him. Saxhaug listened and took notes on salient points that were offered in support of arts funding. He is chair of the committee that decides funding which goes toward the state arts board and the regional arts councils. He is also a member of the Senate Subcommittee on Legacy, which decides Arts Legacy funding through the Clean Water, Land and Legacy Amendment.

Mark Turner represented Region 3’s Five Wings Arts Council and spoke of how the legacy funding has been like “bellows blowing onto smoldering embers.”

Paul Ericcson, director of the Bemidji Public Library also chose to speak about the legacy funds and the many events it has enabled from song writing workshops for children to the highly successful Bemidji Book Festival each June. The men said neither event could happen without legacy funds.

Individual artists who have received arts funding for their projects spoke about how their grant allowed them to continue to do the craft they embrace. Kathy Towley, a wood turner, is thankful for the grant she received to help buy a new lathe for her shop.

“There are not a lot of female wood turners and I like to share my love with other women and children, and men too,” said Towley. “I wouldn’t have been able to do that without the grant and it meant a lot to me.”

Justin Holley, Beltrami Country Region 2 representative, said some of the grant money is used by artists to market their work. Arts also serves as an economic driver: events like the Studio Cruise brings in visitors from in and out state and who stay in local motels, dine in local eateries and buy pieces from the individual studios they visit and also from other commercial establishments in town.

Susan Kedzie, business manager of the historic Chief Theater in Bemidji, quoted statistics from a 2010 survey done by Americans for the Arts: the federal government allocated $1.4 billion to the arts and $135.2 billion were returned in economic activity.

 The event turned out to be a chance for those involved in the arts and those who have received grants to publicly thank a state senator for the economic support.

Those public statements hit the mark with Saxhaug, who said he was impressed not only with the large turn-out, the eclectic make-up of the group but also the fact that people actually took the time to publicly thank a member of the legislature.

“For me, that was very gratifying,” said Saxhaug.