Travel grants for artists: Two talking points

A couple of weeks ago, I wrote a column called Nude Fringe plays, travel grants and the conservative agenda, and I got considerable kudos from folks in the arts community, which is always a nice feeling. Some congratulated me for my “investigative reporting,” but I don’t really consider it to be an investigative piece- my research consisted of sources I found online, and I certainly wasn’t the first to point out the connection between Watchdog.org and conservative sources of funding like the Koch brothers.

A couple of days after the piece ran, I got a call from Minnesota State Senator Dick Cohen, who I named in the column as being one of the Democrats who “cowered in fear” last spring when the Republicans went after state arts board funding for travel. One thing that my original column perhaps didn’t emphasize enough was that without Cohen, we wouldn’t have an Arts and Cultural Heritage Fund at all, so I just wanted to make sure I got that point across here. Thank you Senator Cohen for making it happen, as someone who has personally benefited from legacy money myself.

I was worried that Cohen was going to yell at me about what I had said in the column, but it ended up being a good conversation. He assured me that he would be the first to defend the Fringe Festival if the conservatives started to go after it, and said he didn’t believe in censorship, which was good to hear. He also said that his decision not to defend the travel grants wasn’t because he was cowering in fear but because he actually didn’t think state money should be going to activities out of state, which sparked a rather lengthy debate between the two of us about the travel grants themselves.

I realized that in my earlier column, I didn’t give my reasons why I thought that travel grants were an important use of state arts board funds, although I did point to Vickie Benson’s piece, which gives an eloquent explanation.

Later, when I was talking about the conversation with a friend of mine, she said it would be useful to have some handy “talking points” when discussing the topic with naysayers. I thought that sounded like a good idea, and might be helpful for defending legacy dollars in general, which I probably will get to at some point in the near future, but for today, I thought I’d spell out two simple arguments why the state legislature should change the law back to allow travel grants. Here are two talking points, with examples:

1) Travel grants provide opportunities for artists to gain research and expertise in other places in order to benefit Minnesota audiences.

It seems to me like a no-brainer, but apparently it’s not. Perhaps this is news to some people in the Minnesota legislature, but you can’t just sit in your room your whole life and expect to be able to create brilliant works of art. Just as a doctor might go to a conference to learn more advanced ways of providing care, or a historian might travel to an archive library in another state in order to gather primary materials for research, so artists, on occasion, need to travel away from their home in order to be able to enrich their work.

Let’s talk flamenco, for a moment. In 2009, Deborah Elias, a dancer from Zorongo Flamenco received a $6,000 grant to travel to Spain for 23 days for intensive one-on-one study with flamenco artist Domingo Ortega in Jerez de la Frontera. That same year, Zorongo’s artistic director, Susana di Palma, attended the Festival del Flamenco in the same city. In 2012, di Palma received another grant for $6,800 to attend Bienal de Flamenco de Sevilla, where she attended 20 concerts, took classes in singing for dance, and did research. Were they just going on vacation for their own pleasure? No, they were learning from other flamenco artists, making connections, and developing their craft in order to enrich their work, which they provide for Minnesota audiences. Also in 2009, Colette Illarde, another Zorongo dancer, received $6,000 to create and develop a new dance work that was included in the Hit It Festival at the Southern that year, and also included a free public event.

As someone who has seen numerous Zorongo productions, I can attest that the company achieves excellence in its work, and yes, regularly traveling to Spain is a part of achieving that virtuosity and technique. This is one of Minnesota’s beloved dance companies, one that not only performs at Twin Cities venues such as the Cowles Center, the Ritz and the Southern, but also tours to underserved areas around the state (also using state arts board funds) and this year, performed at the State Fair at no cost to fairgoers who enjoyed their work.

2.) Travel grants provide opportunities for artists to raise their profile beyond Minnesota markets, allowing them to become economically viable, and providing further opportunities for other Minnesota artists.

News flash: $10,000, the maximum amount of money given to individual artists, is not a lot of money to support an artist. For artists receiving artist initiative grants — whether for travel or to create new work or for some other project — by the time you factor in whatever expenses are incurred, there’s usually not much left in terms of actually compensating the artist for their time. And while Minnesota may be known as one of the better states in terms of both private and public funding for artists, it is basically impossible for any artist to exist on grants alone.

That’s why travel grants are so important, because they allow artists the chance to get their work out their beyond our local scene, so that they can broaden their exposure and hopefully diversify their income sources.

For example, in 2006, choreographer Morgan Thorson received $6,000 from the state arts board to participate in the Association of Performing Arts Presenters’ conference in New York. Thorson is a classic example of a local girl who made good. She’s been written up in the New York Times, she’s gotten prestigious residencies all around the country, she received a Guggenheim fellowship in 2010-2011 and all kinds of other accolades. And yet at the same time, she’s locally based, and her work has been seen here in the Twin Cities at the Walker Art Center and the Red Eye, and she’s choreographed for Zenon. She also teaches at the University of Minnesota, providing teaching and training for the next generation of dance artists.

Could Thorson have achieved all she has achieved without that one travel grant from the State Arts Board? It’s possible, but that relatively small $6,000 grant got her foot in the door with contacts in New York City. I just don’t understand how someone could look at this example and not see how this is a fundamental necessity for the Minnesota arts economy. 

Let’s not forget — artists pay taxes, too. They are part of our local economy. Ideally, our local artists and writers and choreographers and filmmakers will not be living in poverty. No, we want them to be successful, and we want our local presses to be successful and our local theaters and galleries to make money, not only from people who live here but from dollars coming from out of state, too. The travel grants are one way we can teach a starving artist to fish, to encourage entrepreneurship so that our artists can actually make a living outside of the meager pittances that state grants provide.

  • No. 2 is the big one, and it applies widely. Artists don't all need study in other places, but they do need wider audiences/funders/buyers of their art. And the third point is that by traveling, they spread the reputation of Minnesota as an arts destination. The Playwrights' Center is certainly a good example of how this works. I'd suggest you talk to some of those playwrights about the impact of Minnesota funding on their careers (McKnight/Jerome etc. as well as State Arts dollars) and their decisions to live here and become part of the community even though their work has to be conducted on a national basis. - by Charlie Quimby on Sun, 08/25/2013 - 8:19pm
  • Not all of the history and legacies we leave behind as Minnesotans took place within the borders of Minnesota. The City of St. Paul certainly celebrated the heritage of Charles Schulz and the Peanuts gang although a significant body of his work was produced beyond Snelling Avenue. The same can be said for F. Scott Fitzgerald and Zelda, and Laura Ingalls Wilder. With so many Minnesotans whose origins began beyond the borders of our state, from Oslo to Phnomh Penh or Mogadishu. Just ask Dr. William Worrall Mayo. Not all of us have the privilege of meticulously documented archives wherein we can individually or collectively understand how we came to be Minnesotans, and what might we bring from those traditions to build a distinctly unique Minnesotan society. Few understood until recently how Minnesota manufacturing was directly connected to the conflicts of Southeast Asia where so many of our nationally-recognized Southeast Asian Minnesotan community builders trace their roots. Much of their work we have today would not be possible if they had not been enabled to travel beyond our state borders. This shouldn't be read as carte blanche advocacy for an "anything goes" pass to travel so long as there's a sliver of a connection to a Minnesotan who blazed a trail before us. I'd certainly support a project that allows a fellow Minnesotan to go someplace no Minnesotan has gone before and tell us about it. Artists are tax-payers, too, and the most professional among us understand the trust our fellow Minnesotans have given us. We must all be responsible, and reasonable. We shouldn't tolerate those who would abuse the spirit of the Amendment. But we also need to allow artists the same expectations and latitude we have of those we fund for trade junkets, academic research, and other state-funded programs. The Legacy Amendment offers artists a chance to enrich Minnesotan culture for generations to come. Let the Amendment do what it's meant to do. - by Bryan Thao Worra on Sat, 08/31/2013 - 10:12am
  • Item 2. really does a good job of explaining things. Even with a grant, the artist may still earn less than $20K/year and be identified as "poverty line" by those who know & watch that stuff. Artists cannot exist on grants alone, and art education jobs have evaporated... so duh. - by Loretta Bebeau on Tue, 08/27/2013 - 9:36am
  • Most of my work sells to clients outside Minnesota. These contacts were mostly made on my travels. The added benefit has always been that the experience has informed my work which you cannot place a price tag on. - by Tina Blondell on Tue, 08/27/2013 - 1:17pm

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Sheila Regan's picture
Sheila Regan

Sheila Regan (sheila [at] tcdailyplanet [dot] net) is a Minneapolis theater artist and freelance writer.