“A large chunk of dollars”: City of St. Paul arts board recommends $3 million for new Ordway concert hall

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Last week, the City of St. Paul’s Cultural STAR Board unanimously recommended that the city make a $3 million, ten-year commitment to help fund the construction of a new concert hall at the Ordway Center for the Performing Arts. If approved by Mayor Chris Coleman and the St. Paul City Council, the grant would be one of the largest in the 14-year history of the Cultural STAR program, which disburses approximately $1.5 million annually to support the arts in St. Paul. While many members of St. Paul’s arts community agree that the Ordway project is worth the expense, the board’s recommendation has sparked concern that a commitment of that size would have a decade-long negative impact on funding for the city’s smaller arts organizations.

The grant request was made by the Arts Partnership, a non-profit organization founded in October 2007 to define the relationship among the Ordway, the Minnesota Opera, the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra, and the Schubert Club—all four of which present performances at the Ordway. The Arts Partnership is preparing to launch a major campaign that will seek to raise over $50 million to rebuild the Ordway’s 306-seat McKnight Theatre as a large concert hall and to endow the Ordway, which was founded in 1985 and has never maintained an endowment.

“There’s been a huge squeeze on the Ordway’s Main Hall,” says Minnesota Opera president Kevin Smith, who is leading the planning process for the Arts Partnership. “Within the footprint where the McKnight Theatre sits there’s the space available for a 1,000-1,100 seat concert hall. The Main Hall is essentially an opera house that doesn’t function very well as a concert hall.” The creation of a new concert hall, notes Smith, would allow more groups to perform at the Ordway, in a more suitable space. “The idea is to build capacity and enhance the experience for the audience.”

Cultural STAR grants are funded by a 10% share of the proceeds from the half-percent sales tax levied for the overall STAR (Sales Tax Revitalization) program in St. Paul. Grant proposals are considered twice annually by a nine-member board comprising both mayoral appointees and representatives elected by St. Paul arts organizations; the board makes funding recommendations to the mayor, who considers the board’s recommendations when creating the annual budget he presents to the City Council for approval. According to Joe Spencer, Mayor Coleman’s policy associate for the arts, the recommended $3 million grant to the Arts Partnership would be “a big commitment,” but not unprecedented: the Science Museum of Minnesota received a comparable grant for the construction of its current riverfront facility.

Spencer acknowledges that earmarking approximately $300,000 each year for the next decade “is going to take some money out of the pot” for smaller funding requests and “will make grant applications more competitive for those ten years, but the return on the investment will be worth it. When we look at having a healthy arts ecosystem, it’s important to us that we not just be funding the big guys but be able to support the small organizations as well.”

Mindful of the concerns of small and mid-size institutions, Smith says that Arts Partnership representatives have “visited all kinds of arts organizations that are funded by the City of St. Paul and might be impacted” by a major grant for the Ordway project—including organizations that might make use of the new space. “There’s been no resistance whatsoever,” he says, “to the idea of the Arts Partnership taking this kind of campaign on.”

“The total amount is a big shocker,” says Sara Remke, a current member of the Cultural STAR Board and owner of the Black Dog Café, which received a $31,000 grant earlier this year to support a block party it held to coincide with the Republican National Convention. “Still, [the Arts Partnership] has come to us for a number of years trying to get this proposal right, and it eventually came to a place where I could support it. The Ordway is a huge anchor for the arts in St. Paul.”

Raeann Ruth, founder and executive director of the Mounds Theatre, disagrees with the board’s recommendation. “I think it’s out of line,” she says. The Mounds Theatre received a $200,000 Cultural STAR grant in 2000 to support a major facility renovation, but, says Ruth, “it was like pulling teeth.” Given that 80% of Cultural STAR funding must by law be invested in the city’s “Cultural District,” which essentially constitutes the downtown area, Ruth feels that the Cultural STAR grants are not fairly divided among the city’s arts organizations. “The people outside the Cultural District, their funding is cut way low. And [the city is] going to give [the Arts Partnership] $3 million? Wow.”

Another organization that has recently received Cultural STAR funding is SteppingStone Theatre, which last year moved from downtown’s Landmark Center to a new facility in the Summit-University neighborhood. Ross Willits, managing director of the youth-oriented company, says he is “not alarmed” by the board’s recommendation. “It’s a large chunk of dollars, but it’s over ten years, and it will replace some of the funding [Arts Partnership members] are getting anyway. I do look to the city for a piece of our funding, but if the pool is smaller because of this, we’ll just have to be more competitive. In the long run, I think this is going to be really good for the arts overall.”

Where does the money go?
The Cultural STAR Board considers grant proposals in two rounds each year. The board is currently considering requests for funding in the second round of 2008. Following is a list of organizations that received grants in this year’s first round. Source: City of St. Paul.
• ARTS-Us, Kumbayah Collective ($22,600)
• Ballet Minnesota, Audience Development Project ($25,000)
• Black Dog Café, block party ($31,000)
• College of Visual Arts, Portals on Western ($14,000)
• COMPAS, arts education marketing project ($15,000)
• Czech and Slovak Sokol Minnesota, fire protection ($22,000)
• Forecast Public Artworks, Spontaneous St. Paul ($15,000)
• Friends of the St. Paul Public Library ($145,000)
• HAND in HAND Productions, St. Paul Police Oral History Project ($15,000)
• Highland Business Association, Highland Fest Art Fair ($14,000)
• History Theatre, building renovation and accessibility project ($145,000)
• IFP Minnesota, 20 Years of IFP Cinema Lounge ($16,800)
• Irish Fair of Minnesota, Van Morrison at 2008 Irish Fair ($30,000)
• Minnesota Children’s Museum, Hmong at Heart exhibit and programming ($45,000)
• One Voice Mixed Chorus, 20th Anniversary Celebration ($45,000)
• Ordway Center for the Performing Arts, fundraising effectiveness ($40,000)
• Park Square Theatre, external relations staff position ($47,000)
• Penumbra Theatre, marketing support ($24,000)
• Riverview Economic Development Association, music and movies in District del Sol ($7,500)
• Rose Ensemble, cultural access program ($27,250)
• St. Paul Almanac, 2009 edition ($28,000)
• St. Paul Chamber Orchestra, International Chamber Orchestra Festival ($46,500)
• St. Paul Civic Symphony, A Civic Endeavor—Music on the Move ($5,133)
• St. Paul Conservatory of Music, capital improvements ($27,092)
• St. Paul Festival, organizational development ($12,000)
• St. Paul Youth Services, public art project ($17,000)
• Sample Night Live!, move to downtown ($25,000)
• Selby Area CDC, Selby JazzFest ($10,000)
• Skylark Opera, Summer Opera Festival ($20,000)
• Sound of Hope, Songs of Hope Internet marketing ($12,400)
• Springboard for the Arts, development program ($25,000)
• SteppingStone Theatre, Theatre Campaign ($24,000)
• Theater Space Project, Lowry LAB improvement ($20,404)
• Zeitgeist, new Studio Z ($27,975)
Total: $1,053,579

Who decides?
Five members of the Cultural STAR Board are appointed by the mayor and approved by the City Council. Four members are elected by St. Paul arts organizations. The board considers grant applications and makes funding recommendations to the mayor, who considers the board’s recommendations when creating his annual budget, which must be approved by the City Council. There are currently two vacancies on the board. The Cultural STAR Board’s current members are:
• Barbara Brooks, Minnesota Jewish Theater Company
• Bob Burns, Metro Regional Arts Council/Flamin’ O’s
• Glenn Fisher, Twin Cities Public Television
• Rudy Guglielmo, Bush Foundation
• Patricia Mitchell, Ordway Center for the Performing Arts
• Sara Remke, Minnesota Sur Seine/Black Dog Café
• Laura Zabel, Springboard for the Arts

Correction 10/29: This table originally listed Kurt Schultz and Joe Spencer among the Cultural STAR Board members. While Schultz and Spencer, both city employees, facilitate the board’s work, they are not voting members of the board.

Jay Gabler is the Daily Planet’s arts editor.