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 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.