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Minnesota State Arts Board, director Gens help grow an industry

Frank Jossi//December 26, 2012

Minnesota State Arts Board, director Gens help grow an industry

Frank Jossi//December 26, 2012

Executive Director Sue Gens of the Minnesota State Arts Board says not everyone agrees with every board decision. “Art is a subjective thing; one person might think it’s the best project in the world and the next person might think that’s the stupidest thing he’s ever seen,” says Gens. (Staff photo: Peter Bartz-Gallagher)
Not many state agencies in tight budgetary times have seen any real increase in their funding. If anything, the budgets have been cut or sliced and diced as deficits grew over the past decade.

Not so for the Minnesota State Arts Board, which has seen a 200 percent increase in its budget since the Land and Legacy Amendment passed in 2008.

“On June 30, 2009 our budget was $10 million and on July 2, 2010, it was $30 million,” says State Arts Board executive director Sue Gens. “The agency didn’t triple in size, however, but the revenue did. “

So what did the arts board do with the extra cash? Bringing arts to the people in a much more substantial way was one part of the plan.

“When most people think of the arts they think of the Guthrie or the Minneapolis Institute of Arts — traditional arts in traditional settings,” says Gens, 54. “The work I see us doing that I’m most excited about is the work were doing with boys and girls clubs, senior centers, community centers and arts programs in parks, for homeless youth — all things we weren’t funding before.”

Ellen McInnis, the arts board chair, said the new money allowed for the creation of Arts Access, a program to serve the underserved communities such as seniors and children in poverty. Another initiative, Partners in Arts Participation, encourages human service organizations to incorporate the arts in programming and to support for touring by arts groups.

Gens provided a steady hand during the initial days of Legacy Amendment money, managing to steer the agency’s day-to-day budget while developing new programming, she says.

“I think her biggest strength is in understanding the big picture,” McInnis says. “When we were in the first throes of Legacy money she was masterful at juggling all those responsibilities while getting input from the board and designing new programs.”

The arts impact

As a member of the arts board staff since 2001 and director the past three years, Gens says she’s found strong support, generally, from both Democrats and Republicans. The Legislature, in fact, has more than a few artistically inclined members, from long time arts patron and DFLer Dick Cohen to Republican — and historic novelist — Dean Urdahl.

The arts are an important source of employment and wealth. Reports in 2006 and 2007 by the Minnesota Citizens For the Arts showed that the arts had an $1 billion impact while supporting 1,600 arts organizations and 22,000 people. The state has 30,000 working artists, according to the reports.

“From a policy point of view this is an industry that matters, the dollars matter, especially in rural Minnesota, where the industrial economy is shifting and they’re looking for more tourist dollars,” Gens says.

Although the arts are about promoting creativity and artistic excellence, the board’s role is somewhat of an accountant, beholden to numbers, outcomes, regional fairness and good processes. Budgets matter, even when dealing with the fickle world of the arts.

Let’s start with the numbers. The board’s $30 million budget comes mainly from the Legacy Amendment ($22.3 million) and to a much lesser degree the general fund ($7.5 million). The National Endowment for the Arts makes up the small difference to get to $30 million.

The amendment money comes by way of the Minnesota’s Arts and Cultural Heritage Fund, which receives 19.75 percent of the money collected from Legacy Amendment tax. That money is collected on 3/8s of 1 percent of the state sales tax. The remainder of the 80 percent of the Legacy money goes to clean water, the outdoors and parks and trails.

The arts board delivers $11 million in annual funding to artists and arts groups while the state’s 11 regional arts’ organizations distribute $9 million. More than 2,200 artists and organizations receive grants annually.

Not everyone agrees with every decision. “Art is a subjective thing; one person might think it’s the best project in the world and the next person might think that’s the stupidest thing he’s ever seen,” says Gens.

Among the more interesting grantees include Springboard for the Arts, which will hold a rural arts and culture summit net June in Morris, and The Loft Literary Center in Minneapolis, which will bring programming to low-income youth and seniors. The Frozen River Film Festival in Winona and the Vintage Band Festival in Northfield also received money.

Paul Nemisto, artistic director of the Vintage Band Festival, said his organization has twice received state arts’ board grants, and the one for 2013 is particularly important. “We probably would have survived without it but we would have had a much smaller scope,” he says.

It’s not just the individual arts’ groups that benefit from the funding. “This isn’t money thrown into the wind — it comes back in real dollars to the economy because so many people come to participate or to watch a show and they will drop cash,” Nemisto adds.

The biggest recipients continue to be the Minnesota Orchestra, the Guthrie and the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra, all which receive hundreds of thousands of dollars. The smallest grantees receive anywhere from $16,000 on up, Gens says.

For now the State Arts Board is an observer of the labor struggles at both orchestras and it has not been asked to formally intervene, she notes. The two organizations may be among the board’s largest recipients, but those grants represent a small part of either entity’s overall budget. The state arts board grant would pay for the equivalent of around 10 days of programming the SPCO or the orchestra.

The new Legacy money does come with plenty of oversight from the Legislative Audit Bureau. A recent report slightly dinged the art’s board, suggesting tighter oversight of programs and more, timely reporting. Gens said the report was fair and the arts board has already instituted new processes to deal with the issues.

Gens’ leadership during a time of dramatically increased funding caught the attention of John Gunyou, the board’s treasurer and retired Minnetonka city manager. Gunyou said arts funding is “messy” in general and the Legacy money required processes and oversight that isn’t easy to manage for any agency.

“Sue deserves a lot of credit in overseeing the growth and transitioning to having a whole new funding stream that has to meet all these state requirements,” said Gunyou, who notes his own family includes working artists. “She did that while establishing all these new programs. She’s been a good steward of the taxpayer’s money.”

Musical background

A native of Renville County, Gens grew up with her sister on a farm with a saxophone-playing father, Leonard, and mother Lila. Her father played in a local community band but never pestered her to learn an instrument. Instead, she fell in love with piano and played for years, eventually graduating with bachelors’ degrees in music and arts administration from Mankato State University (now Minnesota State University at Mankato).

Deciding that the idea of practicing for hours a day wasn’t what she wanted to do with the rest of her life, Gens found an internship at the SPCO and then got a job as director of development at United Arts Fund, where she spent 8 years. From there she moved to external relations — handling media and an alumni program — at the Humphrey School of Public Affairs at the University of Minnesota.

Taking an arts board job in the shadow of 9/11, Gens got a taste of how cruel state budgets can be. In 2003, as first of many deficits arose, then Gov. Tim Pawlenty sliced two-thirds of the art board’s budget and a third of its grant-making budget. “We were down to skin and bones,” she recalled.

Times have changed. The money from the Legacy Amendment is a welcome relief, even if it does not solve all problems.

“We originally thought it was more money than any of us would ever need, that everyone would get what they want,” recalls Gens with a smile. “While it’s never going to fund everything it’s a substantial amount of money. We are the envy of the country. But the needs are enormous, and the opportunities are enormous.”

The Gens File

Name: Sue Gens

Age: 54

Grew up in: Renville

Job: Executive director, Minnesota State Arts Board

Degrees: BA, music and arts administration (self-designed), Mankato State University

Family: Single

Odd job: Worked in a sweet corn factory

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