Regional Reports

Minnesota's Regional Arts Councils: Partnerships that Work

The Minnesota Regional Arts Councils (RACs) system is one of a kind. Established in 1977 by the Minnesota State Legislature, the Regional Arts Councils work in partnership with the Minnesota State Arts Board to share responsibility for equitably distributing legislative arts funding throughout the state. The result of this system is decentralized decision- making for providing arts grants, establishing programs, and providing services.

Minnesota is divided into eleven regions, each with its own Regional Arts Council office and staff. Each region has its own board, composed of residents from every county in the region, which assures that every corner of the state is represented, no matter how remote.

The rural areas of the state have the same access to the arts programs and services as the more heavily populated areas. And what a difference this makes!

• By providing a Guthrie production in their own town (population 13,000), the Fergus Falls Center for the Arts provides an excellent incubator for encouraging the growth of community theaters in its area.

• The Regional Cultural Center in New York Mills, Minnesota (population 1,012) started its Great American Think-Off in 1992. It now attracts a world audience via C-span to its annual debate in June and the essay contestants hail from throughout the nation. It was also named one of the top five “culturally cool towns” by USA Today Weekend Magazine in 1994.

• Individual artists who receive support from their Regional Arts Council have proceeded to advance their careers on national and international levels. Jeff Zachmann from Fergus Falls, after receiving two career development grants from his Regional Arts Council, went on to create his special “kinetic sculptures” for Disney World's Epcot Center and is currently negotiating with the Singapore Science Center in China for a commissioned work.

The philosophy of the Regional Arts Councils of Minnesota is that artists and arts organizations are one of our greatest natural resources. Our efforts are focused on encouraging their growth and stability. If we were to take a strictly “net profit” view, we have only to look at the explosion in the number of visitors who attend special arts festivals or events. A thriving arts environment provides an “extra dimension” that attracts new residents and businesses to a community and contributes to the health of the rural areas.

Another advantage of the decentralized RAC system is that the arts programs and services for each region can be designed to fit the unique needs of that region. These vary widely from one part of the state to another. The Arrowhead region in Duluth may choose to concentrate on encouraging its many arts groups. A more rural area, such as the Southwest Minnesota Arts and Humanities Council, may choose to support more arts in the schools activities, or intergenerational programs. But the sum total of the RACs programs is more high-quality arts programming for the whole state. The grant programs, workshops, and services in each region are continually revised — which insures that when a program is no longer relevant, it can be replaced or revised to adapt to current needs. This “gazelle-like” ability to anticipate and respond to changing needs quickly is another advantage of a decentralized system.

The RACs have worked together, and with the Minnesota State Arts Board, to obtain funding from statewide and national levels. In the early 1990s they obtained an NEA Local Arts Initiative grant to establish and strengthen the alliance between city and county governments and their local arts organizations. The hope was that a three-year commitment of funds from a local governmental unit to an arts organization would continue after the grant period concluded. This has indeed happened. A sterling example from among the twenty-eight participating arts groups throughout the state is the Fergus Falls Center for the Arts. The Center obtained first-time support of $500 per year from its city council. Following the grant period, and in view of the Center's success in attracting patrons to the downtown area, the council allocated $25,000 per year for five years to the arts center! Through the RAC system, healthy and productive relationships such as this can be established.

The RACs also join hands to generate funding from private and foundation sources. The McKnight Foundation has been especially pivotal by providing long-term financial commitment through the RAC system. This support has enabled the RACs to initiate programs that may require a greater leap of faith. McKnight has also helped RACs focus on individual artists and their need to expand their artistic careers whether they reside in rural or urban areas.

All in all, the Regional Arts Councils in Minnesota work to:

• increase the quality of local art production and regional touring activities,

• provide on-site professional services to individual artists and arts organizations,

• generate increased private and public funding for the arts at the regional and community levels, and

• encourage production or sponsorship in areas with little arts activity.

Minnesota is recognized as a state with a thriving arts environment. This has been richly aided by the special relationship of the Regional Arts Councils and the Minnesota State Arts Board working together to obtain and disperse arts funding to every corner of Minnesota.

Sonja Peterson is chair, Forum of Regional Arts Councils of Minnesota.