The Power of Grassroots Action to Get Funding for the Arts

In this Chorus America interview, Sheila Smith, executive director of Minnesota Citizens for the Arts, describes an unusual alliance between hunters and fishermen, environmentalists and arts advocates that resulted in passage of a state amendment that provides dedicated state funding for all groups for 25 years.

How did your campaign get started?

We had been looking for a dedicated source of funding for the arts since 1991 and had considered a variety of options. The most common one around the country is a dedicated motel/hotel tax. We tried that, but the hotel industry outflanked us, so we moved on to getting as much general funds money as we could. That worked for a while, but we could see the rising pressure of health and human services and social services demands on state budgets. Everything else was eventually going to be eclipsed and eventually cut—not just arts funding but environment funding and all the other things that government pays for.

So what did you do?

The hunting and the angling community had put forth this bill that would dedicate some of the sales tax revenues to preserving land. They were a very tiny coalition: only 17 percent of Minnesotans hunt. They didn’t have the political pull to even get a hearing, but they were very tenacious and kept coming. Our champion legislator, Senator Dick Cohen, Chair of the Finance committee, told them, “Listen. I don’t know why you think you should put your hobby in the state constitution. I’m an arts supporter and I’m not going to hear your bill unless you put the arts in it.”

The chief author of the bill, Senator Dallas Sams, was from northern Minnesota and he knew that when his community theater was doing a production in town all the restaurants were full. He knew that the arts were good for his district, so he said, “Okay, why not? Let’s give it a try.”

Name: The Legacy Amendment Funding Mechanism: 0.375 percent sales tax increase; less than 4 cents on a $10 purchase, created through an amendment to Minnesota’s constitution.  
How the Amendment Got on the Ballot: On Feb. 14, 2008, after a 10-year legislative effort, the State Legislature passed the bill to place the Clean Water, Land and Legacy Constitutional Amendment on the ballot.  
Election Date: Nov. 4, 2008 – General Election
Outcome: YES: 56% NO: 39%
Overall Campaign Budget: Approximately $3.7 million, 84% of which was spent on voter contact. In addition, there was an education campaign that spent approximately $1 million on polling and additional education literature and advertising.
Funding Generated:$7.5 billion state-wide over a 25-year period: 
  • 33 percent for clean water
  • 33 percent for wildlife habitat
  • 19.75 percent for arts and cultural resources
  • 14.25 percent for parks and trails
Language on the Ballot:
Clean Water, Wildlife, Cultural Heritage and Natural Areas
"Shall the Minnesota Constitution be amended to dedicate funding to protect our drinking water sources; to protect, enhance, and restore our wetlands, prairies, forests, and fish, game, and wildlife habitat; to preserve our arts and cultural heritage; to support our parks and trails; and to protect, enhance, and restore our lakes, rivers, streams, and groundwater by increasing the sales and use tax rate beginning July 1, 2009, by three-eighths of one percent on taxable sales until the year 2034?”

So they amended the arts onto it and for the first time in all the years that the hunting and angling community had tried to get that bill to move, the bill got a hearing, and not only got a hearing, but shot like a rocket to the Senate floor. That taught all of us involved that this unusual coalition had some great power. Combining the two of us gave almost every legislator a reason to vote for it.

What happened next?

We spent the next six years building the coalition, refining the amendment, figuring out how much money it would raise and where the money would go. There were conflicts about whether it was to be dedicated funds of current resources or raising new resources. In the end it was a bill that raised new resources. And we got it through the legislature after much excitement. And then we had to go to the voters to get them to approve it. We raised $5 million for a campaign, with help mostly from the green, conservation community. In the 2008 election it passed by 56 percent.

Was it a surprise that it passed?

No. We had done polling every two months from when the campaign started, and those polls showed consistently 62 to 63 percent for it. That it passed by only 56 percent is a reflection of this: in Minnesota on constitutional amendments, if a voter does not vote on it one way or the other, it is automatically counted as a no. Among those who actually voted on it, we got the 62-63 percent we were polling.

What were the barriers along the way?

The various groups—arts and culture, the green environmental community, the clean water advocates, and parks and trails—all were battling each other for position in the bill. It was not only how to get enough legislators to vote for it, but how do we manage each other so that each of us would be better off in the end. It was a complicated dance. But as soon as it passed, everybody pivoted and said, “Okay, this is what it is. No more fighting over what’s in there. We need to come together on this campaign.”

What was the campaign message?

It was based on research and polling. We were lucky to have this menu of issues to choose from that we could put forward and see which ones polled the best. The one that polled the best by about 10 points was clean water—much more than preserving land or the hunting issue or the arts. The arts were about four points behind. The hunting issue polled the worst, which is ironic because they started the whole thing.

Clean water was the message and we had the benefit of national environmental organizations that had done referendums around the country. We had their polling before we had ours. Nationally, the clean water issue is much more powerful than any of the other environmental issues. And in Minnesota that is even more the case, because we are the Land of a 10,000 Lakes. Everybody spends the summer at a cabin and there are a lot of people who fish. We are very much a water-based state. That was what we built it around. It had nothing to do with who had the most power in the coalition. It had to do with, “We want the money we would get from passing this law. How do we pass it?”

So did the various factions become friends through this process or come to understand each other’s concerns?

It’s kind of a mix. The hunting and angling community never really integrated with the rest of the coalition. The conservation “green” community also is pretty fractured. There is a different organization for every animal and every river. They aren’t used to working on a collaborative basis like the arts community is. Each of us brought different strengths, but the campaign helped us find new ways to work together.

Minnesota Citizens for the Arts’ strength was our grassroots network. So, for example, no matter where we were having an event or a press conference, we had local people who could be in the forefront. If we could invite the local TV station to a press conference we could throw a local person at the camera everywhere. That was not necessarily true of the environmental community. They would provide a couple of important conservationists to represent them across the state.

As for the hunters and anglers, their strength was a great deal of passion, and they organized their own community.

The strength of the conservation “green” community is that they have a tradition of working on and supporting ballot measures. They had a national infrastructure that was very helpful to us. The arts community does not have that. There is zero focus on the national level on helping anybody conceive of or run a ballot campaign. That is a huge black mark on our side because 90 percent of arts and culture referendums pass. If you look at the statistics on local efforts, they almost always work. So why aren’t we doing that way more?

During the campaign, those of us in leadership developed a superfunctional, no drama campaign. It was great and it really worked. I have never had so much fun on a campaign. We are still working with the conservationists now on Legacy funds protection. We just did a media tour talking to the local papers about how the new Legacy funding is getting into their local district and what the threats are in the legislature that we need to look out for.

How big a factor was the choral community in your initiative?

Huge. Choirs are to Minnesota as football is to Texas. Lots and lots of choirs were part of the grassroots effort that happened. They endorsed the amendment, they did messages in their newsletters, they did curtain speeches. The theaters put Vote Yes on their marquees. The arts community did a lot of grassroots support.

As a result of this legislation, Minnesota has shot to the top in terms of arts funding.

We went from 10th or 11th in arts funding, to 2nd or 1st, depending on what indices you look at.

Is this funding in danger at all?

The legislation requires the money to be used for arts, culture, and history programming. Legislators have an infinite capacity for defining things as art and culture that are not necessarily art and culture. For example, we lost a couple of million last session to county fairs. We lost several million the first round to libraries. We think the funds should go to the theater and arts councils because they are professional grantmakers. There is a fraying around the edges in that way that we have to be very vigilant about.

This session there is a proposal to use our funds for a new Vikings stadium. A legislator’s rationale is that the Vikings are part of our culture. We are beating that back and I think we are winning that one.

What lessons do you take from this experience?

I learned that the arts need to build a national infrastructure to support initiatives. We don’t have any polling on messages that work best with the public. Americans for the Arts has done some polling but it is has been mostly about arts education. It hasn’t really spread out and shared with people with boots on the ground who could use that information. I have been talking to some funders about doing some national opinion polling about arts and culture funding, to find out what messages work and then start using those messages.

We should be working with unusual partners because of the power that gives you beyond your usual silo to bring in more supporters for efforts.

Are there other kinds of unusual partners that come to mind?

Each state is different and the opportunities are different. One of the lessons is, take advantage of the opportunities that present themselves. For example, if the Super Bowl is going to happen in your town, how do you partner with the Super Bowl people or others in the town to leverage the dollars and attention coming to town to redirect that to strengthen your community?

In our polling we found out that the people who support environmental issues are the same people that support arts and culture issues. They are not competing camps; they are one camp. It is a natural partnership and very easy to do.

Another thing we learned from the polling is that it is not about sports vs. arts. It is about the people who sit in their barcaloungers and never leave their homes and don’t have much fun outside their house vs. the people who get up and get out and do stuff. Those that get up and do stuff are going to baseball games and camping in the state park and going to arts events. That was a revelation for us. You can fall into the “us against you” mentality when it is so much more useful to say, “what do we have in common with those guys and how can we build on that?”

You mentioned that a lot of state dollars are now going to social services. Is there any realistic hope of getting more arts and culture funding now, or do we have to wait for better times?

I think the social service pressure is going to get worse and worse and worse as the Baby Boomers retire. Everybody should be looking for dedicated sources of funding.

When our amendment passed we were already in the throes of the terrifying recession and yet the voters said, “No, we want this” and approved it by a very large margin. They said, “We’re going to protect the environment for future generations and we are going to protect our access to the greatest arts and culture in the world.” Quality of life is a value. Our tag line was Protect the Minnesota You Love. So I don’t think it matters that we are in a recession at all in how you talk to the voters. You use polling to be smart about how you talk about it.


Americans for the Arts

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