Home  >  Minnesota  >  Minnesota artists travel the world at taxpayer expense

Minnesota artists travel the world at taxpayer expense

By   /   March 14, 2013  /   51 Comments


TAHITI ON THE TAXPAYERS’ DIME: Tahiti’s romantic island of Bora Bora will be the source of inspiration for artist Melissa Loop-Anderson, courtesy of state taxpayers. The island was featured in “The Amazing Race.” (PRNewsFoto/Air Tahiti Nui)

By Tom Steward | Watchdog Minnesota

Bali, Tahiti, Pompeii, Costa Rica and the Arctic Circle – dream destinations many Minnesotans could probably only fantasize about visiting if they won the Publishers Clearing House sweepstakes.

Yet a state grant program designed to get Minnesota artists where they want to go in their careers frequently sends grant recipients on taxpayer-funded trips to those exotic locations and more, including Thailand, the lake country of England and Rio de Janeiro.

Landscape painter Melissa Loop-Anderson was awarded $10,000 to spend next month following in the steps of the artist Paul Gauguin to French Polynesia, with a twist. Her sketches and photos from Bora Bora and other islands will be used to create paintings to “focus on colonialism and subjugation through the military and tourist industry.”

“There’s no way I could’ve done it without the grant,” Loop-Anderson said. “It’s an expensive part of the world to go to, and it’s allowing me to go there and spend the time that’s needed, because it’s hard to go somewhere for a short amount of time and get a real idea of the place.”

Loop-Anderson is among dozens of artists traipsing the globe on state taxpayer dime.

A Watchdog.org investigation found 114 recipients of Artist Initiative grants issued by the Minnesota State Arts Board during the past five years will have traveled to at least 40 different countries and 20 states by the end of 2013. From 2009 to 2013 the Arts Board awarded 730 Artist Initiative grants totaling $5.6 million with about 15 percent of those grants supporting travel outside Minnesota.

Click here or on the map below to explore the trips.

“Rather than let’s just pick the most beautiful place in the world and go and make some landscape paintings, it has much more to it than just about the beauty,” Loop-Anderson said. “It’s already helping my career, it’s so ambitious of a project.”

Their ultimate destination may be a more prominent place in the art world, but Minnesota artists are stopping off in distant points from Scotland to New Zealand, Iceland to India, and Poland to China along the way. The $2,200 to $10,000 grants go to support artistic development, creativity and the “contribution individual artists make to the creative environment of the state of Minnesota,” according to the Arts Board.

In response to a Watchdog Minnesota Bureau inquiry, the Arts Board staunchly defended the program.

“All grant applications are reviewed by panels of advisors in a rigorous, competitive process,” according to a statement from Jill Boldenow, the MSAB communications and government affairs director.

Besides travel, grant funds pay for materials, program fees and other expenses related to the artist’s work.  Approved reasons for out-of-state travel include conferences, residences, performances, marketing, research and learning new skills from a different part of the world — such as studying gypsy, jazz guitar technique and performance in the Netherlands.

Charles Lume received a $10,000 award for a residency near the Arctic Circle in Iceland to create light-based installations “that will help me create more engaging and provocative art,” according to the grant application. Arts Board records show Peter Rothstein got $10,000 to travel to Germany, Washington, D.C., and New York in part to work on a musical about the Swing Youth of Nazi Germany.  Grant filings indicate photographer Brett Kallusky landed $6,000 to visit Italy for a book project titled “Viaggio con Le Viste” (Journey with Views).

“Travel to exotic locations really needs to be ‘sold’ to the panel,” the Minnesota State Arts Board website states. “If the only master woodcarver whom you can work with lives in Bali or Hawaii then you need to make a very strong case for why this person is important to your career.”

Few recipients appear to have been more successful in making their case than choreographer and dancer Ranee Ramaswamy and her daughters Ashwini and Aparna, artistic partners in the acclaimed Ragamala Music and Dance Theater.

Ranee will jet to New Zealand and India this year on a $10,000 grant to study with choreographer Lemi Ponifasio, following a 2009 grant to travel to Bali to work with I Dewa Putu Berata on a production.

“We could sit in our studio and think and imagine how it’s going to be, but it’s phenomenal when we are in the surroundings where the work comes from and the work is created,” Ranee Ramaswamy said in an interview. “So I think it’s a very integral part for me to grow as an artist to understand where his (Ponifasio’s) work comes from.”

Meanwhile, Ashwini Ramaswamy will journey to Edinburgh, Scotland, on a $10,000 award to perform in a festival, picking up from a 2011 grant to trek to India for “private lessons with Alarmel Valli, the greatest living master of bharatanatyam,” a classical Indian dance form, according to her application.

Aparna Ramaswamy has also received two recent grants, reaching India in 2009 “to build on her roles as Principal Dancer and Soloist with Ragamala” and presenting solo performances in the United Kingdom, Italy and Switzerland with a 2012 grant.

caption here

DANCE: Bharatanatyam is a classical Indian dance form. Minnesota artist Ashwini Ramaswamy used state taxpayer dollars to take private lessons in bharatanatyam in India.

“We are all individual artists.  Not only do we have a company,” Ranee Ramaswamy said. “We all try to grow and do our own work.  I’ve always done my own work within what we do.”

“The Arts Board does not have a restriction on who can apply or whether family members can apply for artist grants,” Boldenow said in her statement.  “If an artist receives an individual artist grant, that individual will not be eligible to apply the next year.”

In return for public funding, recipients must file a report accounting for spending and other requirements, as well as produce a community component that includes the public and focuses attention on the artist’s work.

For example, Loop-Anderson will present exhibitions of her paintings and give public lectures. Ranee Ramaswamy plans to create a production that will be presented at the Walker Art Center and provide public lectures, while Ashwini Ramaswamy will present a solo dance performance.

Artist Initiative grants comprise about 6 percent of the $94 million in grants distributed by the Arts Board since 2009, the year funding kicked in following passage of a 0.375 percent sales tax hike.

While funding for Artist Initiative grants has increased with the passage of the so-called Legacy Amendment sales tax increase, arts and cultural heritage funds can only be spent on activities in Minnesota. Taxpayer-supported grants for out-of-state travel come from the Arts Board’s general fund.

In her grant application, Loop-Anderson expressed some reservations about traveling to Tahiti: “I find really exotic locations that I would love to visit but doing so will accelerate their decline since many of the most beautiful places are extremely delicate eco-systems that can no longer tolerate their popularity.”

The Minneapolis artist leaves for French Polynesia in April.

Contact Tom Steward at [email protected].  


Tom formerly served as staff reporter for Watchdog.org.

  • Minnesota’s commitment to arts funding is unique, governed through meticulous scrutiny of project proposals, and is one of the big reasons why the area’s arts economy is one of the strongest in the country. Thank goodness the people of the state had the foresight to pass the Legacy Amendment.

  • person

    Minnesota is a great state to support the arts and artists. Without art, we lack creative thought. Business classes don’t teach creativity, yet businesses are seeking creative thinkers.

  • I love how the grant is likened to winning a sweepstakes. No need to demonstrate skill, education, experience, or argue effectively that the project benefits the culture of our state. Yep, just drop your name in a hat, and you’re off to an island paradise to drink rum out of coconuts. It’s so easy, why don’t YOU apply?

  • Chad Collins

    I came to this article expecting to find a thoughtful argument for why any of this activity is bad, especially if I am not already squarely in a camp that says “Taxes? Bad. Artists? Weirdos.” There doesn’t seem to be one. Not because there isn’t one to discuss, but because the author failed to include one. The picture also seems purposefully misleading. From the quotes by the artist in question (or any of the artists for that matter) I see no evidence that this travel is anything like a vacation for her. All of this adds up to choir preaching, poor writing and objectively bad journalism. Ironically, the discipline of writing is categorized as one of the Arts.

  • A Guy

    Tom, thank you: as a full-time, professional, tax-paying artist, your article finally gives me the chance to tell someone like you to “get a real job.” Do you guys just type out reactions to your “Minnesota Taxes” Google Alerts?

  • Philip

    Damn, and my Artist Initiative Grant only got me as far as Duluth and a mere 125,000 people participated in the work. I didn’t realize it was a beach vacation prize.

  • hady

    The panels are open to the public. You can see the work from the applications, and hear the panel discussion around them. You should go and check it out, it might give you a better idea on how the selection process works. This stuff is not secret or sneaky.

  • Nate Carey

    In his diary that night, Tom Steward expressed some
    reservations about spewing vitriolic writings on the web: “I think of
    really great headlines that I would love to prove but attempting to do so only
    accelerates my already plummeting decline from journalism since many of the
    artists I talked to are extremely thoughtful and valuable creatures that can no
    longer tolerate my incompetence. Mood: Remorse.”

  • The Artist Initiative Grant allowed me the time to work on a series of photographs and interviews with soldiers and war veterans, right here in Minnesota. The exhibition of the work was up at the Minnesota Center for Photography for a month. We were also able to later integrate some of the work into our feature film, which has now played at numerous community screenings and film festivals around the country and even overseas. All thanks to the funding that got the project started!

  • Kevin O

    If a renowned Minnesotan choreographer of classical Indian dance styles uses an arts grant to go to India to work with another world-famous Indian choreographer… it clearly must be some kind of exotic vacation.

  • Kevin O

    Also: too bad that you had to use a photo from the “Amazing Race” to illustrate the article, since none of the artists travelling around the world were, you know, photographers or anything.

  • Dillon B

    what is this? We all know the moneys invested in arts should be going right into the pockets of the military industrial complex; we need more CCTV feeds to be sure we document day to day movement of gen-pop; WHERE ARE THE DRONES TO KEEP US SAFE FROM OURSELVES! Don’t forget to fear.

  • Dylan

    I love that Minnesota is smart enough to fund projects like these. Making art, like anything else, takes money. Artists should get paid for what they do. If anything, I’d like to see more money go toward letting Minnesotans know where they can see or participate in the many fantastic projects created by Minnesota artists.

  • pete

    Dear Mr. Peabrain Peanuts,

    I appreciate your thought-provoking mediated hype and its inaccurate “exotic” fallacy. It has given me lots to ponder visually and fiscally, considering you have indirectly slandered me as a fellow recent recipient of MN State Arts Board Initiative Grant funding. You may like to know that culture and commerce go hand in hand. Culture is not something solely found in your fat-free yogurt. Perhaps you should steer your anti-cultural watchdog barking spew in the right direction of where the real fiscal problems come from: .

    My young children are learning basic math and can do the simple interest on Mr. Rumsfeld’s lost 2.3 Trillion as seen in the aforementioned linked video and they know how the removal of those funds from our wonderful cultural economy affects their daily lives. How can this money be simply stolen from the U.S. Peoples Treasury? Where is this money now? Why isn’t it accounted for? Why aren’t little watchdoggies like yourself marching on Washington D.C. to find it? Because of this highway robbery our national debt has now grown to over 16 trillion dollars and small-minded peabrains like you want to blame artists. I dare you to redirect your watchdog barking to question the Bushite Cabalists and seek fiscal accountability where the missing big peanuts exist.

    A real watchdog would sniff out and find the root cause of the fiscal problem. You remember Lassie don’t you? Now there was a real watchdog: she could smell a fiscal false flag from miles away. Can’t wait to do a polychromatic truncated portrait of your semi naked body filleted like a Polynesian fish burning over empty boxes of Earl Grey tea. I will specifically use a lot of the color red because I know it is your favorite color and it is also the compliment of green. Oh, and by the way, I will be using paints, materials and mediums purchased prior to my MSAB grant.

    Arf Arf Arf and Regards,

  • Mike T.

    Not traveling, Kevin. Traipsing. There’s a difference.

  • E Griffin

    Speaking as someone who knows several recipients of these grants (and not all for travel) I can say that not only is the application process rigorous, but the amount of documentation required to track the money spent is exhaustive. In this case the transparency required is far beyond what we get from banks or businesses in general. And I’m still trying to figure out why nurturing a vibrant artistic community is a bad thing–given that it is an often cited reason for creative and ambitious people to move to/stay in MN, and contribute to our economy. Aside from the fact that art might be, you know, important for itself.

  • Cristopher Anderson

    I’m so grateful for the legacy that the Legacy Amendment is creating in Minnesota.

  • JenniferDavis

    Counterpoint > “Cities turn to artists as urban troubleshooters…a trend that national policymakers are watching.” – Star Tribune

  • MarkD

    I can’t believe all the Legacy Amendment apologist trolls that have found their way to this comment thread are so outraged that a resident of Minnesota would have the audacity to shed a little light on these taxpayer-funded artiste vacations. It’s pretty sad that taxpayer money is funneled to folks who can’t use their own financial resources to study such desert flowers in the Baja Peninsula or chronicle the rainy season in the Dominican Republic. I am sorry, Legacy Amendment apologists, but these sorts of ventures do absolutely nothing to benefit Minnesota. Whatever happened to the idea if you want to do something that pretty much only benefits your own experience, you do it with your own cash flow? I have a few friends who are in the midst of applying for some Legacy funds to produce books they have written on Minneapolis culture that they never wanted to scrounge their own funds together to get published. They will assuredly get some cash out of this slush fund, and they will assuredly put it to good use – their own.

  • Talia Emerson

    It sounds like a vacation to me. Seriously, if this renowned choreographer cannot find a way to monetize their choreography – find another job to support your specialized hobby. Too many taxpaying folks are struggling to make ends meet on a daily basis. We all know art is subjective, I implore the ordinary citizens of Minnesota to flood the gates with applications to travel to wherever they would like and then come back with a roll full of cameras to submit to their local community center that chronicles their trip. how is that not art? how is that not contributing to bettering the local community? Or is this Legacy Board just a bunch of art world chronies handing out stack of cash to their friends?

  • Bête comme une peintre


    If you see this person’s art, which you can do via any search engine, you will see that it’s mediocre grade-school student level work.

    Hardly worth a grant to Tahiti.

    PS. Gaugin made it there on his own.


  • Bête comme une peintre


    Not quite the same as jetting off to Tahiti for a month or so.. your project actually sounds worth the money, whereas I can’t say the same for the artist going to Tahiti and an entire family of Indian dancers residing in Minnesota getting tens of thousands to travel back home while making excursions to Australia and Scotland at the same time.

    That is even more ridiculous and an even bigger slap in the face of hard-working taxpayers than the artist jetting to Tahiti in April.


  • evol eye

    “Artists should get paid for what they do”. Super, then how about you sell your work and fund your own damn travel? The government (read: taxpayers) needn’t subsidize your chosen profession.

  • Melissa Loop

    The fact that this article only mentions Bora Bora and show a picture from the amazing race to illustrate an entire culture that is comprised of 168 islands is insulting the Polyneians. He purposely leaves out that I am spending a fraction of my time on the island of Bora Bora and when I’m there I will be staying with an artist on the island. Most of my time will be on the much less touristed areas staying with families in small pensions, with artists, activists, and even meeting members of parliament. All of this information He also left out of the article because it proves that I did my research and will be working on an actual project. And because we live in a globalized society it is important to think how our continued misconception of a place impacts its very existence. Also, the $10000 includes all of the material to create a large body of work that is resulting in at least 2 shows and artist talks about the paradox of tourism, colonialism, and the over 200 nuclear tests that resulted in large amounts of cancer. I will not be sky diving.

  • pete

    Who is grade-school level? You have spelled Gauguin wrong. And he did not make it to Tahiti on his own: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Paul_Gauguin

  • PoohBear

    Charles your a real idiot and must have no appreciation for the arts or is it you just hate life in general.

  • PoohBear

    Sorry the last comment was directed to Bete comme une peintre and not to Charles

  • PoohBear

    I completely agree-a day without the arts is a day with no light!

  • J. D. Christian

    Melissa, Nothing you said justifies the fact that you used tax payer dollars to fund your “hobby.” Shame on you and all the other artists who took advantage of all of us who actually have jobs, own businesses, and pay incredible amounts in income, property, and employment taxes. I’m an artist myself and I would never rape the system in this way!

  • J. D. Christian

    You nailed it Mark!! The bottom line is that we need to replace Minnesota Arts Board members like ue Gens and get private sector business owners like my husband and I who pay more than our fair share of taxes, to make decisions on where our tax dollars should go.

  • J. D. Christian


  • J. D. Christian

    You clearly don’t understand why our state and country are in debt, do you? This program is 1 of hundreds of unregulated programs here in Minnesota and in the U.S. Programs like this that are promised tax dollars generated by business owners and the working class like myself and my neighbors, and feel forced to spend it or they will lose it. Sue Gens admitted just that in the KSTP video. You can “bark” all you want at the rest of us, but that’s the truth.

  • USA1stVince

    Our Educational Community – Elitist airhead parasites – living high like B. Hussein Obama off the rest of us…..and the $TRILLION we send them annually…WAKE UP AMERICA!!

  • USA1stVince

    Melissa – You drastically overestimate your importance, relevance, and contribution to the rest of us…..Do us all a favor and get someone in the private sector to pay for your junkets!

  • blahblahblah

    Please J.D. – We all know that tax payers bodies shut down during legitimate rape.

    The Minnesotans voted in favor of supporting the Arts, in favor of paying more taxes in favor of the Arts.

    Apparently, some of my hard earned tax money went towards blowing up a country in the MIddle East. I’m not exactly happy with that.

    Your’re not an artist.

    If you are reading articles on Watchdog.org, you looking to reinforce your world view.

  • Shelly Leit

    Why would this bother anyone? I’m an artist and can tell you, we don’t usually make a living at it. For the cultural enrichment of all, grants are very helpful. And most of us, including me, have yet to get one. I could sure use the money for things like, you know, bills, supplies, etc.

  • Shelly Leit

    And people need to keep in mind that 90% of artists never get grants. Probably even more than that. There should be more arts grants, not less!

  • Kim Matthews

    What a bunch of arrogant bullshit. What makes you so sure that grantees aren’t working as hard and paying taxes just like they’re supposed to? I won a Jerome Grant in 2010 because of the QUALITY OF MY WORK. I’m single, I work full time and pay taxes, I own a business, and besides that, I’m an exhibiting artist who took care of her ailing mother with dementia and COPD for the last several years of her life–the last 14 monts in my home. Screw you guys. P.S. Legacy Funds come from lottery ticket sales.

  • epb

    Sorry I just learned about this whole diatribe 3 months after the fact. Talia, everybody is welcomed to apply for these grants, including you! I’m sorry you don’t understand the concept of the professionalism in the arts, and that your ignorance (as well as the author of this piece) have gone far to limit the important work of professional artists in our fair state.

  • epb

    Bete, I’m so very sorry that you choose to make snide judgements about things you clearly know nothing about. The grant proposals are public record, so are all available for anybody to read. Before jumping to conclusions without knowing what you are talking about, you would do us all a service by educating yourself.

  • Annelise E.

    From Marianne Combs, MPR:

    According to Steward’s own reporting “114 recipients of Artist Initiative grants issued by the Minnesota State Arts Board during the past five years will have traveled to at least 40 different countries and 20 states by the end of 2013. From 2009 to 2013 the Arts Board awarded 730 Artist Initiative grants totaling $5.6 million with about 15 percent of those grants supporting travel outside Minnesota.”

    For the record that works out to $168,000 per year spent on artist travel outside Minnesota, or about one third of one percent of the $58.3 million the Minnesota Legislature allocated for arts and cultural heritage projects in FY2014.


  • joepapke

    This piece of yellow journalism should be retitled “Tom Steward sensationalizes a reasonable and culturally-important arts program to rile up the gullible and create unnecessary scapegoats.”

  • d’oh

    Y’know, I don’t know. I think this whole argument could be rewritten effectively as a short story, first person narrative. Observe: “I didn’t get to go on vacation this summer, and I’m mad that probably 4 cents worth of my tax dollars went to pay some artist to go to Tahiti, because I wanna go to Tahiti too, dammit. Also, I fail to see the difference between a full-time professional artist going to Tahiti to work on developing their career and me going to Tahiti to relax on the beach, mainly because I have a guitar in my basement that I play once a year so I get to be called an artist too.” Which is a story I would then file under the type of logic I call “I don’t understand Einstein, therefore Einstein is an idiot” logic.

  • IntelligentConversationalist

    WOW! This is a pretty ridiculous statement. Not only does it demonstrate a very narrow and limited worldview, but it is downright insulting. I would bet that USA1stVInce and J.D. Christian are either the author looking to attack or stooges who are very insecure. Melissa – I know nothing of your work and I do not need to. If the MSAB has determined that your were worthy of the grant then it would be pretty arrogant of me to second guess. Good luck to you and make sure to show us what you learned through this experience.

  • Dumbpeoplewithcomputers

    You are an idiot. A first class idiot. Why would any smart person pay MORE THAN THEIR FAIR SHARE OF TAXES? God you are dumb. I pay exactly what I am supposed to pay and then I even get a refund if I forget to take one of my allowed deductions. I would NEVER pay more than I had to and them bitch to everyone about it. Well at least you and your dumb overpaying tax husband have found each other.

  • Dumbpeoplewithcomputers

    HAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA! I love it when people do not “get” art. They make up all kinds of dumb crap to show how much they don’t know. Yes, a roll of your dumb vacation shots from Mexico certainly qualifies as art, PLEASE, PLEASE have a lecture on your stupid vacation and tell us where it is.

  • dumbpeoplewithcomputers

    It isn’t unregulated. That is why there is a board. You just don;t like the results of the board. Boo hoo.
    Artists are working as well – they just do different work than you and I bet that many of the artists use their brain more creatively than you and many dancers, actors, sculptors, etc exert more energy than you.
    I bet that one of your neighbors thinks they are an artist and you just don’t know it.
    Our country is NOT in debt because of artists.

  • dumbpeoplewithcomputers

    As an educator and an artist, I extend my deepest apologies to you. we have failed you as educators and we have failed to help you understand empathy, compassion, beauty, being open to the world around you, and how to complete a sentence that makes any sense at all.

  • dpwc

    Of course they do. They have done it for centuries, some of the greatest contributions to the world have been subsidized art. The problem is that you don’t really understand what art really costs or how it works.

    Let’s say an artist works an entire year to make one painting – they do nothing else that entire year. When the painting is done, someone needs to pay the artist – for the sake of argument $24,000 for a yearly salary.

    If no one buys it from them, then that artist is broke – “a starving artist”. And people don’t always buy art – even if everyone in the world likes it – it is unrealistic to assume that every artist is going to make their yearly salary by “selling” the art they created.

    You might say “well maybe they need to get another job then” or “maybe if they painted something that someone wanted” or “so what, I chose to work at McDonalds and I make that same amount – they don’t have to CHOOSE to be an artist”.

    The government needs to subsidize art so that it keeps getting created and is not at the mercy of the petty whims and influence of the stinking rich – or the shifting tide of aesthetic and morals. Art is what helps to identify a culture – throughout history – but people on your side of the fence want to deny that and turn art into a “commodity” – that has an instant dollar figure attached.

    That is simply not how art works. You can belly ache all you want – it is not going to change the very nature of art. It is what it is.

    All your argument does is show just how little you understand about art and how the world works and about the bigger picture.

  • HardWorkingArtist

    J.D. — How dare you say that her work, or the work of any professional artist is a hobby and imply that we don’t “actually have jobs, own businesses and pay incredible amounts in income, property and employment taxes”!! This is perhaps one of the most insulting statements I have read — ever! And your attitude demonstrates exactly why artists need grants: because the general population doesn’t see artists as professionals, as people who work hard at their crafts, or view their work as much more than playing in the sandbox, and therefore don’t really think we should be paid for our work. Unless, of course, we’re Angelina Jolie, Tom Hanks, Jennifer Lawrence, Beyonce, or any of the other top 1% of artists with high profiles and fat wallets. The other 99% of us are working “day jobs” to make our ends meet or hustling for the next gig to keep us afloat! Trust me, as a population, even when receiving grant money, we’re hardly vacationing in exotic places, lounging on cushions, drinking champagne, eating oysters.