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.
“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.
“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].