A trip to Minnesota, where the state Legislature recently approved major support for two theatre construction projects, inspires a new way of looking at arts funding in Texas.
Oh, the Places You'll Go
Sitting behind a few hundred grade schoolers and watching a Dr. Seuss story unfold on stage is almost always interesting in one way or another, but last week it was especially so, given who was producing the Seuss-ing. See, I was visiting the Twin Cities for a conference of the American Theatre Critics Association and being treated to a show by the Minneapolis-based Children's Theatre Company, which had just days earlier received the 2003 Regional Theatre Tony Award. What's more, that prize had arrived with three Tony nominations for one of its shows, A Year With Frog and Toad, that had transferred to Broadway after a run in Minneapolis. Despite the fact that Frog and Toad couldn't compete against the juggernaut that was Hairspray and had just announced its closing on June 15, the Children's Theatre Company was all smiles. After all, CTC had been validated by the Broadway establishment (and by the nation's theatre critics, who had collectively recommended the company for the Regional Theatre Tony through ATCA), and, thanks to the announcement of the Tony during the prime-time broadcast and the performance of a song from Frog and Toad, the company had managed to boost its audience by almost 8 million people. It was a tremendous boost for CTC, already the largest company devoted to children's theatre in the U.S., with 23,000 subscribers and a $9.3 million budget, and one that came right on the heels of another tremendous boost from the Minnesota Legislature: As part of a $237 million bonding bill for construction projects in the state, the Lege approved $5 million toward a $25 million expansion of CTC's current facilities. With the Children's Theatre having already raised $15.5 million, CTC was more than 80% of the way to paying for this new wing.
Actually, CTC wasn't the only Minneapolis theatre company with cause to rejoice at the end of the legislative session. The CTC expansion was one of two major construction projects in the 2003 bonding bill, the other being a new home for the Guthrie Theater on the Mississippi riverfront in Minneapolis. The cost of this projected three-stage facility is $125 million (of which the Guthrie has reportedly raised $65 million), and the state was willing to kick in $25 million, the largest single amount in the entire bonding bill.
Let's see, that's 20% of the cost of each of these two cultural facilities coming from the state. During economic hard times, facing a $4.2 billion shortfall in the state budget. In a state with a Republican speaker of the House and a Republican governor. Imagine that.
According to various press reports in the Minnesota Star Tribune and on Minnesota Public Radio, this public support did not come easily, and arts groups had to combat the standard arguments against funding the arts while social services are suffering. (If there's one political face-off that gets more play than "guns vs. butter," it's "the arts vs. the needy.") Still, the thing to note here is that the kind of success that many in the arts deem impossible in the current economic climate was achieved. With persistent lobbying, state government was persuaded that cultural institutions are worth investing in, that they serve the public interest in compelling ways -- economically, environmentally, and educationally, to name three.
What's interesting is that our Republican guv made the same point three months ago in regard to the Long Center for the Performing Arts. Speaking at a press conference on Feb. 28, Gov. Rick Perry insisted that the Long Center must be built. Alas, he didn't exactly push that point with his colleagues in the Lege during the session that just ended, but maybe he's just saving it up for the special session on the horizon. And maybe folks in the arts need to stop settling for table scraps and get back to dreaming dreams that are grand and wondrous and communicating the value of those dreams to those around them. That's what artists do best, after all, and that's what will get them what they deserve instead of whatever is left over. My trip to the Land of 1,000 Lakes has convinced me that even in hard times facing hard choices, that can work. When you take that kind of approach, as the good doctor tells us, "Oh, the places you'll go."