Minnesota’s vibrant creative community is in crisis

August 14, 2020 6:23 am

The 700-seat McGuire Proscenium Stage at the Guthrie, just one of scores of empty stages. Photo by Roland Halbe, courtesy, the Guthrie.

Gathering people together in community for experiences and education is the lifeblood of the arts, and on or around March 15 the gatherings suddenly stopped. No plays in theaters, no art fairs or galleries where artists could sell their wares, no community arts classes, no singing choirs, all abruptly silenced. 

It’s not just that Minnesota’s emergency orders prevented large gatherings, although that is a part of it. It is also the growing realization that we don’t know when people will be comfortable coming back to Minnesota’s 1900 theaters, galleries and museums again.

A WolfBrown survey found that only 14-20% of arts attendees are ready to go back as soon as it’s legally allowed. Park Square Theater recently polled their audience and nearly 42% said they won’t return until there is a vaccine. 

As time passes the devastation worsens. Both large and small arts and culture organizations who had been able to hold onto some of their staff with PPP loans are now starting to lay off workers permanently. Here’s just a few examples:

An American Alliance of Museums survey found that one third of U.S. arts institutions may close this year. U.S. museums have been losing at least $33 million per day. The Minnesota Council of Nonprofits found that arts organizations have suffered the “highest levels of disruption of the nonprofit sector” and that “67% expect recovery to be difficult.” 

Policy makers are pushing a number of bills on the federal level that could help arts organizations survive, including leadership from U.S. Rep. Betty McCollum of St. Paul who helped get $75 million into the CARES act for the National Endowment for the Arts to distribute nationally, some of which has come to Minnesota.  

Sen. Amy Klobuchar has co-authored the Save Our Stages bill to help shuttered music venues, and Americans for the Arts is pushing for a number of measures that would help arts groups survive. 

Before COVID-19, the arts and culture were contributing over $2 billion annually to Minnesota’s economy. Minnesota’s 108,000 artists and creative workers were contributing to Minnesota’s vibrant economy in thousands of other ways as entrepreneurs and creative gig workers. That work too suddenly came to a halt in March, as many workers were notified that their contracts had been cancelled.

Nearly two-thirds of the nation’s artists are now unemployed and 94% report they have lost income because of Covid-19. A third of all nonprofit workers in Minnesota have filed for unemployment. 

According to the Minnesota Council of Nonprofits, arts organizations have suffered the “highest levels of disruption of the nonprofit sector” and that with this significant disruption, “67% expect recovery to be difficult.”  

Of course, all of these laid off artists and creative workers need support to make it through this crisis just as all other laid off workers do, which is why advocates pushed to also include freelancers in the unemployment system

Although this succeeded, some gig workers were prevented from getting relief aid because they mixed both traditional jobs and independent contract work to pay the bills and had been left with little or no financial relief. The field is pursuing legislation to fix this problem

Minnesota is in the process of figuring its budget deficit and it’s unclear when the Legislature will deal with that, but the arts community should be braced for reduced funding for the Minnesota State Arts Board and Regional Arts Councils system. 

In the meantime, artists and arts organizations are trying to figure out how to survive until audiences return. 

While innovative and wonderful, it’s important to note that none of these new programs are providing the kind of revenue that sustained arts organizations and artists before the crisis began.

How can you help? Urge congress to pass the relief bill for the arts sector. Buy tickets and try out new online offerings from your favorite arts organizations. Commission a painting, song or other work of art from your favorite artist, and contribute to Springboard for the Arts’ Artist Relief Fund. Know that they will need your help to survive this crisis.

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Sheila Smith
Sheila Smith

Sheila Smith is executive director of Minnesota Citizens for the Arts ( and chair of Creative Minnesota (