Sheila Smith of Minnesota Citizens for the Arts (MCA): “Your primary job is to inspire and motivate people”

Your primary job is to inspire and motivate people to align with your mission and participate with others in achieving it. You have to know what’s happening outside of your own silo so you can marshal everyone to move in the same direction. So much is dependent on personal relationships, whether you’re talking about constituents, […]

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Your primary job is to inspire and motivate people to align with your mission and participate with others in achieving it. You have to know what’s happening outside of your own silo so you can marshal everyone to move in the same direction. So much is dependent on personal relationships, whether you’re talking about constituents, funders, or community leaders. You have to be in the room with as many people as possible, so you have a deep knowledge of what’s happening in the field.

As part of my series about “individuals and organizations making an important social impact”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Sheila Smith.

Sheila Smith is the newly retired executive director of Minnesota Citizens for the Arts (MCA), the strongest arts advocacy group in the US. For 25 years, she worked to strengthen the state’s cultural community by achieving arts-friendly policy in Minnesota, and helped spearhead the passage of a statewide constitutional amendment to create dedicated funding for the arts and culture in the Minnesota State constitution via a constitutional amendment in 2008. An artist herself, Smith is also founder and Chair of the Creative Minnesota Project, which produces important research about the arts and cultural community for education, policy making, and advocacy in the state.

Thank you so much for doing this with us. Before we begin our readers would like to get to know you a bit more. Can you tell us a bit about your “backstory”?

I hold a BA in Shakespeare from St. Olaf College and a graduate degree from St. Mary’s in arts administration. For the past twenty-five years I’ve served as executive director of the Minnesota Citizens for the Arts, where I specialized in arts and public policy. My role has been to translate and educate about arts issues for elected officials, and translate public policy for the arts sector, resulting in the passage of arts-friendly public policy. Prior to working for MCA, I spent six years working as staff in the Minnesota State Senate on arts and other issues, which helped equip me for the political work it would take to help pass the Legacy Amendment.

I was raised in a politically active family that highly values the arts, so arts and politics have always been intertwined for me. Though I’ve retired from MCA, I currently teach at the University of Minnesota about the intersection of arts and politics. In my spare time I am a painter, wood carver and vernacular architect.

Can you tell us the story behind your nonprofit?

Minnesota Citizens for the Arts (MCA) is a 501c4 political nonprofit, and the oldest and most successful arts advocacy organization in the country. Our role is to lobby the legislature — to build grassroots political power for arts organizations, artists, and audiences, and to communicate to elected officials the importance of the arts in communities across the state. We know the most important conversations are between legislators and constituents, so much of our work is bringing those two groups together for conversation, education and advocacy.

Our state has a strong civic participation culture, including the highest voting rates in the country, and we work with people from border to border to advocate for the arts in our communities. Today, Minnesota leads the nation in arts funding, thanks to our collective efforts to pass a state ballot measure — the Legacy Amendment, in 2008. This is a reflection of strong support for the arts among Minnesotans and also the strength of our arts community.

MCA began in the 70s as a collaboration between rural arts advocates and representatives from the largest arts organizations in the core Metro. Instead of fighting over the rural vs. city divide, we have collaborated for decades on common issues, which continues to be one of our greatest strengths. Traditionally arts advocacy across the country focused on major institutions in core metro areas. While they are certainly still an important part of our coalition, rural organizations across the state are also an integral part of the team. Our board is made up of 36 advocates from every corner of the state and represent every kind of arts organization and artist.

We have found if we want to accomplish something at the legislature we must work together and find common ground, with one ask, to encourage votes to help the arts. We need to sort out our differences before we go to the legislature, so we are all using the same simple and direct wording. We need to present a unified front so that we don’t come off as chaotic and be ignored. We can’t stress this enough, and it’s true with any sort of public policy advocacy work. In the words of Benjamin Franklin, “We must, indeed, all hang together or, most assuredly, we shall all hang separately.”

Political messaging needs to be simple, easy to remember and to the point, and repeated endlessly, like an advertising slogan. What, specifically, do we hope legislators will do? You want the advocates to remember, the legislators to remember, and the press to repeat your message. And the truth is, no legislator understands anything until a constituent has explained it to them.

Covid has been completely devastating to the art sector. 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.

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 dollars 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 percent expect recovery to be difficult.”

Before COVID-19, the arts and culture were contributing over 2 billion dollars 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 percent report they have lost income because of COVID-19. A third of all nonprofit workers in Minnesota have filed for unemployment.

We need to focus our energies on getting legislators and constituents talking about the impact in their own local community. The data needs to be about the impact in Minnesota — and if we’ve done a local Creative Minnesota economic impact study of the arts, that’s the most important thing a legislator can see.

For this year’s session, we are currently in the last of four days of VIrtual Arts Action Week. We scheduled 201 meetings (over Zoom because of Covid) with legislators in the last four days, and we gave every advocate the same marching orders. Tell the following story:

1. How did covid impact your ability to operate as an organization or an artist?

2. How did you rally despite those changes to reach the public?

3. Because of these unprecedented challenges facing arts organizations and artists, we’re saying to legislators, “now more than ever you must step up to protect arts funding.”

In some other states, arts advocacy work is a volunteer effort where people can burn out quickly, and the organization falters. In our state, it’s built on the strong support of our nonprofit arts organizations who have steadily supported arts advocacy for more than 45 years. Although at first Minnesota Citizens for the Arts was all volunteer, we have steadily grown stronger based on that consistent support, allowing us to hire professional organizers and lobbyists, which is one of the reasons we’ve had the strength to be around this long.

We are proud to see the MCA’s efforts have helped inspire conversations among other arts advocates across the US who are doing increasingly ambitious and creative arts advocacy inspired by our model, and beyond.

Can you describe how you or your organization aims to make a significant social impact?

The arts are part of the solution to almost every social problem. Today our communities seem hopelessly divided — but we believe when you bring people together in community to experience and participate in the arts, like a choir, a public mural, or a concert, some of those divides drop away as people react to and participate in the art and learn together.

By supporting arts organizations and artists to achieve their own goals, we are supporting communities. And communities with active arts and culture sectors are healthier than those without, because the arts bring people together.

They can be a window into other people’s lives to build understanding across cultures. The arts can help heal veterans with PTSD and support kids with learning disabilities, and they also have a huge economic impact, drawing attendees to every corner of the state for educational and entertainment experiences, spending money in stores, bars and restaurants.

MCA also raises the profile of nonprofit arts and culture in Minnesota through research and communications called Creative Minnesota. The ability to create and share hard data about the sector has become incredibly important. The coalition that came together to work on it started around 2013 and our first big report was delivered in 2015. At that time, we were having conversations with other statewide arts service organizations and culture-supporting foundations — like the McKnight, Bush, Jerome, and Target Foundations, etc. — and found we were all complaining about the same thing: no one had hard data for policy making, education and advocacy.. We needed to get our arms around the nonprofit arts — what do they need, how are things going, how can we help.

Together we created the Creative Minnesota project, which produces new research every two years. In 2015 we did a deep dive into the economic impact of nonprofit arts and culture organizations. (The results of this study surprised even us — move over sports! Arts have an even greater economic impact…) In 2017 we looked at the economic lives and impact of individual artists and creative workers. Then, in 2019 we delved into student access to arts education in Minnesota schools. We also include public opinion polling and other statistical data on the arts sector.

During Covid we were unable to pursue our next new major study, so we pivoted to discussions of how we can support arts organizations and artists through these perilous times, and also shifted to produce more city and county local economic impact studies of the arts. Because we had already created this statewide coalition to create research, we could pivot quickly to try to support the arts community during the Covid crisis. Our conversations resulted in some relief funding for non-profit arts, a larger focus of conversations on unemployment payments for artists, and other discussions statewide to talk about what artists and arts organizations needed.

The Otto Bremer Trust coordinated statewide Covid relief efforts and managed a fund on behalf of other foundations — and specifically targeted arts and culture organizations in their second round of grantmaking, thanks to the Creative Minnesota conversation and the work of the Regional Arts Councils. We also did what we could to amplify Springboard for the Arts’ Emergency Fund for Artists.

Creative Minnesota’s next research program is still up in the air, but there are a number of things on the table.

One pressing need we’re hoping to help address is around issues of fair pay for artists. It has always been difficult for artists to know what to ask for when they’re being hired, and conversely, it’s difficult for businesses to know what to pay them. Creative Minnesota is looking into possibly researching the issue to find out and publicize average pay rates — so artists know what they should be asking for. This is being done other places — we can research that. We could possibly recommend some standardized Minnesota pay rates.

The Creative Minnesota research is used in beneficial ways for the community. For example, when we studied the economic lives of artists and creative workers, we found that women artists were paid less than male artists. To address substantial inequities, ten female-artists from Southwest Minnesota co-organized a Woman’s Empowerment Creative Action Network to utilize arts and culture strategies to produce creative events, activities, trainings, peer learning groups, and gathering spaces that allow women and people of color to strengthen leadership skills, cultivate creativity, make connections, and encourage active participation in civic processes. This effort is called “WE CAN! “Working Towards Equity in Rural Communities Through Female-Led Artistic Interventions and Creative Action.” They wouldn’t have had hard data that women’s salaries were lower unless we had done the research.

We’ve also recently conducted research with arts leaders of color about what they’d like us to focus on. One significant hurdle is that some of the national data sets we use, such as the census, are not subdivided into different ethnic communities. The U.S. census does not collect the data that way, and the NEA uses the census data. Even National entities that do data collection to differentiate between a variety of ethnicities aren’t ideal — for example, “Asian” includes a wide range of ethnicities that are lumped together, that are nothing like each other.

Without saying any names, can you share a story about an individual who was helped by your idea so far?

MCA provides advocacy tools to local communities to achieve their own goals. A local rural community, Grand Rapids, Minn., had strong arts advocates looking for ways to demonstrate to political leaders not just artistic impact but economic impact the arts were offering their community. Together with their team, we did a Creative Minnesota study which showed to city leaders the arts were bringing in more revenue than their Civic Center. This revelation prompted the City to start an arts commission and focus more on the arts as an economic development asset. A new collaboration was formed with the chamber of commerce, which also led to the creation of a thriving public art program. Thanks to the momentum this partnership created, the national Rural Arts and Culture Summit was hosted in their small town in 2019.

Are there three things the community/society/politicians can do to help address the root of the problem you are trying to solve?

  1. Support the nonprofit arts with economic development dollars. In Minnesota we need our lawmakers to continue to support current legislation which will help us continue to ensure everyone has access to arts and culture near them.
  2. Look for other opportunities to support and integrate the arts sector into larger policy goals. For example, make sure that small business loans are accessible to arts nonprofits. Help make grants and loans available through the small business administration so arts organizations can access those resources. The arts draw the people in to restaurants, hotels and other businesses.
  3. Weave the arts into public policies. There isn’t a public system that wouldn’t be improved by the participation of an artist. A transportation department could use an artist in residence to avoid ugly roadsides, public transit routes and stops can benefit from public art along the way. In places where there is conflict, use the arts to bridge divides and bring people together.

How do you define “Leadership”? Can you explain what you mean or give an example?

“A leader is a person who has followers. The first responsibility of a leader is to define reality. The last is to say thank you. In between, the leader must become a servant and a debtor.” — Max DePree

To be a leader one must follow a path of servant leadership, to define the issues, clarify the process, describe and motivate what needs to happen, then celebrate successes wherever you can find them. I’ll explain more in the next question!

Based on your experience, what are the “Five things a person should know before they decide to start a nonprofit”. Please share a story or example for each.

1. Your primary job is to inspire and motivate people to align with your mission and participate with others in achieving it. You have to know what’s happening outside of your own silo so you can marshal everyone to move in the same direction. So much is dependent on personal relationships, whether you’re talking about constituents, funders, or community leaders. You have to be in the room with as many people as possible, so you have a deep knowledge of what’s happening in the field.

2. Nonprofits are about community action, not about achieving your own goals. Think about how to harness the interests and resources of your community in service of the mission. The best way to work in service to community is by involving the community. Nobody knew what the impact of the Covid crisis was going to be for the arts community at the beginning- we still don’t. There was a lot of confusion. But Minnesota Citizens for the Arts brought everyone together to discuss what we knew, and to help determine the highest priority needs of the community. We created a list of action steps to take to be in service of solving that problem.

For arts organizations, for example, everyone needed money — from the Minnesota Opera to a visual arts facility in rural Minnesota — they all needed financial support to survive because they couldn’t open their doors, and they couldn’t hold fundraisers. Artists and creative workers also needed money. Painters, potters, glass artists, couldn’t sell their artwork at fairs or other events. Actors and musicians had no performances to pay their salaries andtheir mortgages.

MCA works for arts organizations and artists. As a whole. All of them. Instead of one person in an office telling everyone what to do, we had input from all quarters. Because MCA is statewide we had to talk to people all across the state. And we did. We got out there, talked to a lot of people, and worked together to begin to help get our arts community to the other side. We’re not there yet, but we’re working on it.

3. Before you start a new nonprofit you should be doing a lot of research

-Is someone already doing what you propose as a mission? Don’t waste resources recreating the wheel if you can collaborate with others who are already working on an issue. You need to canvass the community to see if there’s support for your nonprofit. Test the idea — soft sound it by talking to lots of people.

-Are you trying to solve the correct problem?

-Are there other organizations that already do this so you might want to join with them?

-Are there enough resources to support this activity?

-Is there enough interest in the community to gather enough resources to make this work?

-What if you build a for-profit, and donate your profits to solve the problem instead?

-Could your activity be accomplished by just using the support of a fiscal agent rather than having to go through all of the bureaucratic work of starting a new c3?

Starting a nonprofit is not the first step! The first step is to find the answers to all these questions and more to see if your approach is the right one.

4. The business culture needs to be even more supportive and understanding of the role of nonprofits. Nonprofits have a functionality that is separate from business culture — our job is to fill a gap that businesses do not. Nonprofits are not a business and cannot function as a business because the point of a nonprofit is not to make money, it’s to fill a gap in the social fabric not being filled by capitalism.

Therefore, demanding that nonprofits behave like businesses is counterproductive. Nobody should be making money on homelessness, hunger, or other social crises. These problems are for government and nonprofits to solve because for-profit businesses cannot. If you want these problems in society solved, you should be supporting nonprofits with your resources and energy.

5. Nonprofits have specific requirements and life cycles. A new nonprofit has different resource and management needs than a mature nonprofit with hundreds of employees. They are not monolithic.

In the beginning you might be small and all-volunteer while you are still gathering people together. After a while you have a midsized group, it’s steady as you go, and you’re right-sized. Then there are nonprofits that get turbocharged and become really huge. They grow in influence and activity and have 3many hundreds of employees and beyond and are on a whole different scale.

But no matter the size, all along as you grow your nonprofit, pay attention to the HR aspect; ensure that staff are paid adequately and appropriately to serve the mission — they must be supported and fairly paid or they will burn out and quit, and in the end you will not be able to grow. People outside the nonprofit sector don’t understand how much pressure is on a nonprofit staff. They are doing huge, complicated jobs, and need to pay their bills like everyone else. Every phase of growth has its own challenges, but the most important thing is to invest in the people. Suggesting that people accept crappy pay because they believe in the mission is just terrible management and exploitative.

We are very blessed that very prominent leaders read this column. Is there a person in the world who you would like to talk to, to share the idea behind your nonprofit? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂

Dear President Biden: Please create a Cabinet post for an arts leader who can look for and build opportunities to use the arts in problem solving across the federal government, including restarting the use of arts in diplomacy, building on the veterans’ arts health care initiative, and in your goal of “Building Back Better” because the arts will help you achieve your goals.

At your own inauguration, it was all about the arts — dance, poetry, song. From Lady Gaga, to Garth Brooks to Amanda Gorman. All these different people were celebrating the renewal of our political system through art. The paintings you chose for the Oval Office you chose for specific reasons, for what the people depicted represent.

See how powerful the arts can be in service to the public good — they carry messages beyond the activity itself.

Please also establish a WPA-type program to employ artists in these times of high artist employment. They can serve their country in so many ways, from the design of public squares and murals, and beyond. Let artists document these unique times and help heal our nation.

Can you share your favorite “Life Lesson” Quote? How is that relevant to you in your life?

The people I love the best

jump into work head first

without dallying in the shallows

and swim off with sure strokes almost out of sight.

-Marge Piercy, “To Be of Use”

I think about this passage often. Whenever people ask me to volunteer, I try to say yes, because so many things need to be done. Any day I get up and I get things done feels like a good day.

How can our readers follow you online?

Minnesota Citizens for the Arts

Sheila Smith

Personal Twitter: @Shewhotravels

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