Vickie Benson, Arts Program Director, McKnight Foundation

The McKnight Foundation's arts program supports regional arts councils and has provided fellowships to individual artists since 1981, with the goal of improving the quality of the arts in Minnesota and providing access to the arts for all residents of the state. PND recently spoke to Vickie Benson, arts program director at the foundation, about her experiences during the culture wars of the 1990s, the future of arts nonprofits in Minnesota, and the impact of the economic slowdown on the state's arts community, which began to feel the effects of the turmoil on Wall Street in the weeks following this interview.

Philanthropy News Digest: In your previous position at the Jerome Foundation, your work focused on supporting emerging artists. How has your interest in emerging artists informed your work at McKnight?

Vickie Benson: Well, I'm interested in all artists. It just so happens that Jerome focuses on emerging artists, so I got to put my emerging artist hat on during the time I was there. I loved doing that work; it was all about helping emerging artists realize their artistic dreams through, in many cases, their first grants.

What's interesting about the program at McKnight is that we support the opportunity to enable Minnesotans to participate in the work of professional artists — whether they're emerging, mature, or, as we've come to call mid-career artists here, "ongoing artists" — in two different ways. We support individual artists through our fellowship program, while also supporting arts organizations and regional arts councils which, in turn, support professional artists. So at McKnight, we have a chance to work with all artists and the organizations that support them. In that sense, it was just a natural progression for me to move from Jerome to McKnight, and I've been lucky to do so.

PND: You also worked at the National Endowment for the Arts in the 1990s at a time when a Republican-dominated Congress seemed hell-bent on reducing the size of, if not completely dismantling, the NEA. How did that experience influence your views on arts funding?

VB: Going through the culture wars was like going to graduate school in a way. In some ways it was a great time, and in some ways an awful time. The NEA was being attacked right and left, and what I realized at the time was that the arts community itself was not very sophisticated when it came to advocacy or lobbying. Arts organizations across the country and even artist service organizations were not prepared for the attacks. But since then, organizations and artists have become much savvier. For example, Americans for the Arts came out of the culture wars as a stronger organization, in my opinion. And, ultimately, I learned a lot about how we needed to be much more organized as a sector. That was the silver lining of that experience.

PND: How seriously have arts groups in Minnesota been affected by the economic slowdown? Has McKnight seen an increase in funding requests from arts groups and other nonprofits?

VB: We have not seen an increase in funding requests at this point, though I think some organizations are bracing for the fact that the economy could affect individuals' ability to donate or to have disposable income to attend the theater. But I think it's too soon to tell how the economy will affect organizations in the state. We're just at the beginning of a new season and numbers are down a bit, though that may be partly because of the increase in gas prices. In order to get to a theater, some individuals, especially those who live in rural communities, have to drive for miles and miles.

On the other hand, people are traveling less, they're taking fewer vacations, so more people may stay home to enjoy the many arts opportunities that both the Twin Cities and the rest of Minnesota have to offer. I think it's too soon to tell how that will play out, but we're hopeful. I think we'll know a lot more next spring.

PND: What does McKnight plan to do to ensure the health and vitality of the arts in the Twin Cities and in Minnesota?

VB: The McKnight Foundation has supported the arts for the past thirty years, and in the past few years the foundation has awarded approximately $10 million annually in support of the arts in Minnesota. So, we have no intention of moving away from the arts. We'll continue to do what we've always done to assist the health of the community, which is to listen carefully to the needs of our constituents and respond, if we can, and as we have, to those needs. We'll also continue to listen to the concerns that come up within the various disciplines — music, theater, visual arts — and convene experts to think about how to address those issues.

PND: What advice would you give to arts groups in the state who are anxious about their future funding streams?

VB:I would actually give them the same advice I always give, which is to make sure that they have a diversified pool of funders — a vast number of corporate and private foundations and individuals contributing to their funding stream. That's something that is always important, but even more so in a slowing economy.

That said, all of us in the arts community will need to come together to make sense of the financial crisis. Artists — the most innovative and resourceful people in our midst — may actually be the ones to help us make sense of it all and may have the ideas to bring us all together to work through this.

Lauren Kelley