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State arts council leaders optimistic

State arts officials from North Dakota and Minnesota say Fargo-Moorhead has much to teach other areas about keeping the arts alive and thriving. Robert Booker, executive director of the Minnesota State Arts Board, and Janine Webb, executive direc...

State arts officials from North Dakota and Minnesota say Fargo-Moorhead has much to teach other areas about keeping the arts alive and thriving.

Robert Booker, executive director of the Minnesota State Arts Board, and Janine Webb, executive director of the North Dakota Council on the Arts, were in this area Thursday and Friday for meetings with arts organizations.

Those state agencies are responsible for disbursing state arts money. North Dakota's council operates on a $1.2 million annual budget. Minnesota's budget is more than $9 million, with $187,000 going to the northwestern Minnesota region in 2002.

After arriving Thursday, Webb and Booker met with officials from the Plains Art Museum, Fargo-Moorhead Opera Co., Fargo-Moorhead Symphony, Fargo Theatre, Trollwood Performing Arts School and other arts groups.

The meetings were a chance for Booker and Webb to hear about what kind of activities local arts groups are doing -- and how they're using state money.

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They heard "pretty positive things," Webb said.

"With the tough economy, the cuts in the grant levels from Minnesota, people with their investments and corporations, I think people are looking at doing things differently and doing things a little smarter," Booker said.

That means new program ideas and new partnerships.

For example, Webb said, the orchestra has worked with Fargo-Moorhead's three universities. And the opera has tried to attract more young people by doing things like providing behind-the-scenes looks at how it stages a production. The Plains Art Museum has added musical performances aimed at a younger audience.

Much has been accomplished by working with schools. "The arts organizations in this community have one of the most direct connections to schools in the state," Booker said.

Webb said the North Dakota Legislature has been willing to spend money on the arts. "The Legislature's been very positive with us" because many lawmakers recognize that the arts contribute to a stronger economy and quality of life.

Booker said his board lost nearly a third of its budget in the last legislative session, requiring everything from canceling of a traveling arts program to layoff of the half the board's staff. That has meant refocusing some of the board's operation; for example, there's more dependence now on using the Internet to keep up on developments in the arts.

Harder economic times have forced regional councils on both sides of the river to change their focus, Webb said. The Lake Agassiz Arts Council, for example, has changed its focus from programming to promoting, leaving programming decisions up to the arts organizations themselves, she said.

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One of the most gratifying developments here has been increasing support from businesses, she said.

She said Gene Okerlund of the Creative Arts Studio told her businesses have been enthusiastic about helping out -- without being asked.

"He's even had businesses approach him, which is incredible," she said.

Yvonne Condell, a member of the Minnesota board, said the directors' visit was a chance for local arts organizations to show they've been good stewards of the money given to them by the states.

"I think they just need to share what they're doing," she said.

Readers can reach Forum reporter

Tom Pantera at (701) 241-5541

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