Sheila Smith talks about her legacy — and 25 years of change — with Minnesota Citizens for the Arts

10January 2021

In the last half-century, Minnesota Citizens for the Arts has grown to be one of the country’s most effective advocates for the arts. But finding a new leader will be a fresh challenge for the organization and its board.

“It’s all new to them,” says Sheila Smith, the executive director who steps down in February after a 25-year tenure. She’s only the sixth executive director of the statewide group and has been in charge longer than current members have been on the board.

Smith’s biggest legacy is her key role in passage of the Clean Water, Land and Legacy Amendment in 2008. The so-called Legacy Amendment wrote funding for the arts and environment into Minnesota’s Constitution for 25 years. That’s about $300 million each year.

Sheila Smith spoke at a celebration of the 10th anniversary of the Legacy Amendment. (Photo courtesy of Sheila Smith)

The Legacy Amendment brought environmentalists and outdoor sports enthusiasts together with artists and arts supporters in an unusual political marriage. Former state Sen. Richard Cohen (DFL-St. Paul, who also retired this year) praised Smith’s “leadership skills, advocacy skills, organizational skills and sense of politics. She was the absolute right person for the job.”

Cohen hired Smith to work in his office in 1989. Smith says she went to the Capitol looking for work because “I’d been working for a company that had been cheating customers” and she wanted to work for change.

She found it at MCA, a statewide group that organizes the state’s arts community to lobby at the Minnesota Legislature and before Congress. The organization’s mission is “to ensure opportunity for all people to have access to and involvement in the arts.

Smith, 57, talked last week about the biggest changes she’s seen in Minnesota arts over the past quarter-century.

“How we do advocacy is so different now than 25 years ago.”

Smith says that when she started with MCA, she had a cellphone the size of a brick that didn’t work well. She relied on a pager, and when she’d get a notice, she had to get in line at a bank of phones in the Capitol to make a call.

“Everything was at a much slower pace,” she says. Now, when the Legislature is dealing with something that needs MCA attention, Smith gets a text and can send out a link to members to directly contact their representatives, who may respond within five minutes — perhaps even before the discussion has ended.

“Our ability to take action and respond is so much faster,” Smith says.

The Legacy Amendment

Sheila Smith (on the left corner of the sign) campaigned for the Legacy Amendment during the Governor’s Fishing Opener at Breezy Point in 2008. (Photo courtesy Sheila Smith)

The passage of the state constitutional amendment in 2008 tripled funding for the arts, Smith says, and solidified the importance of the arts throughout Minnesota. From the number of artists to the frequency of events, opportunities to participate in the arts are wide-ranging. If someone is interested in theater or art, Smith says, “name any corner of the state” and there’s an arts outlet not far away.

The number of arts organizations in Minnesota has grown since the Legacy Amendment, she says. MCA used to list the “Big 100” — groups with budgets over $100,000. Now, Smith says, there are 200 in that group.

Creative Minnesota Project

“We know a lot more about the breadth and depth of the arts,” says Smith, who also chairs the Creative Minnesota Project, which researches the impact of the arts and cultural community in Minnesota. A 2019 study by the group found that the combined economic impact of nonprofit arts organizations, their audiences and artists and creative workers in Minnesota is now more than $2 billion annually. Smith points out that’s double the arts economy of Wisconsin, even though the states have nearly the same population, and 11 times the arts economy of North Dakota.

The “density of commitment” to the arts draws young people — future arts leaders — to Minnesota, she adds.

And a few more thoughts

Arts and communities. Smith says the arts are embedded in communities: “It’s now “the arts AND health care, the arts AND the military, the arts AND cities, the arts AND placemaking. …”

Funding has changed. Corporate funding for the arts has shifted as corporate leaders are less often people who grew up here, Smith says. There’s been an erosion of corporate support.

Creativity and distribution. “Individual artists have a lot more high-quality tools that didn’t exist at all 25 years ago,” Smith says. Artists who don’t have a physical gallery, for example, have internet access to show and sell their work. The shift to digital has been essential during the pandemic.

The COVID crisis. Most artists are gig workers, who saw their performances, exhibitions and concerts shut down completely by the pandemic in mid-March. Side jobs teaching or working in restaurants shut down, too. In an August article in the Minnesota Reformer, Smith noted that one-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 two-thirds expect recovery to be difficult. Federal and state assistance is essential, Smith adds.

Smith says she intends to “do everything in my power” to ensure a smooth transition once the MCA board has completed its unfamiliar task of finding her successor at MCA. “I want this organization to succeed.”

About Sheila Smith

Background: Smith grew up in Mahtomedi. She has a master’s in arts administration from St. Mary’s University and a bachelor’s degree in Shakespeare from St. Olaf College. She lives in Forest Lake with her husband, Perry, and her cat, Sophie.

Artist: Smith is a painter who works mostly in acrylic on board but hopes to do more work with oils during her retirement. During a three-month sabbatical several years ago, she painted portraits of friends’ pets (“which was so much fun, it became a thing”) and has a piece in Minneapolis Institute of Art’s “Foot in the Door” virtual exhibition, which ends Jan. 10.

Interests: She is an avid kayaker, and a woodcarver. She calls herself a “vernacular architect” and explains that vernacular means “of the people” and is seen in the Swedish influences in her design of her cabin in northern Minnesota.

Other work with nonprofits and policy: Member of the executive committee and public policy cabinet of the Minnesota Council of Nonprofits’ served on the board of the 2012 Minnesota United campaign, protecting the rights of all Minnesotans to marry.

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