MRAC Evolve: A Year in Review

MRAC Evolve

In this Issue:

  • A Year in Review: Kathy Mouacheupao, Executive Director
  • Next Step Fund: Jovan C. Rebollar, Program Director
  • Flexible Support: Scott Artley, Program Director
  • Equity Response: Masami Kawazato, Program Director

A Year in Review

Kathy Mouacheupao, Executive Director

Image description: The image is of Kathy, an Asian woman with short black hair in front of a wall filled with all sorts of 2D art.

Happy New Fiscal Year 2022!

Our new fiscal year started on July 1, 2021 and runs through June 30, 2022. So, as you can imagine, the last few months have been a mix of reflections on the previous year and preparations for the new year.

Last year around this time, the world was rattled by the intersecting crises of the pandemic and the killing of George Floyd. During this time of collective trauma and stress, the MRAC staff was meeting three times a week to process, grieve and outrage together while trying to figure out how to best show up for the community. We entered the year with uncertainty about our budget (projections at about 50% due to COVID), the anxiety of administering brand new programs, and a determination to best serve the region.

The easy part of the look back is to report that we received 1195 applications; recruited 180 panelists to review grants and make funding recommendations; made 432 grants and awarded $4.28 million to support arts access by individual artists, fiscally sponsored groups and nonprofit organizations in the 7-county metropolitan area.

What feels more complicated, is sharing all of the lessons we learned along the way.

Moving quickly in slow motion.
On March 13, 2020, the MRAC offices closed and went completely remote, which has allowed us to be more accessible in many ways and deserves a future article to share what we’ve learned.

We spent the last quarter of that fiscal year in an accelerated state of change as we converted project grants into operating support in response to the cancellation of programs, projects, events, and all things related to bringing communities together. At the same time, we were quickly developing new programs to meet the changing needs of our constituents. Every day felt dragged out and long, but there were never enough hours to get to every new issue that arose.

On July 28, 2020, we announced new programs with the goals of being more flexible and responsive to different needs, and directly supporting communities that have been historically marginalized and experiencing even greater disparities during the pandemic.

Prioritizing for change.
We have so much to be proud of in Minnesota, as the nation’s state with the highest per capita public investments in the arts, I believe that this has a direct relationship with why we rank as one of the best states to live in. Unfortunately, we also have a terrible reputation as being one of the worst states for people of color.

This “Minnesota Paradox”, as termed by Paul Mattusich of Wilder Research, is such a complex issue, that it can’t be solved through any one strategy or program. It requires a deeper understanding of inclusion, diversity, equity and accessibility not as a list of things to do, but as a cultural system with very intentional practices that value impact over efficiency and relationships over transactions.

At MRAC we are trying our best to create a system that is culturally informed and responsive to diverse needs. We We recognize our responsibility to be accountable with  these funds, and believe we can’t do so by shoe-horning marginalized communities into the very systems that make them vulnerable and disadvantaged in the first place.

To this end, we have determined that groups led by BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and People of Color), led by people with disabilities, led by LGBTQIA2+ individuals (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans, Queer, Intersex, Asexual/Agender, Two-Spirit), and located in the greater metro as priorities. Additionally, we recognize that the disparities for these groups are different, which requires different strategies for addressing the barriers.

Prioritizing communities does not exclude everyone else. It is recognition that there are barriers within our current system that need to be addressed and changed. It is simply a strategy for leveling out access to resources and opportunities.

Going back to better.
There is no “going back to normal”. If there is any lesson to be learned from the pandemic, it is that change is possible as we were all forced to find new ways of being. If there is any lesson to be learned from the uprisings, it is that change is absolutely necessary, because the norm was harmful. As we move forward, we have to strive to be better than life before the pandemic.

Incredible gratitude.
There is no way to reflect on the last year without having incredible gratitude for the MRAC staff and board. Even while everyone was experiencing intense personal crises and trying to figure out ways for self-care, there was an unwavering commitment to work towards collective-care and to show up for the arts community with urgency and compassion. Thank you all for your dedication and determination to be better.

Looking forward,

Next Step Fund

Jovan C. Rebollar, Program Director

Image description: The image is of Jovan, a Black woman with natural hair tied up in front of a yellow couch and a large painting of a person with dark skin on a colorful background.

The Next Step Fund, made possible by the McKnight Foundation, provides project grants up to $5,000 to artists in any discipline for the purpose of research, career development, and artistic achievement. This program was created to support projects that would, in one way or another, drive an artist’s career forward, overcoming a significant barrier that would help the artist reach their artistic career goals.

With the pandemic and social uprisings consuming our communities, the MRAC staff worked to adapt and adjust our grant programs and services to be a more responsive resource during these unique and challenging times. In Next Step Fund this manifested in a few small but significant ways. First, we broadened the program’s intent so that artists could propose projects that we designed to adapt and/or maintain aspects of their artistic career, or a project that would propel their career to the next level. Projects could be designed to build professional or artistic skills, increase the artist’s public visibility, learn or implement new methods of creating or engaging that responds to current social realities, or produce new work that helps the artist take the ‘next step’ in their artistic career.

Second, we expanded our panelist pool to include national panelists. This benefited applicants by expanding the program’s reach and broadening its network of artistic professionals. One significant outcome we saw was an increase of emerging artists among finalists and awardees. Some additional highlights from this past year:

  • Approximately 91% of awardees identify as BIPOC.
  • We accepted audio recorded applications in response to applicants with accessibility needs.
  • Panels were conducted electronically through our grant interface and over Zoom.
  • With a record 567 applications, there were 108 finalists and 34 awardees from across artistic disciplines.

This fiscal year, MRAC plans to maintain the expanded program intent in the spirit of openness and support to the artist community. We will continue to work with panelists from outside of Minnesota in hopes of broadening the network of Minnesota artists in our region. We will continue to listen to, engage with, and respond to artists with accessibility needs and make accommodations as requested. We will continue to work to make the panel experience more streamlined to artistic professionals willing to serve in this capacity.

We thank the artists and arts professionals who have participated in the Next Step Fund and contributed to the artistic richness of our region. We look forward to supporting your future endeavors.

Flexible Support

Scott Artley, Program Director

Image description: The image is of Scott, a white man in his 30s with an orange beard in a small apartment with lots of books and a refrigerator.

Like every single applicant group we’ve worked with in the past 16 months, we found ourselves scrambling to adapt and reimagine what we offered the community. We dreamed of a grant program that could be a flexible container for whatever project a group wanted to pursue, and a process that felt radically accessible. Our challenge was balancing the legal and legislative requirements that make our public funding possible with the radical openness and mutual trust that we know groups needed to navigate the pandemic.

In the end, spanning all three rounds of the Flexible Support program, we received 471 applications from 388 groups. Applicants included arts nonprofits and fiscally sponsored arts groups making bold moves into outdoor and virtual programming, alongside social service and cultural organizations that wanted to make arts activities a key part of how they serve their communities facing disproportionate impacts from the pandemic. We made 264 Flexible Support grant awards, totaling $3.78 million, and reached every county in our region. Groups were able to make equipment purchases that helped them go online, produce outdoor performances, drop off creative care packages for kids and older adults at home, and keep paying the people who’ve made all these things happen when it counted most.

The Flexible Support program is returning in the 2022 fiscal year. We believe this first year of the program was a success, but we also know it was borne out of pain. And we know the pains of injustice must be addressed with the same urgency. We honor all the hard work and care that the MRAC community has demonstrated through the Flexible Support program in the last year. It has been a remarkable experience to support art and artists on the frontlines of the future.

Equity Response

Masami Kawazato, Program Director

Image description: The image is of Masami, an Asian woman with shoulder-length black hair in a room with a couch and wooden curio cabinet.

Why was this program created?
Equity Response was created as a response to the multitude of systemic inequities within arts funding. It was a shorter application and had a shorter response turnaround time than any of our previous grant programs.

What happened? What did we learn?
We thought it would be a competitive grant program, meaning that some applicants would be funded and some not. But that was not the case! We had fewer applications than we expected – meaning, we had more funds available than groups were requesting. It surprised us since that had never happened before. And it challenged our instilled beliefs and assumptions about how grants “should” work – do they need to be competitive? Why does a grant process assume that some groups will receive a grant and others not? What should happen when that is not the case? It was rewarding to find a new solution to these long-held beliefs. Equity Response allowed us to fund all eligible groups and applications.

We received 157 applications in this grant program. Of these 157, 134 were from eligible groups with eligible projects and all of those 134 were funded.

Nearly 50% of Equity Response funds were awarded to informal groups (meaning, fiscally sponsored groups who are not a 501 c 3 nonprofit).
In addition, 19% of applicants and 16% of grantees were first-time applicants to MRAC.

What’s next?
While Equity Response is no longer a grant program, its impact informed our decisions for our new grant programs, Arts Impact for Individuals and Arts Impact for Groups. Arts Impact for Individuals and Arts Impact for Groups both have similar eligibility to Equity Response – these grant programs are for groups/individuals who identify as BIPOC, and/or LGBTQIA2+, and/or People with Disabilities.

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