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INTERVIEW: MCA Executive Director Sheila Smith & the Road Ahead

A lot can happen in a quarter century – just ask Minnesota Citizens for the Arts Executive Director Sheila Smith, who has lead the organization since January 1996. After 25 years, however, Smith is stepping down from her role at MCA at the end of February 2021. On her retirement agenda? Some rest and relaxation, spending a little more time as a generative artist, and a few more items. Smith spoke with the Arts Reader about her plans for the future.

Minnesota Citizens for the Arts Executive Director Sheila Smith.

You came to MCA after, among other things, working in politics. Before you moved into arts advocacy, where did you think that track was taking you?

I was working at a place where the owner was stealing from people and I felt I needed to go somewhere where I could do good in the world. So I drove over to the capitol to see what openings they had and they had me interview with Senator Dick Cohen. Senator Cohen asked me if I’d ever been to the Guthrie and we started talking enthusiastically about a recent production of Richard III. So he hired me. My goal was to do good in the world instead of bad. I worked there for six years.

How did your work with Minnesota Citizens for the Arts first begin?

After working at the legislature I moved to Houston for a year to work in property management at Continental Airlines. I was assigned airports in the western half of the U.S., so I did a lot of flying around.

While I was in Texas, my predecessor Pam Perri left MCA. I had always admired them working with them on the other side of the table in Sen. Cohen’s office…so I flew up in a blizzard for the job interview, rented a four-wheel drive truck at the airport and I was the only one to arrive at the interview. When the search committee gathered and did the interview, I was hired.

I started in early January during the legislative session. We achieved an 80 percent increase in arts funding in my first year.

You served as the Co-Chair for the Arts for Biden campaign in Minnesota. What are some of the highlights of this work? 

That was really really fun. I organized a bunch of committees by genre–there were five committees, including theater, visual arts, writers and poets, dancers and musicians. Each subgroup organized themselves with their own chairs and created activities for social media to spread the word to vote early and vote Biden. There was zero drama on the committees and they came up with some really fun stuff that was posted all over people’s feeds.

Some of the pieces received many thousands of views. And then Biden won Minnesota, so of course we take credit for that, ha ha.

Is it something you plan to continue after you step down with MCA?

I would assume so, but I’m taking the next year as a sabbatical year, do some painting, do some travel when the world opens up again. Then we’ll see where we are.

One of the more nationally known names on your resume is serving on a committee for the Super Bowl. Can you speak to why we don’t have a permanent zip line over the Mississippi? What are some of the events and activities that you were able to shape by being at that table?

Funny you say that because my husband is also an advocate for a zip line over the Mississippi.

On this committee, I focused on making sure that if artists were involved in Super Bowl activities, they would be paid, and to give arts organizations with facilities the opportunity to rent them out during Super Bowl events so they could make money.

Besides the passage of the Legacy Amendment, what are some personal highlights of your long tenure at MCA?

I am so proud of how our organization’s impact has grown and spread. Over the years, we’ve educated thousands of arts advocates about how to work with elected officials and work together to support legislation that in turn supports the arts in our incredible state. Our annual Arts Advocacy Day at the Capitol in St. Paul during the legislative session has grown dramatically, and is so meaningful to so many.
When I started in 1995, Arts Advocacy Day had just 140 attendees. These days we have more than 1000 people show up from all over the state to speak with legislators about the importance of continued funding for the arts in our state.
I [also] led the Creative Minnesota project, a collaboration of statewide foundations and arts supporting organizations- gathering and analyzing hard data to use for advocacy, education and policy making.
MCA, in partnership with the Minnesota State Arts Board and Regional Arts Councils, has been successful in advocating policies that resulted in a border-to-border state funding system unparalleled in the nation. This system has enlivened Main Streets across the state by supporting all sizes and genres of the arts, from our largest world-class organizations and the many different genres of mid-sized and small organizations to the individual artists who make it all happen and create the art in the first place.
The Legacy Amendment and the statewide ballot campaign to pass it in 2008 initially tripled arts funding in Minnesota and kicked off an arts renaissance statewide, supporting creative problem solving and access to arts activities in every community  across the state. And now it has quadrupled funding, as it has continued to grow.

Leaving out 2020 for the moment, what are some of the long-term and structural issues that you think threaten the arts ecosystem in Minnesota and the nation at large?

Arts people should know that we continually have to fight to protect support for the arts. We must go to the legislature with a unified voice and nobody should ever be complacent about public funding for the arts.

There needs to be more infrastructure supporting artist income because as soon as COVID hit, a lot of artists lost 100 percent of their income. This is also true of restaurant and food service workers, but it exposed the economic fragility of artists’ income.

You yourself have a background in Shakespeare studies and a few interests in the visual arts – besides advocacy, how have you been filling your own artistic world these last nine months?

My best experience with other people’s art has been the Guthrie Theater’s Christmas Carol online this year. We watched it with the lights off, next to our tree, in candle light, and it felt like we were sitting on the stage. It was wonderful.

After all of the demands of the job, I am looking forward to opening up time to focus on making art instead of talking about it.

What’s next for you?

After 25 years I need a reset. I will paint and do wood carving and travel when we are all able to. I’m seeing lots of new opportunities…after a long rest period. First I’m going to be in Arizona for a while. I’m looking at 2021 as a sabbatical year, so I can travel, work on my artistic practice–and get used to being an artist again.
Basil Considine