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Minnesota is a great state in general, but especially great because it supports the arts and artists to a high degree.

We have something really cool called the Legacy Amendment. In 2008, Minnesota voters approved this amendment, which dedicates a portion of sales tax to fund outdoor initiatives and the arts.

Out of this pot, individual artists in Minnesota are awarded $1.8 million from the fund this year.

I sat on a Minnesota State Arts Board panel in September to evaluate some of the grant applications in the prose category. This included fiction and nonfiction; poetry has a separate panel. (Individual grants are also available for visual artists, musicians, multimedia artists and dancers). Applicants could request between $2,000 and $10,000 to fund their projects.

Here’s how the process worked:

  • In late July, I received access to the applications via an online system. I had 56 to read through and give a preliminary score before the late September meeting. Each one was going to take about a half-hour to read through, so I spread them out by reading 6-7 applications a week.
  • Our panel met in person over two days in St. Paul. The panel consisted of seven evaluators, all of whom were writers or readers.
  • We had about nine minutes to discuss each application. We had all read through them so the discussion revolved around the strengths and weaknesses of each application. We had a specific rubric by which to judge the applications—three criteria of artistic quality, merit and feasibility of the plan and community component. All applicants needed to describe how they were going to involve the community and why this project would benefit the state of Minnesota.
  • After the discussion, we went into the online system and scored the applicant. All seven scores were averaged. We seemed mostly to agree on all of the applications; however, consensus is not necessary. If someone felt strongly that an applicant was weak, but the other six panelists did not, that outlier score would not negatively impact the averaged score too greatly.
  • We had to declare a conflict of interest if we felt we could not judge an application fairly. Beth from the State Arts Board tried to eliminate most conflicts while assigning us to a panel (there were two prose panels). Minnesota’s literary community is fairly small and tight—it’s not surprising that panelists might have a relationship with some of the applicants. In that case, we stepped out of the room during the discussion and did not score the application.
  • After the two days, State Arts Board officials tally all the scores, determine the winners and get all the paperwork and letters ready to be sent out. About 30 percent of the applicants from our panel will get funding.

Why I did it

I had been asked before to serve on a panel, but I couldn’t always find the time. This commitment takes about 50-60 hours (maybe a little more; I actually don’t really want to look too closely). We get a small stipend and my travel costs were covered when I went to St. Paul for the meeting, but otherwise it’s a volunteer gig. I knew I would have the time this year, more so than other years.

I’ve wanted to do it because I believe in giving back to a state that has given me so much. This is a rich, rich community for all arts, especially literary arts. I feel a ton of support as a writer in Minnesota and I love the writing community. I get so much from it; it only feels right to give back. I received a State Arts Board grant in 2014, so I really wanted to turn that around and help other writers get the same grant.

What I learned

  • I knew that Minnesota has a lot of talented writers, but this allowed me to get to know writers I hadn’t heard of before. Holy cow, there’s a ton of talent out there.
  • These writers have some amazing projects planned. All of the applications included a writing sample, and so many times I thought, “I wish this book were out right now because I want to read it.” If all of these projects come to fruition, I’m telling you there’s going to be a lot of great books to read in the coming years.
  • A panel of seven people can get along 🙂
  • Again, from the “I knew this already category but my knowledge is only deepened”: Minnesota is an amazing state for the arts. In fact, one applicant wrote about how he moved here after reading an article about Minnesota’s literary community in the New York Times. People are moving here because of monetary support and camaraderie. They are staying here. They are living here, buying things, shoring up the economy, paying taxes. Minnesota is willing to invest in these artists who live here, work here and do things to make this such a great state.