Aesthetically Speaking

Cargill grants reflect funding priorities that safeguard the elite

Nobody feels this economic crunch any worse than the proverbial little guy. And, as it relates to the arts, Gov. Tim Pawlenty’s slashing of funding budgets have established theatre companies with solid… Nobody feels this economic crunch any worse than the proverbial little guy. And, as it relates to the arts, Gov. Tim Pawlenty’s slashing of funding budgets have established theatre companies with solid reputations scrambling like mad to finance their next show, let alone a coming season: you can hardly go anywhere in Twin Cities theatres without running into hand-wringing artistic directors who are up the creek, hustling hard, taxing their wits to come up with a paddle — especially venues that offer minority and other non-mainstream efforts.

So, what does the insanely wealth corporation Cargill Inc., do? It goes and announces that it will donate $6.6 million to seven arts and culture groups in Minneapolis that are not, haven’t been and will never be in danger of folding. The one-time grants, all for capital construction projects, include $2.5 million to the Children's Theatre Company, $1 million each to the Minneapolis Central Library, the Guthrie Theater and Walker Art Center. Not that anyone should take the bread out of these institution’s mouths. But consider that these are organizations whose greatest concern, as reported over the past few years, is that they’re worried about expanding. At such a time of difficult fundraising and desperate competition among arts groups, this shows Cargill’s priorities to clearly be about safeguarding the elite.

Can someone please explain why, for instance, why an outfit like Bedlam Theatre didn’t get so much as a drop of all that gravy? Bedlam Theatre’s track record for avant-garde fare is without parallel in the Twin Cities and runs a strong second to that of the nationally lauded Theatre for the New City (NYC). The company has drawn praise from some of the toughest critical quarters in either town, been raved about in the Pioneer Press, Star Tribune and Pulse of the Twin Cities and is a hit with the public. In fact, Bedlam’s most recent show Top of the Heap saw its run extended by two weeks. If you’ve never been to Bedlam Theatre, they do it all on a shoestring with bailing wire. And they do it good, by far compensating for makeshift sets and scrounged props with excellent writing, skilled directing and, for the most part, strong acting.

And what about Alchemy Theatre? With noted director Dawn Renee Jones at the helm Alchemy Theatre has shown signs of methodically emerging an entity of consequence. Keeping production costs down while establishing Alchemy Theatre’s presence, Jones has stuck to staged readings of African American playwrights done by some of the finest actors in either town, including Terry Bellamy, James Austin Williams and Marvette Knight. What she’s done is comparable to the Schomburg Center’s series of Frederick Douglass Creative Arts Center readings. However, it’s going to now be harder than ever for Dawn Renee Jones to adopt a viable plan to proceed to next project phase — that of mounting full blown productions. She may already be in trouble trying to simply sustain the reading series, as it’s been a while since the last performance was announced. What couldn’t Alchemy Theatre do with just a small slice of the fat pie Cargill just divided between outfits that are by no means struggling for existence? For those who aren’t keeping track, there are fewer Black theaters, not more, these days.

Warren Staley, Cargill’s chairman and chief executive officer, said the round of capital cultural grants, "is unprecedented in Cargill’s history." Well, yes, that, one may suppose, is significant. It would be more significant, though, for this company to include organizations that actually need — as in will not survive without — support.

To repeat, none of this is to throw stones at Children's Theatre Company, the Minneapolis Central Library, the Guthrie Theater or Walker Art Center. Though, to tell the truth, one has to ask why in the blue-blood blazes the

May 5, 2003
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