Jun 11, 2018 – The Call

A letter from the Assistant Director

Dear NEMAA members,
Most of you know me as the name at the bottom of emails regarding membership, Art-A-Whirl, and other NEMAA programs throughout the year. I don’t often step into the limelight to address the membership directly about organizational goals, culture, or values. However, as we roll out this year’s member survey for Art-A-Whirl, I think it is the perfect time to share with you some insights that I’ve gained working mostly behind the scenes; statistics that over the last eight years tell a story about our membership and Northeast beyond singular personal experience or anecdotes: our history, our present, and our future.

Art-A-Whirl was created in 1994 by a group of artists to draw attention to the artist community that had settled into Northeast. A year later NEMAA was formed with the general mission to promote and advocate on the behalf of its artist members and implicitly to organize Art-A-Whirl. By the time I was hired in early 2013, the event had matured to a point where an estimated 30,000 people attended Art-A-Whirl, membership had grown from a few dozen to around 550, and from a nearly exclusively male artist cohort to 78% of members being female.

2013’s survey results provide an illuminating snapshot of where NEMAA has been: 70% of members fit within the 41-65 age demographic, 74% had permanent studio space in Northeast, over 50% were full time artists, and 98.5% identified as white. 2013-2015, the member survey included a query on household income. Around 40% listed a household income between $50,000—$100,000 a year, with a full 30% indicating that their income exceeded $100,000. This data, considered along with information from the 2010 census, paints a portrait of the “typical” NEMAA member: A middle-aged white woman, most likely married, with the economic stability afforded by two incomes or a working partner making it possible to take the leap as an artist.

In contrast, Northeast Minneapolis itself has a median income of $57,000, with 30% of its residents identifying as non-white. Only 22% of NEMAA members live here.

As of today, NEMAA has 970 members, and membership dues account for about 20% of NEMAA’s total annual operating budget. The bulk of our funding comes from organizations such as the Minnesota State Arts Board and the McKnight Foundation. And the funding landscape is changing. Granting organizations are concerned with social justice, community impact, cultural legacies, and equity. We have made the case for Art-A-Whirl in the past by highlighting the vibrancy that the arts bring to Northeast, the platform provided for the artists, the economic bump given to local businesses, and the accessibility of the event to people of all income levels and backgrounds. Yet this will not be enough as we go forward.

Starkly put, NEMAA cannot afford to only support established artists who have the privilege of whiteness, of being partnered, and of having the financial ability to afford studio space. Our goals cannot be solely confined to Art-A-Whirl, or the only measure of success be the art sales achieved in one weekend. The event will decline as new artists and audiences are not cultivated. Funding will disappear, and member dues will increase to 4-5 times what they are now.

We must be more ambitious. NEMAA needs to support young artists, artists who identify as indigenous or people of color, and those with limited financial resources. We need to do this not simply to continue to receive funding, but because it is the right thing to do. As per our mission, NEMAA has an obligation to support all artists and creatives in their work, not just by producing Art-A-Whirl, but providing artists access to educational opportunities, social connections, collaborations, and promoting them year-round. We host workshops for our members dedicated to subjects like marketing, website development, documentation, grant writing, and building social capital. This past year, we debuted free and reduced memberships for high school and college student artists in order to connect them with the resources needed to build an artistic career. N Studio magazine was conceived as another way to connect with artists and the public alike; taking control of the narrative instead of waiting for the media to do stories on the arts in Northeast, usually connected solely to Art-A-Whirl. We also hope to soon solidify a program model to support teaching artists as well.

The needle is beginning to move. Last year almost 10% of the membership identified as non-white (compared to 1.5% five years ago). As for Art-A-Whirl attendees, many of you saw the change this year if you watched the people visiting studios. The crowd was younger and more diverse than ever before. I look forward to presenting the results of the Art-A-Whirl visitors survey with you in July.

The transition has not always been smooth. Being an organization with only 2.5 employees means that while we are nimble in our policy and response to social trends, the weight of large projects can be overwhelming at times. That all of these changes are easy, or that we will be able to satisfy everyone, is not the reality. There will be some things left on the table as we allocate our resources towards the future; towards digital, towards storytelling, towards artistic development, towards diversity. But opportunities exist for all our members, both emerging and established, along with a need for active engagement that is greater than ever before. It requires stepping out of familiar patterns of thought and action, reevaluating personal expectations and motivations, and exploring new concepts of engagement. It means asking yourself what you want personally as a working artist as well as considering what the community at large needs; what you are willing to invest in yourself and each other.

We here at NEMAA are asking much of ourselves, and of you.

– Anna Becker
NEMAA Assistant Director
June 2018

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