I’m posting the letter I wrote to President Anne Blackhurst and her administration because, in so many ways, it sums up all the work that we do at The Arts Partnership on a daily basis to advocate for the value of the arts. Get comfortable because it’s a long letter, but the stakes are so high that it necessitated this length.
If you have a connection to any of these departments, as community members or as alumni, now is the time to write your own letter in support of these programs and faculty. The email addresses of the administration are included at the bottom.
TO: President Anne Blackhurst and administration, MSUM
FROM: Dayna Del Val, President & CEO The Arts Partnership
DATE: April 23, 2020
RE: Elimination of the arts at MSUM
I am writing from my position as leader of the arts sector in the Metro to express my concern over the recent proposed cuts of the Theatre department and New Rivers Press, the elimination of four positions in the English writing department as well as the printmaking program and Professor Kelli Sinner’s position in the School of Visual Arts.
I am a 1995 graduate with a BA in Theatre Arts. Additionally, I adjunct taught in the English department between 2004-2009. I have a long history with MSUM, both personally and professionally, and in the 32 years that I have lived in the community, I have always held MSUM up as the perfect example of a liberal arts institution.
I’ve spoken enough about the Theatre department in various other ways, so I’m not going to address that in this letter. But please don’t take that as a concession that this program should not be reinstated in full.
As for the Art department, I have a long history in my ten years at The Arts Partnership of working closely with a number of faculty from this program, including Kelli Sinner. Professor Sinner’s work is exemplary; if she were a STEM research professor, her art would be the equivalent to publications in the top journals of her field. Kelli participated in a series of Art Markets we held over the Christmas season in 2018. The days that Kelli was on site to sell her work, the number of college students who flocked to our Market was incredible. Every time I checked in on her space, it was filled with students who were hanging on her every word, learning, even in this informal, out-of-the-classroom environment.
Personally, I have always been impressed that Kelli uses ceramics, an art form that the less enlightened could dismiss as merely “utilitarian,” to convey her place in the world. Look at the evolution of her art and you will see that it subtly reveals her position on politics, the role of women in our society, the angst of global environmental change and so much more. The fact that she can take a handful of clay and tell all that without actually saying a word is a perfect example of the power of the arts to convey our individual and shared humanity. And on top of that, much of Kelli’s work is utilitarian. And the value of that, in my mind, is that she creates artistic pieces that have her history, her perspective, her artistry while beautifying something that we all use. The difference between a mass-produced mug and a hand-built one is the difference between a store-bought tomato and a garden one. Both serve a common purpose, but one brings joy, evokes childhood memories, springs to life in its touch, smell and taste and both stands alone brilliantly and enhances everything it is added to. That is Kelli’s work and the work of ceramics students who study under her.
My son’s father was a printmaker in our time at MSUM. That program, in those years, was a powerhouse, and it was through him that I learned some basic techniques and the value of this particular artistic medium. I don’t have as much connection to the program today, but I can tell you that one of the beautiful aspects to printmaking is its accessibility.
Printmaking is a time-consuming process, but once the numbered prints are made, artists can often sell them at a lower price than an individual oil painting, for example. That means this art form is available to a larger audience, and from my perspective, that is an excellent thing. I want more “real” art in the hands of more people. Not unlike the tomato analogy, a poster of Monet’s Waterlilies is a fine thing—it’s a serviceable representation of a beautiful piece of art. But how much finer is a print of an image from a local artist? How much more precious is a hand-made gift from an artist you know?
And then, just logistically, early printmaking techniques and applications are often the first introduction elementary and junior high students have to the arts beyond basic drawing. It’s imperative that students graduating from this program and University have access to learning about this medium so that they are prepared to teach it to others while also having the skills to pursue it themselves as makers.
Moving to the English department and the writing program. This one is more than unclear to me as at every turn, I see writing in the professional realm declining at an alarming rate. People who hold CEO titles send memos or emails with egregious grammatical errors; Letters from Board Presidents of major companies are riddled with confusing language that leaves you wondering what they were hoping to convey. Writing is often, at its most basic, the way we introduce ourselves to the world. A note or email determines if you can secure a face to face meeting with a potential funder. A well written thank you letter continues a relationship. Writing, being able to express your thoughts and ideas through words on a page or screen, is integral to success across every spectrum of learning and work. It’s also an invaluable way that people express themselves, either personally for their own enjoyment and mental health or in a more public way by writing fiction, poetry, non-fiction and more. We are story tellers at our core, and the ability to convey those stories in print is a vital way of preserving the past and sharing it with the future.
In the ten years that I taught Freshman writing courses at all three institutions of higher education in the Metro, I encountered students who would say, “I’m going to be a farmer, a doctor, an engineer…I don’t need to write.”
To that I would say, “Farmers need to communicate with their legislators—do you want to be dismissed as just a “dull farmer,” or do you want to be articulate and actually get their attention? Doctors need to convey messages to insurance companies to convince them to pay for procedures for their patients. Engineers must submit proposals to be selected for multi-billion-dollar projects.” In short, everybody needs to write, and everybody actually needs to write well. It matters in the end for nearly any field you pursue.
And finally, New Rivers Press. I remember clearly the day I read the announcement that New Rivers Press was coming to MSUM. To think that my University had acquired this press, saved it really, filled me with pride. And this was in the years between being a student and part-time faculty, so I had no reason beyond being a citizen of this community to even be paying attention. But I did, and I was proud. And the program has gone on to produce some astonishing books in its years at MSUM as well as to educate students in the fabulous art of book printing.
I was so delighted, just this past Christmas, to have NRP join our Art Markets and sell their books. When I stopped by during a lull, Nayt Rundquist spoke with such enthusiasm and passion for each book that it made it nearly impossible for me to choose the few I would purchase for gifts. The process of taking a writer’s words and turning them into a book ready to launch out into the world is an important journey and one that speaks to all the elements we want students to learn: working independently and collaboratively, careful reading and editing, thinking about the individual parts and the whole, working on a timeline and on and on.
Funny, the through line of this letter and my life’s work is that the arts teach people how to be artists, but they also teach people all the skills we want in every facet of the world of work and life. I implore you not to look to the arts as an easy place to cut because the numbers are not as robust as they are in other programs across your campus. The students who have chosen MSUM to study these particular fields will suffer, but as importantly, the students across every department will also suffer. These invaluable skills – skills that are not taught in other courses or degrees – will be lost, and we will see generations of MSUM graduates the poorer for it, which means we will see generations of business, government and community leaders and citizens the poorer for it, too.
I haven’t addressed the significant economics of the arts to the community, but I am more than happy to provide my research on that if it’s useful to you. In the interest of attempted brevity, I’ll just say that to assume that the arts are not a valuable piece of the entire community’s economy is a misguided and gross understatement. In 2017, the latest numbers we have access to, the arts nonprofit sector generated $41.6 million dollars in the Fargo-Moorhead community. That’s not a number to dismiss.
I know there are no easy answers to a budget in the red, but the short-term benefits of cuts to these five areas will absolutely lead to long-term deficits that cannot be easily recovered or restored, and I implore you to reconsider making these cuts.
Dayna Del Val, President & CEO The Arts Partnership
Reach out to the administration: