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Winona Poet Laureate Ken McCullough read an original poem for the re-dedication of the historic Winona interstate bridge this summer.

Winona’s new art grants and creative laureate



This month, the city of Winona will offer grants to local artists for the first time in years. Starting next year, the city will change its longstanding poet laureate position to “creative laureate,” a role open to artists of any form.

Fueled in part by local employers’ realization of the role the arts play in attracting new talent to Winona, the Winona City Council in 2016 named arts and culture — along with outdoor recreation and entrepreneurship — signature elements of the city’s identity and brand. Since then, the council has invested millions in renovating the Historic Masonic Temple Theatre as a venue and arts center. The council has spent over $60,000 a year plus benefits on an arts and culture coordinator, who launched the WinonArts event series and vied for local donations to fund the series. The Winona City Council has ponied up money to support Winona’s arts scene in those ways, but one thing the city has not done since 2015 is give grants directly to local artists.

Now, that is changing — at least temporarily.

Normally, the Winona Fine Arts Commission (FAC) — a volunteer, city committee of local artists and arts administrators — has just a $3,000-per-year budget, but this year, the city staff said they found unused funds from this year and past years and the commission put together a $4,000 grant program that will offer multiple grants up to $1,000 each to local artists this fall for artwork that focuses on or is inspired by Winona.

Making a living as an artist is not easy, and these grants will offer a little support to local artists and also produce artwork that will be shared publicly for all Winonans to enjoy, FAC members explained.

“We’re looking to find ways to support the arts ecosystem and really make that strong and sustainable so that Winona can continue to be an artistic community,” FAC Chair Theresa Remick stated. She added, “We’ve seen that since [city manger] Steve Sarvi came to Winona, the city has really started talking about making Winona a place where creatives and artists can make a living and support themselves and build community.”

“There’s a small but committed contingent of local artists that are trying to make it as artists without necessarily having a day job, so anything we can do to support that effort is really worthwhile,” FAC member Roger Boulay said. The Winona State University art professor continued, “We have all these great students who graduate who can’t necessarily find a job or find a way to support themselves in Winona after they graduate … This is just one small piece of, how do we support young people to stay in the city?”

The grant program is open to all experience levels but somewhat tailored toward up-and-coming artists — people for whom a $1,000 public art grant could represent a significant step in their career.

Another valuable role local grants could play is filling in gaps in state-funded art, Boulay and Winona Arts and Culture Coordinator Lee Gundersheimer said. Several Winona artists have been fortunate to receive larger, Legacy Amendment-funded grants from the Southeast Minnesota Arts Council, but once an artist wins, they cannot reapply for a few years, Boulay noted. In the meantime, they have to do something to support themselves and their work. “[The local grant program] is trying to fill a niche in the regional grant-making process that’s missing,” he stated.

The grant program may be short-lived, however. The city’s proposed 2020 budget does not include funding to continue it. “It was funded this year with reserves. If there’s no budget for the current budget 2020, then it’ll have to be on hold for a year,” Gundersheimer said.

Grant applications and more information may be found at Applications for the new grant program are due on Monday, September 30, 2019, at 4 p.m. The grants require a public performance or display of the finished work.

In 2007, local artists organized a fundraiser that used blue heron statues in works of public art and sold them. It raised $44,000 that the FAC used to make small grants to local artists for eight years. In 2016, with just $3,800 left, the FAC decided to suspend the grant-making program.

Poet laureate to become creative laureate

For the past 12 years, the FAC has appointed accomplished Winona poets to serve as poet laureate of the city. It’s a tradition that dates back to ancient Greece and has grown in popularity across the U.S. Winona’s poets laureate have hosted literary events — notably the First Tuesday series at the Blue Heron Coffeehouse — composed and performed original poetry for public ceremonies such as the dedication of the new interstate bridge, and generally served as an ambassador for poetry in Winona.

With the approval of the City Council, the FAC is now changing the role from poet laureate to creative laureate and opening the position to artists of all mediums and art forms.

In recent years, the FAC struggled to find new people to serve as poet laureate who meet the requirements the FAC set for the position, including having a full book of poetry published. Winona poet Ken McCullough has served multiple terms as laureate. In 2016, the FAC created a new position with slightly lowered requirements for published work and named young Winona poet Nicholle Ramsey as associate poet laureate and reappointed McCullough as poet laureate. Both their terms ended at the end of 2018. Ramsey moved out of Winona; McCullough continued serving as poet laureate while the FAC discussed what to do with the position.

“I think the last time we had done a search for the poet laureate, we had found that the majority of poets in the area had already filled that position, and there wasn’t — at least in terms of the criteria that had been established for the poet laureate position — we weren’t finding people that could or wanted to fill those criteria,” Remick said of the decision to change the position to creative laureate. She added, “We also thought about the vast amount of creativity that exists in Winona and how we can really elevate all of the creative practitioners that exist in Winona.”

“People really appreciate the poet laureate and it serves a certain role in the community, but at the same time, it just doesn’t seem like there’s enough publishing poets at the stature the laureate wants to operate at in Winona,” Boulay stated. “We’re in this position where a certain group of people are getting the laureateship over and over again, and the creative laureate just opens it up to so many different talented artists who can contribute in so many different ways.”

Similar to the poet laureate, the creative laureate will be selected by the FAC through an application process, receive a $1,000 stipend from the city, be expected to host or produce some events or exhibitions, and may be asked to commemorate public events. Unlike the poet laureate, the creative laureate can be a visual artist, a dancer, a musician, or an actor.

Last month, as the City Council voted on the proposed change, Winona City Manager Steve Sarvi expressed mixed feelings about eliminating the poet laureate position — noting how many states and other cities have the role — and raised the idea of having both a poet laureate and creative laureate. Gundersheimer noted that a poet could still be the creative laureate.

Former Winona Poet Laureate Emilio DeGrazia said he was disappointed with the city’s decision to eliminate the poet laureateship. “Having a creative laureate would be a good thing, but that will marginalize and minimize the role of poetry in programming,” DeGrazia wrote in an email. “Nationwide poet laureate positions are well established and increasing, as more cities and states appoint poets laureate. That’s true in Minnesota, too. Poet laureate programs at the Blue Heron Coffeehouse have a long track record now, and they routinely attract people from Rochester, Red Wing, and La Crosse,” he continued. “Individuals from there ask Winona poets laureate how they can get such programs established in their cities. Winona’s example has inspired Rochester and Northfield to develop their own poets laureate. To eliminate our poet laureate is to buck a national trend.”

There is value in continuing the poet laureate tradition, McCullough said in an interview. “My thought is that, if you want to have a creative laureate, fine, but I think the poet laureate position should continue … What it’s coming down to is, I think, a clash between a tradition that’s gone on since ancient times and was picked up again in the 17th century — that there have been poets laureate in many countries, and now we have not only a national poet laureate, but each state does and many cities do. But there are creative laureates in many places, and [the FAC’s] thinking is, ‘Well we should keep up with the times here.’ That’s the way it seems to me.”

“Just because it’s a creative laureate doesn’t mean we’re excluding poets,” Boulay said. “We still really want poets to apply.”

The change will also end city funding for the poet laureate’s First Tuesday series. Through the FAC budget, the city provided around $40 per month to help fund guest writers who spoke at the events, Gundersheimer explained. The city funding was partially recouped through free-will donations at the event that were remitted to the city.

More information about the creative laureate position and application materials are available at


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