Minneapolis, MN - 2007 - A deleted excerpt from It’s Never Going to Work.
Altered Esthetics tried to do everything by the book, from the initial business filing to our IRS application for nonprofit status. At some point along the way somebody told me that it was okay to serve beer and alcohol as long as you weren’t charging for it, so long as you had a “suggested donation” sign only. I believed them - but they were wrong.
In 2007 a building neighbor threw an opening in the basement. Because they added the word “beer” to a postcard instead of “refreshments” the event and building got flagged by the City of Minneapolis. We were schooled in appropriate and inappropriate consumption of liquor and what we were and were not able to do without the proper licensing. Technically we shouldn’t have even been serving cheese and crackers at openings without a permit, let alone beer and wine.
It was an eye opener. One, that there was (almost literally) a permit needed for everything, but also that it wasn’t generally acceptable for galleries to host beer and wine for guests at a reception.
Do you know what it takes to be licensed for serving liquor at a nonprofit event in Minneapolis? I’ve since done this process for a variety of art events across the states thanks to the work I did with ARTCRANK, and Minneapolis has some of the most cumbersome requirements I’ve ever run across.
(Disclaimer: I write this with much, much love for my city, and the hope that things will continue to get better. )
SO. Here’s what you currently need to do to get a permit to serve liquor legally in Minneapolis.
You need to either be or partner with a registered, active 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization. This we were, so that part was done.
You need to partner with a bar or venue licensed in Minneapolis who has up-to-date training for liquor service. This is to make sure they know the current requirements and also are qualified to not over-serve. This partner will need to provide the bartender for the event.
The bar also needs to extend their own insurance, taking a one-day event extended liability policy to cover both your event at your location as well as the city of Minneapolis as additionally insured. It doesn’t matter if you have your own liability policy already in place, or if your policy covers liquor consumption on premises. You have to have the bar extend their policy, and usually there is a charge for this. If the alcohol will be donated you need to note by whom and at what value. There might also be permits you need to file with the fire department depending on how many people, tents, etc.
From start to finish, the cost will be anywhere from $214 - $500+ dollars, depending on if the partnering bar donates their time and the cost of the added liability insurance and depending on the cost of the bartender. For a small nonprofit fundraiser, this is a huge chunk of change.
Sure, many galleries continued to serve under the radar. For some, the cost and risk of being cited was worth avoiding the hassle, cost, and frustration of getting a license to serve. Our board really wanted to do things by the book, and avoid anything that could potentially put our nonprofit status at risk. Paranoia on our part perhaps, but we wanted to do the right thing.
These are among the reasons why we see art thriving often in private spaces. In nooks and crannies. And sometimes without official approval, because it’s sometimes easier to beg forgiveness than ask for permission.
If I had to articulate this in a request to the city of Minneapolis, as a wish list of sorts, here’s what I’d request:
Lessen the intensive, expensive permitting! Doing this makes it easier to do the right thing. Create a simple form for the legal service of beer or wine at events, with a nominal fee. Key words: simple, nominal.
Make the process for submission of public art ongoing instead of in cycles. Keep the application process simple and easy to complete. The documentation and application process for the current city programs are paper laden, and many creative personalities in want of these types of opportunities are without incentive to navigate the overly bureaucratic system successfully. Don’t get me started on the language barriers.
Fix the signage rules and regulations. Update outdated signage ordinances to be more supportive of creative murals in conjunction with small businesses.
Connect with St. Paul, and vice versa. One way to make sure the creative communities in the twin cities are truly interconnected is to make the playing field the same, or at least similar. Now that I’m working more regularly in the public sphere I’ve received feedback from many artists that they’re hesitant, sometimes simply unwilling to implement in Minneapolis. “Can we just do this in St. Paul?” Their complaint? Minneapolis is too prohibitive, too costly, and too complicated.
Preserve every ounce of arts funding we have in the budget. It’s minimal enough as it is. Arts funding has been shown time and time again to prove a return on investment - so regardless of my bias for this field, this is city money well spent.
During the editing process I removed a few of the mini-chapters from my book for a variety of reasons. Some because they were a little dry and served no creative or educational purpose, others because they lacked relevance to the overall story.
The one above I removed because I was worried about it being too negative, or hyper-focused on issues Minneapolis is dealing with and not necessarily other communities. After the AFTA-CON convention I realize Minneapolis is not alone in this. (Though we may be a little... extra.) I revisited this chapter recently and am surprised how much is still relevant, though it references a point in time well over a decade ago.
After years of working in this city, I’m left to wonder - from liquor licensing to public art permits... are we a city full of creative activity because of government involvement, or in spite of it?
I think--I hope--that some of this is changing. We have leadership in place now working to make things more simple for small businesses. We passed the groundbreaking legacy amendment, dedicating a portion of sales tax for clean water and the arts over the next two decades. The Creative Vitality Index is a fantastic resource that will provide some of the documentation we need to make the continued case to support our arts community - to raise awareness that the creative community is an absolutely critical component of this city’s health and well being.
The Paint-The-Pavement program is a fantastic idea and a beautiful concept... but here’s the thing: I am skilled grant writer. I love spreadsheets. I consider myself a quite organized person, as do most of my colleagues. But the requirements in place to move art through the public approval process are so cumbersome that I know very few creative people that are willing to slog through the process to make these projects happen.
I think Minneapolis is potentially on the right path. But it’s going to take some serious dismantling of prohibitive infrastructure before things get much better. In the meantime, pools of funding are flooding towards St. Paul, artists are moving, and the picture is shifting. I have hope, but there’s hard work for all of us ahead.
Since writing that original passage , I myself have moved out of Minneapolis, though I still work there with great passion. And since this article, rental costs on homes and creative spaces in Minneapolis have increased considerably.
I’m also currently in the midst of several public art projects with the city of Minneapolis where the timing of permitting procedures, coupled with the nature of our winters, have added six months and more to our process. Fees such as encroachment permits are zooming past ten percent of the overall project budget, which is largely funded through another department of the city.
Another example to ponder: in a city of music, why don’t we have musicians and buskers all throughout our creative avenues? Well, outdoor amplified noise permits cost anywhere from $80-$320 and a sidewalk encroachment permit costs $75. How does this play out in our practice? For organizations hoping to add programming, those fees are a barrier for small budgets and take money that could spent elsewhere. Like paying artists. For artists themselves, all the red tape serves as a substantial deterrent to creative spontaneity. For anti-establishmenters, those fees and ordinances are also a tool that can be used and abused to regulate and oppress, determining via permit who can and can’t have access to public space.
And yet, these fee-and-permit hoops remain in place. So much so that other administrators and I have a running joke about our Minneapolis permit BINGO cards. (I think I’m winning/losing.)
The Creative Vitality Index demonstrates the impact the arts have on our local and regional economies and yet barriers to participation remain. There are organizations that help artists through these hurdles, but they are often significantly under-resourced also.
What can leaders and elected officials in our community do to dismantle these barriers, so together we can paint-and-pave the way to a more creative Minneapolis?
This post is a deleted excerpt from It’s Never Going To Work: A Tale of Art and Nonprofits in the Minneapolis Community with illustrations by Athena Currier. Post graphics by Jamie Schumacher. ©2019.
It’s Never Going To Work is a light-hearted, illustrated book that offers real-life insights on founding a community space and nonprofit. It provides tools, tips, resources, and camaraderie to community organizers and anybody attempting something new.