VSA Minnesota closing a loss to arts community

VSA Minnesota, which has served Minnesota artists and audience with disabilities for more than three decades, is shutting down at […]

VSA Minnesota, which has served Minnesota artists and audience with disabilities for more than three decades, is shutting down at the end of September 2019. The closing was announced in early December.

Over the next several months, the  nonprofit will be handing off its programs to other arts agencies. Executive Director Craig Dunn and Accessibility and Grants Coordinator Jon Skaalen will retire. They are VSA Minnesota’s only two full-time employees.

The decision to shut down was made by VSA Minnesota’s Board of Directors in October following nearly a year of community inquiry, financial analysis and organization examination. Decreasing financial resources to support its work and the pending retirements of Dunn and Skaalen are two primary factors.

But a third is the January 1, 2020, loss of rights to the name, VSA Minnesota. That is due to trademark issues with the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, which manages the international VSA affiliate network.

“None of us are happy that the organization that began as Very Special Arts Minnesota and grew to the entity now known as VSA Minnesota is to be no more,” said Board Chair Maggie Karli. “However, we are proud to have been part of its many triumphs over the years and we each look forward to the many ways new individuals and organizations will step forward to enliven the mission that has served Minnesota so well.”

It welcomes communications from constituents at 612-332-3888 or [email protected]. Board and staff are listed here, along with upcoming events.

Dunn said that “mission accomplished” was not one of the factors leading to closing. That is why there is a push to find new homes for existing VSA Minnesota programs. Some programs are in the process of being handed off. Others face an uncertain future.

“We have indeed created strong inroads to our mission ‘to create a community where people with disabilities learn through, participate in and access the arts.’ And more Minnesotans have access to arts programming and arts education than before our founding in 1986,” said Dunn. “In fact, it would not be wrong to say that Minnesotans with disabilities have greater access to the arts than do individuals with disabilities in the 49 other states. However, we cannot say that every person with a disability in this state has full and equitable access to the arts in all its forms.”

As of December 3, VSA Minnesota’s website has a recorded statement by Dunn, a FAQ document with more information about its closing process and a listing of some of the organization’s highlights over 33 years.

VSA Minnesota staff and board members want arts access and education for people with disabilities to move forward, and continue to seek sponsors for existing programs and services. As of Access Press deadline, Springboard for the Arts has agreed to incorporate the services to artists with disabilities program into its program offerings. COMPAS will be absorbing school arts programming for students with disabilities and special education needs.

The Metro Regional Arts Council, which has funded VSA’s Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) Improvement Grants for the past nine years, will administer the program in-house beginning in fall 2019.

One program still in need of a sponsorship or new parent organization is the Accessible Arts Calendar. This calendar is widely distributed in electronic form. A print version appears monthly in Access Press. Tim Benjamin, executive director of Access Press, said the newspaper staff and board very much appreciate the years of collaboration with VSA Minnesota. If the calendar doesn’t continue, a replacement will have to be found for the Access Press Enjoy! Page listings that come from VSA Minnesota.

The organization is continuing to seek stewards for its accessibility assistance services and its Emerging Artists with Disabilities Grant program, which has been funded by the Jerome Foundation for 23 years. Jerome has chosen not to continue funding for the program after 2019.

Also needed is an archival home for its records and historical artifacts documenting how access to the arts has changed for people with disabilities.

VSA Minnesota will continue programs in the coming year. The next deadline coming up is for the ADA Access Improvement grants on December 14, with one more VSA Minnesota-administered round in 2019. The second deadline is May 1. The grants provide funding for improvements for Twin Cities metro area nonprofits.

Another upcoming deadline is in February, for the Minnesota Artists with Disabilities programs, for six $2,000 Emerging Artist Grants. (See related story.)

Performances and exhibits will continue into 2019. An exhibit will be held to display artwork created by 2018 Emerging Artist Grant recipients. June 2 is the Caritas concert/VSA MN fundraiser. On July 26 there will be performances by artists with disabilities at the 29th annual Minnesota ADA celebration.

VSA Minnesota also plans a celebration with its constituents – artists and arts patrons with disabilities, arts and disability organizations, educators, students, teaching artists, as well as program stewards.

VSA Minnesota began in 1986, 12 years after the national organization began. VSA was founded in 1974 by Jean Kennedy Smith, one of five sisters of President John F. Kennedy. Another sister, Eunice Kennedy Shriver, helped found the Special Olympics. The Kennedys have a longstanding commitment to people with disabilities as their late sister Rosemary lived with disabilities.

When founded in 1974, VSA was named the National Committee – Arts for the Handicapped. In 1985 the name changed to Very Special Arts. In 2010 it became VSA. In 2011, VSA merged with the Kennedy Center’s Office on Accessibility to become the Department of VSA and Accessibility at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts.

In 2012 VSA Minnesota had to make several difficult cuts after losing its funding from the national organization. At that time, a newsletter was eliminated, as were arts access awards and hands-on community arts activities. In 2011, VSA Minnesota received $80,000 for programming from the national VSA organization. Support for 2012 was reduced to $36,000, and then totally cut effective October 1, 2012.

Kennedy Center officials said in 2012 that the parent organization itself had sustained deep funding cuts, and had no choice but to stop funding affiliates. The Kennedy Center website currently shows affiliates in 32 states and in 48 countries. The closest affiliates to Minnesota are Wisconsin and North Dakota.

Learn more about the national VSA organization at here.


2019 Early Career & Emerging Artists with Disabilities Grant Program

Grants are available from VSA Minnesota to help Minnesota artists with disabilities who are early (emerging) in their artistic careers and want to create new work. Six grants of $2,000 each will be awarded in early 2019 to writers, performers, composers, visual or multimedia artists who create new, original work (not a performance of someone else’s song or play). Grant money can be used for whatever will help the artist create and present this new work – art
supplies, a class, mentor, computer, camera, time to do research, festival entry fees and other expenses.

Artists submit a simple application including samples of recent work, an artistic resume, list of exhibits or other accomplishments, an “artist’s statement” of their approach to their art, and a narrative with a budget to outline what they want to do with the grant.

February 1, 2019 is the application deadline. In March a panel of artists and administrators will review the applications and determine the recipients. Applicants are also considered  for other exhibits, publications, performances, etc.

The Jerome Foundation has chosen to not continue funding for this program, so this may be the final Emerging Artists grant program for the foreseeable future. Guidelines are available here, or can be requested in several formats at 612-332-3888, 800-801-3883, or [email protected].

The Jerome Foundation and VSA Minnesota have been offering these annual grants since 1996. VSA Minnesota is a statewide, nonprofit organization whose mission is to create a community where people with disabilities can learn through, participate in and access the arts. The Jerome Foundation seeks to contribute to a dynamic and evolving culture by supporting the creation, development and production of new works by emerging artists.




  • Work with your care provider to stay healthy. Protect yourself. Vaccines are your best protection against being sick.
  • Wash your hands! Hands that look can still have icky germs!

You are not alone. Minnesota Autism Resource Portal.