ST. PAUL — When the Minnesota Historical Society awarded the Czech and Slovak Cultural Center of Minnesota $1,500 for an oral history project, the goal was a quick turnaround of interviews with founding members of the Minneapolis-based organization.
That was in late 2006, and the state historical society is still waiting.
Some of the center’s board members believe interviews were conducted by a fellow board officer on cassette tapes that have been misplaced in the past 13 years, if they still exist at all.
Several of the most compelling interview subjects have died, including center founder Josef Mestenhauser, a University of Minnesota professor and former honorary consul to the Czech Republic, who passed away in 2015 at age 89. Other subjects relocated out of state or even moved overseas, and membership in the all-volunteer organization has dwindled to some two-dozen people.
In an email last October, Minnesota Historical Society grants specialist Melinda Hutchinson responded to a “one- to two-year extension” request from project manager and board member Gwen Willems: “The funding for that project expired at least a decade ago so the project is not even eligible for an extension.”
The result? The Czech and Slovak Cultural Center is on the state historical society’s blacklist, a surprisingly short but telling list of nonprofit organizations that failed to complete state Legacy projects or return grant money. The groups are now unable to qualify for further grants until they do.
Unable to apply for future funding
Taken together, the 11 nonprofits form a telling boneyard of efforts that struggled to corral resources around notable but fading slices of state history. In short, they’re in the Legacy Grants doghouse. Given staff and volunteer turnover, however, some organizations don’t even realize they’re on the list.
“Until those grants are closed in some way, either by returning the money or doing what they were expected to do, they’re not able to apply for additional funding,” said Lauren Peck, a spokeswoman for the Minnesota Historical Society.
Overall, however, “11 (unrepaid grants) is a pretty minuscule number, and five of those 11 predate the current (Legacy) program we have,” Peck said. “Our grant requirements are partially set by the state, because this is state money we’re dealing with.”
The historical society is one of the five primary state boards that offer arts and culture Legacy Grants funded by the state sales tax.
Grants are issued through the Minnesota State Arts Board, the Minnesota Humanities Center, the Department of Administration and the Indian Affairs Council, on top of regional arts boards and other designated administrators.
St. Paul, Minneapolis nonprofits blocked
The Upper Swede Hollow Neighborhoods Association landed on the historical society’s restricted list after failing to complete a research and writing project it received $2,000 for in 2003.
Former members say that’s around the same time the association disbanded.
State records show the unfinished project focused on the “judicial triangle,” a plot of land near Third and Maple streets in St. Paul.
The potential future park is located near the childhood homes of three noted judges — former U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice Warren Burger, U.S. Supreme Court Justice Harry Blackmun and federal District Judge Edward Devitt.
Also in St. Paul, the indigenous storytelling group Ce Tempoxcalli landed on the Minnesota Historical Society’s restricted list after receiving $5,500 in 2012 to produce a report on the nine-day hunger strike that took place at St. Cloud State University in 1995.
The strike involved Chicano students demanding a multicultural student services center and a Chicano studies curriculum.
A working phone number for Ce Tempoxcalli could not be found.
Also in 2012, under the title District 7 Planning Council, the Frogtown Neighborhood Association in St. Paul received $5,500 to document interviews with 10 immigrant residents about urban gardening. A final report was never submitted to the grants office, according to the historical society.
In a recent interview, Neighborhood Association president Caty Royce said she had never heard of the grant project, which likely was for a year or two before she joined the organization.
“I have no idea. It’s before my time. I’ve been here seven years,” said Royce, expressing surprise. At least partly tongue in cheek, she compared the situation to the city library’s new late-fee-forgiveness policy: “Like the library system, can we forgive?”
In the largest financial hole
Of all the grant recipients, the Minnesota African American Museum and Cultural Center is in the largest financial hole. It’s on the hook to repay more than $46,000 — the first installment of what would have been a $155,000 grant — from 2012 for a heating, ventilation and air conditioning system at the historic Amos B. Coe House in Minneapolis.
The nonprofit, which had hoped to make the 1880s-era Coe House its permanent home, began remodeling but was unable to secure full funding to renovate the Queen Anne-style brick house, which it eventually lost in a legal fight.
The site was converted instead into apartments. The cultural center is separate from the Minnesota African American Heritage Museum and Gallery, which recently opened in Minneapolis.
A Facebook page for the center has not been updated since 2014, a listed website was no longer active and a phone number was not in service last month.
Restoring an Iron Range synagogue
In Virginia, Minn., the Friends of B’nai Abraham Synagogue was asked to repay the historical society more than $25,000 it was granted in 2013 after the historical society received complaints that at least two contractors had not been paid the state’s prevailing wage, the minimum wage for state-funded projects.
Since 2004, the group has attempted to restore an Iron Range synagogue dating back to 1909. A call was not returned last month.
Minneapolis-based Artspace, which develops artist housing, work studios and art-friendly businesses, fell out of favor with the historical society after receiving $7,000 in 2013 to prepare construction documents for the restoration of the Masonic Temple in Minneapolis. The temple is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. However, submitted materials for the project were incomplete.
According to the historical society, “the completed work did not meet the grant program requirements and therefore the grant was canceled and repayment of funds has been requested.”
A call to Artspace was not returned last month.
The temple, built in 1888 and located at Sixth Street and Hennepin Avenue, is still owned by Artspace and was renamed the Cowles Center for Dance and the Performing Arts in 2011.
Legacy Amendment: More than $5M in grants this year
Minnesota voters approved the Clean Water and Legacy Amendment in 2008, increasing the state sales tax by three-eighths of 1 percent to fund arts, cultural and environmental projects statewide.
Since 2009, the Minnesota Historical Society has issued more than $58 million in Historical and Cultural Heritage Grants, or upward of 2,600 grants, averaging more than $5 million in grants per year.
When issues arise with recipients, most are resolved within months, Peck said. That makes the 11 outstanding programs the exceptions to the rule.
All of the historical society’s unresolved grants date from 2003 to 2013, with nearly half dating back to before the Legacy Grants program was enacted.
‘We are doing our best’
A review of public correspondence shows that in early October, outgoing Czech and Slovak Cultural Center board secretary Mark Dillon raised concerns with the Minnesota Historical Society, pointing out that completing the oral history project due back in January 2008 might now be impossible because Willems, the program manager, may have lost the materials.
Minnesota Historical Society grants manager Carolyn Veeser-Egbide responded to Dillon’s letter of inquiry by confirming the center’s delinquent status.
The grants office had sent the center’s board members multiple overdue notices for the work dating back to June 2009, and requests for repayment of the $1,500 grant since at least March 2013.
“The Grants Office has requested confirmation that the final product is in the possession of the grantee,” reads the email from Veeser-Egbide to Dillon. “The grantee is ineligible to apply for grants until confirmation is received by the Grants Office.”
Willems could not be reached for comment, but board president Renata Ticha said in an interview that an overarching report is already complete. She expected the rest of the oral history project would be done by the end of 2020.
“I wasn’t there when (the grant) was applied for, I wasn’t there when (the deadline) was missed,” said Ticha, who joined the board about five years ago. “What I do know is the board has been very active in trying to close out the grant. … As a nonprofit, volunteer, very small organization, as much as I appreciate we are being held accountable to the Minnesota Historical Society and to the state of Minnesota, we are doing our best.”