Minnesota taxpayers subsidize Hollywood superstar's vanity project

Independent non-profit publishing house Graywolf Press recently released Directing Herbert White, a book of poetry written by Hollywood superstar James Franco. Franco, whose filmography includes the blockbuster Spider-Man trilogy and his Oscar-nominated lead role in 127 Hours, could presumably self-fund and self-publish any vanity project he chooses. And he certainly would not be the first Hollywood star to produce a self-indulgent side project. However, Franco did not fund Directing Herbert White, nor was it funded entirely by Graywolf Press. Instead, Franco and Graywolf owe a debt of gratitude to the generous taxpayers of the State of Minnesota for subsidizing the publication.

The opening pages of the poetry collection include the following credit: "This publication was made possible, in part, by the voters of Minnesota through a Minnesota State Arts Board Operating Support grant, thanks to a legislative appropriation from the arts and cultural heritage fund…" In other words, Graywolf Press received state taxpayer funds from the Legacy Amendment to publish a fabulously wealthy Hollywood celebrity’s vanity project. Voters approved the so-called Legacy Amendment in 2008, increasing the state sales tax by three-eighths of one percent, and enshrining the tax hike in the state constitution. The Legacy Amendment generates upwards of $250 million per year, 19.75 percent of which is allocated to the Arts and Cultural Heritage Fund (ACHF), from which Graywolf receives operating grants. According to the Minnesota Constitution, funds from the ACHF "may be spent only for arts, arts education, and arts access and to preserve Minnesota’s history and cultural heritage."

According to state records, Graywolf Press has received Legacy operating support grants totaling $271,790 in the past five years ($50,258 in FY 2010, $50,258 in FY 2011, $54,513 in FY 2012, $56,541 in FY 2013, and $60,220 in FY 2014). These operating grants support Graywolf’s overall operations and are not earmarked for specific projects.

Nonetheless, Franco’s book will likely fuel renewed criticism regarding the use and oversight of Legacy funds. The Office of the Legislative Auditor released a report in November 2011 finding, among other things, that "the structures and procedures used to monitor and oversee the use of Legacy money after it is appropriated…vary significantly in ways that reflect how the money is allocated, to whom, and for what purposes." The Legislative Auditor noted that, "for most people the ultimate concern is whether Legacy money is used to achieve the outcomes proposed in the Legacy Amendment."

Readers can judge for themselves whether James Franco’s poetry achieves the outcomes proposed in the Legacy Amendment. Here’s an excerpt from "Because", the collection's opening poem:

Because I played a knight,

And was on a screen,

Because I made a million dollars,

Because I was handsome,

Because I had a nice car,

A bunch of girls seemed to like me.

Naturally, given Franco’s star power, even a vanity book of questionable poetry attracts a great deal of attention. For example, it is probably safe to assume that he is one of the only poets ever to appear on the Tonight Show to promote his latest work, as Franco did last month. It’s worth noting that while Franco graciously mentioned Graywolf Press during his Tonight Show appearance, he forgot to thank Minnesota taxpayers. (Nor did he thank federal taxpayers for the National Endowment for the Arts grant, which also subsidized the project.)

Unfortunately, another news item involving Franco has overshadowed his book’s release. The 35-year-old actor recently solicited a 17-year-old girl via Instagram and screenshots of the creepy exchange were made public. In the wake of the scandal, Franco apologized for his attempted dalliance with a girl half his age, saying: "I used bad judgment and I learned my lesson."

Franco has not yet apologized for his hackneyed, taxpayer-subsidized poetry.

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