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John Steffl

UMD alum John Steffl

New fund will support artists in crisis

Idea conceived by UMD alum and Duluth artist

By Cheryl Riana Reitan

Published on March 28, 2005

When Duluth artist John Steffl was diagnosed with life-threatening lymphoma, dozens of fellow artists and friends offered to help. Instead, Steffl asked his friends to set up a fund for other artists in crisis. Such generosity is typical of him, friends say.

While Steffl underwent seven months of chemotherapy, often facing death, his friends and supporters went to work on the fund. This month, two heartening events occurred: Steffl's cancer is now in remission, and the Artists' Relief Trust (ART) Fund has been born.

The ART Fund will provide emergency help for artists in all media in Minnesota's Arrowhead Region. Financial assistance will support those in crisis from illness as well as other catastrophes.

"When I think of the future of the arts, it brings me solace that there will be this fund," says Steffl. "It's an important part of the arts community."

"It is an unfortunate event [with] a fortunate outcome," says Peter Spooner, a board member for the new fund. "John was suddenly diagnosed with cancer just at the time of a career transition. He was underinsured. His story is the story of other artists who have no safety net."

Spooner curates the Tweed Museum of Art at the University of Minnesota, Duluth (UMD), where Steffl received his master's degree in art in 1984. The Tweed collection includes some of Steffl's early ceramic work, and he gave an artist's lecture there for students last year.

"For decades, John worked behind the scenes to advocate for the arts as a whole," says Spooner. "He brought quality work by new and mature artists into the spotlight. That effort had an impact on the community and the Tweed."

Steffl believes the fund is important to the area's future.

"When a person believes they are dying, it's amazing how often they think of the future," he says. "When I think of the future of the arts, it brings me solace that there will be this fund. It's an important part of the arts community."

Several Duluth-area art spaces held an exhibition to benefit the fund during the month of March. When it opened at the North Shore Bank of Commerce (NSBC) on March 5, Steffl was there. His contact with friends and family had been limited in order to avoid contracting other illnesses, so coming out for the opening was a delight.

"It was profoundly moving to hear the feelings of love, concern, and care expressed for me," Steffl says. "More than that, the exceptional quality of work bowled me over. The variety of work brought tears to my eyes."

In addition to NSBC, exhibitors for the benefit included the Duluth Art Institute (where Steffl formerly served as artistic director), Lizzard's Art Gallery, North End Arts Center, Northern Prints Gallery, Sivertson Gallery, and Waters of Superior. All participating exhibitors featured donated works for sale, with the entire cost of each piece going directly to the relief fund. NSBC will continue to support the ART Fund through permanent wall space in its main lobby.

For more information about the ART Fund, contact the Arrowhead Regional Arts Council, 1301 Rice Lake Road, Duluth, MN 55811 or

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