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Kansas Gov. Abolishes Arts Commission; SC, TX Next on Chopping Block?

Sick Time

Well, it happened.

According to the Chronicle of Philanthropy, linking to a story in the Kansas City Star, Kansas Governor Sam Brownback abolished the Kansas Arts Commission by executive order. As the CFR’s coverage of this story noted last month, Brownback’s order is well within the legal rights of his office. Not that it makes it right, fair or good for the field, of course. But it does prove, as I’ve warned, that a day of reckoning for our system of public arts funding is drawing near. The issue — sorry — is not financial: the Star noted that Kansas’ budget deficit is $500 million and abolishing the Kansas Arts Commission saves $600,000. Slicing a tenth of one percent of anything isn’t about fiscal prudence. It’s about ideology — and ideological purification.

Earlier today I noticed a tweet from the California Arts Council (@CalArtsCouncil) that read:

First Kansas, now Texas. We MUST make our case more clearly. The arts are not luxuries – they are vital.

This refers to the fact that Texas Governor Rick Perry, whose state faces a mammoth $15 billion deficit, aims to abolish the Texas Commission on the Arts, according to the Houston Chronicle. And let’s not forget that the new governor of South Carolina, Nikki Haley, proposes to snip out the South Carolina Arts Commission as well. Oh, and to think that two years ago, so many of our arts leaders called on President Obama to boost appropriations to the National Endowment for the Arts to some $300 million annually and now the House Republicans are hoping to zero-out the NEA as well.

Unless Kansas arts advocates successfully persuade enough state lawmakers to move legislatively against Brownback’s order, the Kansas Arts Commission will become a private nonprofit. And, I predict, a domino effect will begin, with one state arts agency after another, particularly in more conservative states and in the states with the worst fiscal climates, falling. And, I predict, it will occur more rapidly than anyone in the sector realizes. At which point people will scream and ask themselves how it could have happened and I will look at them, collectively and individually, and remind them that some of us were seeing this happen two years ago.

What, I ask you, will shake entrenched powers from their slumber? The old activism tactics do not work when the issue is ideology. Indeed, the issue is not — with all due respect to the California Arts Council — the case being made without clarity. It is quite clear. We’re simply up against interests who don’t believe public funds should be used to support the arts, period — even if a dollar in public appropriations generates three, five, seven or nine dollars in economic activity; even if a dollar in public appropriations generates hundreds or thousands or even tens of thousands of jobs; even if a dollar in public appropriations allows us to develop the kind of sophisticated, educated youth that a modern, powerful, secure society needs and deserves.

So the real question is not how to save these state arts organizations even as we try to save them. The real question is what will finally, really, truly shift the dynamic — to get arts leaders, and artists, to think with an entrepreneurial spirit, to put theories of innovation into practice? We don’t learn our lessons well.


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  1. John SetoJohn Seto02-08-2011

    It’s a very sad state or country that feels its human creativity and arts are unimportant and does not deserve support and nourishment. The arts reflect what is unique and historical about our society. A soul-less society is barbaric, and we wonder why our educational and financial systems are falling behind other countries that have strong arts support and pride.

    • Leonard JacobsLeonard Jacobs02-08-2011

      I agree, John. This is one reason I feel the issue is about more than saving or strengthening this or that agency. We need in this country a conversation about the role of culture. Trouble is, certain sectors of the nation won’t engage meaningfully — beyond pro forma cliches — in such a conversation. Situations like those in Kansas, while making me very, very sad, strike me as symptoms of the wider problem.

  2. This is a tragedy of huge proportions. As someone said recently, “Human beings need to create beauty, it is a part of the very thing that makes life worth living and it helps us stay healthy.” To that I add, When we do not draw upon both the right and left sides of our brain, analytical-intellectual, & creative then we become less and less human. We are now experiencing that, chaos is everywhere. We argue and blame, we make rash decisions that are based on feelings and not what is best for our state, or country. From as far back as artifacts are fouind, there is evidence of the human species creating art objects, paintings etc. The vision of what we can be is brought into focus when we dip into our creative nature. It is where we begin to find solutions for our problems in society and it is the way we stay sane.

    Leonard, I agree, this decision is a symptom of a much wider problem. We have lost our way. This decision only shows the ignorance of what art means to a society. Our children desperately need to be supported in their creative nature, and if we do not encourage and provide that for them then our society will continue to decline in its ability to survive. The evidence is the failure to thrive, and we are not! So, So very sad. Who is going to pick up the ball and run with it before it is too late?

  3. LindaLinda02-09-2011

    You’re right, of course, it’s about ideology. But, it’s not about the ideological content of the art a la the recent Smithsonian censorship incident, but rather about public value and the size of government. The arts community needs to be clearer in its articulation of the public value of the arts, the role of government in subsidizing non-market goods, and the role the arts play in a democratic participatory society.

  4. Elena SanteElena Sante02-10-2011

    I agree, we need a discussion about the role of culture and we need progressive action. I would add that this discussion be inclusive (a dialogue with leaders beyond the arts). Are we not part of a larger community? Can we afford to ignore what’s going on in the world? Does the failure to articulate our dissent make us responsible for the outcome, for our own dilemma? I think cuts in funding for the arts are just the tip of the iceberg. As our troops have destroyed Iraq and as our government sends 1.3 billion dollars annually to the oppressive regime of Hosni Mubarak I see a connection between those pictures and the disregard for our needs, the humanities in our country. I think if we don’t open our eyes to the larger picture “thinking with an entrepreneurial spirit” and sitting in our little boat is equal to arranging the deck chairs on the Titanic.