Arts in a Down Economy: An Oklahoma Case Study

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When you don't want quality of life to suffer, you don't cut education and you don't cut arts.

I do not think it will come to a surprise to anyone that the arts are affected in a down economy. It is how they are affected that is important to understand, and why supporting them through this time is critical. While the rest of America’s economy seems to be growing (really slowly), we are seeing the effect of a down economy first-hand, right now, in the state of Oklahoma. Why? Because in our state, the energy companies make up a significant portion of the economy. And the huge drop in oil prices over the last two years has created, for our state, economic chaos — including a state budget with a shortfall of $1.3 billion. For the current fiscal year, total spending in the state budget was proposed by our governor to be $7.2 billion. So, needless to say, these are some challenging times for Oklahoma.

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As an arts administrator, this can’t be a matter of politics, because it is a matter of economics. And we all feel the crunch, in terms of education and culture. Because of the state budget, education funding for this year alone has been cut twice, totaling $109 million. Many of those cuts are coming in the form of teacher layoffs and increasing class sizes. Among the other items on the chopping block: arts programs, and even sports.

Cutting arts education?
Why are we cutting arts education?

Clearly, the powers-that-be do not see the arts as critical to a child’s education. This is terrible because we know that studies have shown that the arts do impact on student success. I know that I am a product of a wonderful arts education experience when I went to school here in Oklahoma. Were it not for the exposure to the arts that I received, I highly doubt that I would have followed a career in it. I hate to think of how many future arts leaders and artists will not be exposed to the arts at such a critical time in their lives, while they are shaping — while we are shaping — the kind of adults they will become.

The Oklahoma Arts Council has been feeling the cuts significantly — and not just recently, but starting back in 2009. Of the 32% funding cut endured over the last seven years, though, 10% has come just the last 12 months. We know what this means: less money for arts nonprofits, for schools, for every type of cultural institution.

[pullquote align=”left” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]We still need lots of regular, everyday ticket buyers.[/pullquote]And to reiterate: my daily professional work is in the arts nonprofit sector, and that has been hit from every angle, not just the public-funding one. Take corporate giving, which is understandably way down in a tough economy. Individual giving is not affected as much because those that have the means and who have the desire to give philanthropically understand that this is not the time for them to cut back because their support is so greatly needed. Still, for organizations offering performances, like Oklahoma City Ballet, there have been very noticeable decreases in the number of tickets sold. This is due to the lack of as much discretionary income, yes, but also due to an economic perception that makes audience members hesitant to buy that extra ticket — or any tickets at all. So even when you have individuals who want to give philanthropically and do so, we still need lots of regular, everyday ticket buyers, and those individuals are holding back.

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Arts. They are important to any city. They are important to every state.

Arts. They affect our quality of life — and directly reflect the ability of any city, any state, to recruit and retain talented workers.

Arts. Yes, I know we’re often seen as an intangible, not a necessity, but I believe it is critical. Because it is critical. And everything is interrelated: If the quality of life in your city or state is terrible, how do you propose to recruit and retain employees? Simple: you don’t. So then you’ll lose businesses at just the moment you need them, and then tax dollars at just the moment you need them.

Arts. There must be a better answer.

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Shane Jewell

Shane Jewell is the Executive Director of the Oklahoma City Ballet. Previous to this, he was the Executive Director for the OK MOZART International Music Festival. Before his time at OK Mozart, Jewell worked at Celebrity Attractions in Tulsa presenting National Touring Broadway shows to 8 markets in the Midwest. During his tenure there he handled several roles such as: Company Manager, Technical Director and Advertising Director. He also was the Company Manager and Stage Manager for the national touring musical, The Rock & The Rabbi. Jewell currently serves on the Education and Programming Committee for Oklahoma Contemporary and is a member of the Oklahoma Presenters Network.