First, They Cut Arts Funding: Lessons of Rural Kansas

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Will rural arts throughout Kansas wind up on the chopping block? Photos: Gordon Parks Museum, Fort Scott, KS.

“Can the Arts Thrive Without Washington? A Kansas Town Says Yes” screamed the headline of a March 24 New York Times story by Mitch Smith. He had visited Hays, a city of 22,000 people in the plains of central Kansas, and wrote a more nuanced article that the headline suggests. Even so, he didn’t convey the whole story. As executive director of the Kansas Arts Commission from 2006 to 2011, I developed a subtle understanding of the value of Washington, DC, to rural arts.

Hays is situated in central Kansas along the I-70 corridor. It is growing as a regional hub as surrounding agricultural areas decline. An airport services daily flights to Denver. Fort Hays State University, one of Kansas’s six Regents universities, has a strong visual arts department, offers community arts classes and presents touring performing artists. The community’s regional hospital owns and displays a renowned art collection. Hays itself also has a long history of arts engagement. From the early days of the 20th century, it boasted a community choir, a symphony and a band.

In 1966, Vivian Meckel, a state representative from Hays and owner of the local music store, proposed legislation to create the Kansas Arts Commission. The Hays Arts Council was the first community arts council in the state.

A few other Kansas communities have similar commitments to the arts. Salina, Manhattan, Lawrence, Wichita and Johnson County in suburban Kansas City all have strong arts traditions — and large enough population bases to support arts organizations. As Henry Schwaller IV, former chair of the Kansas Arts Commission, told me, “There are six communities in Kansas that will always have the arts. Hays is one of them. There are 98 counties that won’t. We are the exception and not the rule.” Schwaller is now a Hays city commissioner and also sits on Kansas Creative Arts Industries Commission.

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It’s not that the city or county generously funds the arts in Hays. Both entities combined give about $15,000 a year to arts organizations. The presence of a state university and a historical commitment to the arts have made it possible for the arts to survive, but not thrive, in Hays.

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Kansas arts: can you dig it?

In 2011, Gov. Sam Brownback defunded the Kansas Arts Commission; a year later, he replaced it with the Kansas Creative Arts Industries Commission, an underfunded entity within the state’s Department of Commerce. The new commission, focused on economic development, combines the former film and arts commissions. It has one full-time employee — the former director of the Kansas Film Commission. Its state-allocated budget is less than $200,000 per year.

By comparison, the Kansas Arts Commission’s annual budget was once $1.4 million. Not a huge amount, but with seven staff members, it was enough to fund more than 200 arts organizations and artists with general and project support. The independent state agency provided consulting services, supported artist touring programs and hosted training programs and convenings. It was an information clearinghouse and guided organizations to leverage state dollars for other resources.

Six communities in Kansas will always have the arts.

“The loss of funding sometimes doesn’t seem as debilitating as does the loss of being connected to ‘the cause’ on a greater level,” Brenda Meder, executive director of the Hays Arts Council and its sole employee (annual budget: $125K), recently told me via email. “The loss of the Kansas Arts Commission represents a loss of creative, administrative and emotional resources. Whether it was Arts Day at the capital, grant panel hearings or a workshop or information-gathering sessions, they connected us…sometimes to bitch, sometimes to become inspired, sometimes just to remind you you’re not alone and everything is going to be OK. Everything feels much more isolated now.”

“There’s no statewide clearing house for the arts,” added Schwaller. “We’ve now been without the Kansas Arts Commission for six years, so it’s more than the money. It’s the loss of information and training. Those who have remained in the arts have done so because of the generosity of locals and because they live in a community that wants the arts.”

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Amid the rolling hills and gentle rivers of the eastern side of the state is Fort Scott, the seat of Bourbon County. It has about 8,000 residents; the population is declining. It was once a stronghold of “bleeding Kansas” where pro- and anti-slavery clashes took place, and its community college is the oldest in the state. Gordon Parks, the legendary photographer and filmmaker, was born in Fort Scott in 1912.

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The late, legendary Gordon Parks, pride of Fort Scott, KS.

“Kansas made a huge statement with defunding the Kansas Arts Commission that said the arts do not matter in Kansas,” Jill Warford, longtime executive director of the Gordon Parks Museum/Center for Culture and Diversity, housed at Fort Scott Community College, told me via email. “We usually always received an operational support grant from the Kansas Arts Commission, and now we do not. The main emphasis of the Creative Arts Industries Commission is job creation, which I know is important, but what we do does not really fit into that category. It has not been an adequate replacement for the Kansas Arts Commission because the emphasis is only on economic development and growing jobs in the state, not promoting the arts in underserved, small, rural arts entities, and showing that the arts in themselves have value!”

On KCUR public radio of Kansas City, Joyce Harlow, executive director of the Lincoln Art Center, a central Kansas town with a population of 1,253 (and shrinking), said that a number of programs she offered in the past are no longer affordable: “We can’t do artist-in-residence programs anymore, because we don’t have the funding. And there’s some exhibits we can’t bring.” No local city or county funds are available to the Lincoln Art Center.

The Creative Arts Industries Commission recently released its funding award list for the spring, with grants totaling $139,582. Of 26 grants, 13 are for organizations in the larger communities of the state. While most grants were for $5,000 or less, three were for $15,000, and two of those went to entities in Johnson County, the large, affluent area connected to Kansas City. All grants are for specific projects, equipment and technology, education and professional development. None are for general operations, the most challenging area for an arts group to fund.

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Just recently, Kansas managed to re-qualify for National Endowment for the Arts matching funds and it will reportedly receive between $600K and $800K from the federal government. Arts groups, thirsty for funds, will be relieved and will happily apply for grants.

But that money will, of course, disappear if the NEA is eliminated.

What is the true value of public funding for the arts? The simplest, but not the only answer, is money. Anyone who has ever worked or volunteered for a nonprofit arts organization understands that money drives everything; without funds, there is no ability to purchase materials, to pay rent for buildings and venues, to hire artists, to serve the community.

The arts need passion, commitment, drive, talent and skill. But money, whether through paid admissions or memberships, private or public philanthropy, means the difference between an organization truly serving its community and making art happen until the struggle becomes too exhausting. Organizations in rural areas or with specific, perhaps narrow yet still important missions, have a harder time raising both earned and contributed income.

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The NEA gives direct grants to organizations, but 40 percent of its funding goes to state arts agencies, which turn around and regrant the money to local organizations. Most arts organizations can’t compete on a national level, but states recognize them as important, so smaller entities are funded through state arts agency processes. Without the ecosystem of federal funding to support and leverage state funding, many groups will not survive if the NEA is cut, as the President proposes in his budget.

“Most places don’t have what they had before,” noted Schwaller. “They don’t have the resources or ability to do more. They want to do more, but just can’t. It’s not just what Brownback is doing to the arts. We are one of the states for out-migration. Our communities are shrinking, so they struggle. The governor wanted to see if he could get away with cutting services. He started with the arts, saw that he could, and then did more.” A cautionary tale for all of us.

Make an appointment to speak with a local elected official, city or county commissioner, council member or supervisor. Tell them what the arts mean to you. Ask them to tell you what the arts mean to them.

And tell me about rural arts programs in your area that are thriving or dying. I would love to feature your community in a future post. Email me at [email protected]

Together we will take action.

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