What’s the Matter with Kansas (Arts Commission)?


‘Tis the season to cut — or gut — arts funding. There’s simply no two ways about it. It’s in the air.

As the GOP House majority aims to abolish the National Endowment for the Arts (they may call it a cut, but the proposed cut is $167.5 million annually, which is the agency’s current budget), no doubt the next domino to fall will be arts appropriations as a concept, much less a budget line, in many of the individual states.

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The question is whether the field is ready for such an eventuality, and what the consequences, intended or otherwise, may be as a result of such actions.

After all, most states have been in a belt-tightening mode for several years now. Per the National Assembly of State Arts Agencies in June 2010:

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  • 31 state arts agencies predict decreases in legislative appropriations for fiscal year 2011.
  • 10 states expect appropriations to increase; 15 states expect flat funding in FY2011.
  • Total appropriations will likely decline another 12.9% between FY2010 and FY2011.
  • Appropriations have declined 34.7% in the last 10 years. Inflation-adjusted, that works out to just over 45%.

So, which state arts agency might be the first eliminated? Last year, it looked as if the winner would be Georgia. Only political action — a noisy march, with plenty of media — saved the Georgia Council on the Arts. At another juncture, it looked as if it would be the South Carolina Arts Commission on the chopping block. According to the state of the state address just delivered by its new governor, Nikki Haley, 2011 may be the year that the Palmetto State kicks its cultural commission to the curb.

Or it may very well be Kansas. If I were a betting man — and I’m not — I’d wager that Kansas is probably most likely to take the crown. The state’s new governor, Sam Brownback (formerly of the U.S Senate), appears to have the legal right to abolish the Kansas Arts Commission by executive order, or at least reorganize it so as to remove it from the budget and/or to privatize it. Hierarchical structure, services, revenues, disbursements — all these remain vast unknowns.

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Two days ago, I had an off-the-record conversation with some Kansas cultural leaders who contacted the Clyde Fitch Report to see what support could be provided to either persuade Brownback to back off, or to persaude legislators to pursue some other tack.

I agreed to post some information on the situation and to publish a follow-up piece, with on-the-record quotes, in the next week or two.

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But needless to say, for such a small state population — under 2.9 million people — the power of Kansas arts is without dispute. Per a press release provided to the CFR (you can see a version for yourself here), if Brownback goes forward, it will “jeopardize at least $778,300 in National Endowment for the Arts matching funds, contradicting the Governor’s statement that the state will save $574,642,” and will further jeopardize grants and services from such partners as the Mid-America Arts Alliance, “which provides more than $300,000 in grants and services to Kansas.”

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However, let’s put that aside for a moment: If you don’t believe in public funding for the arts as a matter of ideology (and I am on the record as having mixed feelings about it myself), the numbers are irrelevant.

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What should matter in politics is economic impact — and, therefore, jobs. According to the Kansas Arts Commission, the agency’s work helps to support “employment of over 37,000 people in the creative arts industry.” Put another way, the nonprofit arts and cultural sector in Kansas is “a $153.5 million industry…generating over $15 million in state and local government revenues.” A statistically significant sum.

On its website, the Kansas Arts Commission states that the legislature must approve Brownback’s budget. Kansas, of course, is one of the most conservative states in the union (it last elected a Democrat to the U.S. Senate in 1932), so it isn’t a matter of playing partisan politics. What arts-supporters in Kansas need to do is to reach out to the sympathetic voices in the legislature (and they’re there) and make the economic case. Already the inevitable Facebook campaign is generating a lot of heat — nearly 5,800 people in six days.

Here, I should add, is a prime opportunity to make the conservative case for the arts. Perhaps I am not best equipped to make it, but it’s there and it should be made. It will be critical if Kansas isn’t to become the first state without a state-funded arts agency.

If you think America’s heartland should be a culture-empty wasteland, if you think thousands of jobs should perish on an ideological altar, call Gov. Brownback at 877-KSWORKS (877-579-6757) and tell him so.

If you think a loss of $153.5 million to the Kansas economy is unacceptable, call the same number and say as much.

If it can happen in Kansas, it can happen where you live, too.