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.