This week has been a bad one for beleaguered state arts agencies. First, after much sabre-rattling, Kansas Governor Sam Brownback followed through with his threat to eliminate the Kansas Arts Commission on Monday, with the plan to transfer its responsibilities to a new nonprofit and provide a token $200,000 one-time appropriation to help with the transition. (This is down from $1.1 million the agency received two years ago.) Worse, unlike other governors who have tried to do the same, he did the dirty deed by executive order, meaning that the bar is much higher for arts advocates to reverse the decision. They basically have to convince the Republican-controlled Kansas Legislature to override the Governor’s order within 60 days of the decision.

Sadly, Kansas is not the only one on the chopping block. In the Lone Star State, Governor Rick Perry’s budget includes no money for the Texas Commission on the Arts at all. In South Carolina, Governor Nikki Haley actually made elimination of the state arts commission one of her talking points for her State of the State address. In Washington, Governor Christine Gregoire has proposed elimination of the state arts agency as an independent entity and drastically reducing funding. And in Arizona, Governor Jan Brewer wants to eliminate state appropriations to the Arizona Arts Commission.

State arts agencies form a relatively small portion of the typical arts organization’s revenue stream. If they went away, it’s likely that the arts landscape would be more similar to than different from what it looks like today. But still, as this article in Miller-McCune points out, much would be lost. Besides the revenue itself, state arts agencies tend to be a source of particular support for community arts work, arts education, and smaller organizations run by a new generation of artists and administrators looking to get their first leg up. [Update: also, arts activities in rural areas; see Janet Brown’s comment below.] In many cases, they also funnel money to local arts agencies in order to have an even more targeted impact. So while they are not the be-all and end-all of the arts world, they do have an important role to play. And as Janet Brown eloquently puts it, it’s much harder to get the infrastructure re-established than to retain what’s already there.

State arts agencies have survived numerous similar elimination threats over the past several years, and before that as well. Since their initial creation in the late ’60s in the wake of the establishment of the NEA, all 50 state agencies (along with six territorial agencies) have managed to survive each year, albeit sometimes only by a hair. Indeed, the NEA’s innovative decentralization strategy involving partnerships with state and regional arts agencies has been an extremely effective weapon in such advocacy campaigns, because elimination of state arts councils necessarily means forfeiting federal matching funds as well – making justification on the grounds of saving the state money come off as rather hollow.

But this year, things seem different. Part of it is that this has been the latest in a long trend of diminishing arts funding from states. According to the National Assembly of State Arts Agencies, the appropriations for the current year have declined more than one-third in nominal terms from the appropriations of ten years ago, from $410 million in FY2002 to $272 million in FY2011 — and if you adjust those numbers for inflation, the reduction is nearly 50% in today’s dollars. Part of it, too, is that several of the agencies facing pressure this year are already significantly hobbled, having staved off massive cuts or elimination last year or the year before. Arizona, Kansas, and South Carolina all fall into this category. It’s as if the governors in those states (political conservatives, all) have adopted an “if at first you don’t succeed, try, try again” approach, betting that the local arts advocacy infrastructure can’t survive a war of attrition.

And unfortunately, they’re probably right. We’ve invested a lot as a field in bolstering support for the National Endowment for the Arts. But there currently exists no formal, nationwide advocacy infrastructure for state arts agencies [update: actually there is, see below], which still collectively spend nearly twice as much on the arts as the NEA even after suffering massive losses. As of today, the Arts Action Fund, which is run by Americans for the Arts, makes no mention of state arts agencies on its website, even though its mission statement says nothing about an exclusive focus on federal funding. The National Assembly of State Arts Agencies, despite having a section of its website devoted to advocacy, is similarly mum on the predicament of individual members. Instead, it’s up to arts leaders in individual states to fend for themselves. The result of this decentralized approach to advocacy is that it is very difficult for the likes of Kansas and South Carolina to benefit from the efforts of their peers in places like New York, California, Massachusetts, and Illinois, and the geographic balkanization of our arts communities only continues. If we’re going to have a hope of retaining this vital layer of public infrastructure to the arts and restoring it to its former strength, we’ll need to start getting a lot more organized about it.

For further reading:

  • Leonard Jacobs argues that the root of state arts agencies’ current troubles is not fiscal conservatism, it’s right-wing ideology. I half agree with him (the unfortunate fact is that nearly all states face ruinous budget crises right now, and Christine Gregoire, Washington’s governor, is a Democrat), but it’s worth pointing out that Leonard predicted a return of GOP hostility to public arts funding earlier than just about anyone, and quite presciently so.
  • Matthew Guerrieri proposes a fanciful hardball tactic for Kansas arts organizations: threaten to move to Nebraska instead. Hey, it’s worked for film subsidies.
  • Arlene Goldbard argues passionately for a new approach to advocacy and messaging about the arts.
  • The Wichita Eagle’s editorial board has come out in support of the Kansas Arts Commission.

UPDATE: It turns out that there is a nationwide infrastructure for state arts advocacy: the State Arts Action Network at Americans for the Arts. Jay Dick, who heads up that effort, got in touch with me to correct the error. He also informed me that the Arts Action Fund is indeed federally focused, being a federal PAC. Alas, the SAAN homepage also makes no mention of current state arts advocacy campaigns, but if you live in one of the states whose agency is under threat, you can find and get involved with the relevant state arts advocacy group here. According to Jay, they need all the help they can get.

  • As of this moment both HB and SB 1 in Texas contain $7.5M for the biennium for the TCA, this is a 50% cut, but it still exists.

    (SB1 : PDF LINK : Page 1-1)

  • Great article, Ian.

    A strategic, solutions-based voice for arts advocacy at state and local levels is essential. We need to learn– quickly– how to articulate the need for arts & culture and arts education within every community, regardless of socioeconomic level. The creative economy is an invaluable revenue engine, bringing tourism, community-building and providing a concrete return on investment for every dollar invested at the local and state level. Furthermore, arts education is a critical piece of a 21st century education, teaching students how to innovate and participate in our knowledge-based economy.

    Best of luck to all those in states dealing with these issues!

  • Jaime Dempsey

    I would like to take some time to respond more thoughtfully to this post, but as you mentioned, we’re busy combating a raging inferno here, one that was sparked (for Arizona) three and-a-half years ago. And I am only speaking for myself when I say that while I don’t feel alone in this fight, I find little comfort in all of this miserable camaraderie. The national arts sector has had — in the midst of and since the culture wars — opportunity upon opportunity to reframe its vision, to build an adequate advocacy infrastructure, and to advance the national conversation beyond this same mind-numbing fight year after year after year. And yet (?). Courageous, visionary and most of all, *new* leadership is required, whether or not it is too late to save the existing public infrastructure for arts support. For as much as I’m aggravated by the mountain of missed opportunities and (what I perceive to be an) anemic, disjointed national advocacy approach, I haven’t given up on, um… us. I’m still in.

    Jaime Dempsey
    Deputy Director, Arizona Commission on the Arts

  • Ian, I absolutely agree with you that the creative sector needs to become more strongly organized (and quickly!) in order to survive this war of attrition.

    I think it is important to note, however, the grassroots efforts and impact of state arts advocacy organizations around the country. For example, the Kansas Citizens for the Arts are working hard to rally support within their state for the arts commission.

    Having worked for a regional arts organization that tried to engage in advocacy efforts related to states within its region, I would like to point out that many state legislators are not very interested in hearing from people outside of their state — if for no other reason that those people do not have the power of the vote in that state. So I wonder how much cache or leverage a national arts advocacy organization would have when dealing with legislators in individual states.

    On a national level, Americans for the Arts does convene the State Arts Action Network as a “meeting place for statewide multidiscipline arts service or advocacy organizations to gather to discuss common issues.” While this is not a formalized national advocacy organization operating on issues in individual states, it is a national affiliation of state advocacy groups who are able to share resources and experiences with one another.

    • Hi David,
      Your point about the influence out-of-staters can have on state-specific advocacy campaigns is an important one, and I admit I wasn’t as explicit as I could have been about what I meant by a more “centralized” advocacy approach to statewide arts funding.

      To take South Carolina as an example, for sure, Nikki Haley is not going to be interested in hearing from some New Yorker like me that she should relent on her threat to zero out funding for the state arts council. But there are other ways that I could make a difference. Let’s say that within my circle of NYC-based musician friends, there’s at least one guy who is from South Carolina. If I put up a note about SC’s budget plight on my Facebook page with a link to the advocacy campaign, that guy might see it for the first time and be able to tell all his friends back home to support the campaign. Let’s additionally suppose that one of my girlfriend’s best friends is from South Carolina, and her parents still live there. Neither she nor her parents are artists, but perhaps they could be convinced to support the campaign out of friendship. And their endorsement might carry more weight precisely because they’re not artists. Now maybe none of these things will happen, but they won’t have a chance of happening if I, an NYC-based arts administrator, don’t know about what’s happening in South Carolina.

      Unfortunately, the only reason I have any clue whatsoever about what’s happening in South Carolina is because I went digging for it. Right now, the way that I usually find out about state arts advocacy campaigns is through news stories that I see in Arts Watch, a publication of Americans for the Arts. But because Arts Watch is a weekly publication that isn’t specifically focused on arts advocacy, it’s difficult to piece together an ongoing coherent narrative about advocacy campaigns in different states. Now, I learned on Thursday that the State Arts Action Network does have a newsletter for this purpose called SAANBox, which I am now signed up for. (Because it comes out on Mondays, I haven’t seen my first issue yet.) So it’s great that that exists, but frankly, if someone like me who’s been very actively involved with AFTA for several years now didn’t know about it before, that tells me it’s not getting out very widely. It would be wonderful to have a public resource with this kind of information in one place. Without that, it will be very hard to extend the reach of statewide campaigns beyond the ranks of insider professionals whose jobs depend to some degree on the funding being provided and thus come across as a special interest rather than concerned citizens.

  • Janet Brown

    Thanks for this Ian. The arts advocacy world is substantially better positioned than it was in 1989 to face attacks on public funding. However, the unusual relationship of state arts agencies to federal strategies (block grants vs national to local dissemination) and the power of local (city and county) arguments for the arts leaves them precariously vulnerable. States have difficulty gathering support from a broad range of legislators because too many elected officials see it as supporting “people who don’t live around me or do what I do.” Whereas advocates at the local level can point to the achievements of public art, increased tourism, sales taxes, in a very localized “city-pride” kind of way. I have been saying for over a year now that although the overall impact of state dollars may seem small for large organizations, they fund rural, small organizations throughout their states that get no other support from private foundations or government entities. Arts education and teaching/touring artists outside our major cities will suffer tremendously. And a piece of our infrastructure will be gone. To say nothing of the relinquishing of government’s role in protecting and expanding cultural understanding and knowledge.

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  • Crystal Wallis

    Texas? I was just there in October for the NASAA Assembly 2010, and Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst was the featured speaker at the opening session. He talked a lot about how important the funding of cultural and artistic institutions is. What happened, Mr. Dewhurst?

    Gov. Haley, I’m sure you have met the charismatic Mayor of Charleston, Joseph P. Riley, Jr, who literally transformed that city through (among other things) the power of the arts. Do you not support that?

    Gov. Gregoire, your state has an incredibly rich First Nations heritage, a major driver in the tourism industry. Did you realize that your State Arts Commission has a role in researching that heritage and sharing it with future generations? This isn’t just about nice extras- it’s about what makes a place unique, and what makes others want to visit it.

    Gov. Brewer, your state commission on the arts helps to bring the arts to schools, which means lower drop-out rates, higher SAT scores, and increased school attendance. That means higher income potential for the future of your state.

    My heart goes out to the folks at the Kansas Art Commission. I had the good fortune in October to meet Chris Howell, their COO, who told me about a project they did called “Enough Good People.” Amidst the charged atmosphere during the bicentennial of the Lewis and Clark Expedition between Native Americans and history enthusiasts, the KAC spearheaded a project that lead to cultural exchange and understanding. It’s a shame that projects like this that bring people together and inspire them to work towards a better future are in danger of disappearing.

    Ian, I think a big part of the problem is that some states have an arts council, but not an advocacy group. Most of the time, they end up having to be separate entities because of tax laws. Maybe one way to encourage grassroots advocacy is to provide funding for the establishment of state advocacy groups in states that don’t have them. I completely agree that the people who vote in that state should be the ones to advocate for their own state councils.

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