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.