Everyone is talking about Governor Sam Brownback’s (R-Kansas) decision over the Memorial Day holiday weekend to veto funding for the Kansas Arts Commission. After an unexpected attempt to override the veto on Wednesday failed, this action officially leaves Kansas as the first US state — I believe ever — to completely withdraw its public funding for the arts.

People are understandably looking for silver linings in this situation, and for me, there is at least one: this controversy has revealed genuine, broad-based public support for funding the arts in a very red state. Brownback’s desire to be rid of the Arts Commission was no secret. He originally eliminated it via executive order in February, which could easily have been the end of the matter. But a well-organized opposition campaign on the part of Kansas Citizens for the Arts was successful in convincing Kansas’s Senate — currently dominated by a 32-8 Republican majority — to override Brownback’s order. Subsequently, the Kansas House of Representatives — currently dominated by a 92-33 Republican majority — agreed to leave the money for the Arts Commission in the budget. But Brownback refused to back down.

Kansas’s legislators didn’t need to try to override Brownback’s veto. In fact, it was the only one of presumably many line-item vetoes that provoked this response. The motion to override even managed to garner a majority of the votes cast, 50-44 – but the measure failed because it would have required an absolute two-thirds majority (84 votes).

Late Wednesday night, the dogfight over the Arts Commission was the top story on the Topeka Citizen-Journal‘s website. I don’t mean it was on the front page, I mean it was the #1 story in all of Kansas. For those of you who don’t know your state capitals, Topeka is Kansas’s – so this is the newspaper that all the political types there read. Various news stories have referred to the Arts Commission as “politically popular” and its demise as “controversial.” Editorials from diverse local sources like the Lawrence Journal-World and the Clay Center Dispatch have criticized the defunding of the commission. The pressure has apparently led to Brownback pledging that “some of” the money left over from his inaugural will go to support the new, private arts foundation he wants to set up to replace the Kansas Arts Commission. The backlash may even have indirectly saved public broadcasting from meeting the same fate, although Brownback promises that will be on the chopping block next year.

This is all to say that, as far as this lifelong East Coaster can tell, this story has been a Big Deal in Kansas. And that’s a good thing. Kansas Citizens for the Arts marshaled 5,000 emails on behalf of the Arts Commission – a big number for a state that size. People are upset about how this has played out, as they should be. If that upset can be translated into votes for candidates who recognize the practical — and political — value in supporting the arts, so much the better.

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Various other reactions and think pieces in response to this news follow:

In a long rant, Barry Hessenius begs us not to let this moment pass by without pledging to do something about it. He suggests donating money to advocacy organizations, and setting up more 501(c)(4) advocacy organizations, 527 organizations, and political action committees at the state and local levels to get the job done.

In an open letter written prior to Governor Brownback’s veto, Alex Aldrich, director of the Vermont Arts Council, clarifies his organization’s reliance on government funding to do its work. As the only one of the 50 state arts councils to do its work as an independent 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization, the Vermont Arts Council had found itself drawing the attention of Brownback as a model for the system he wanted to set up. Yet Brownback conveniently ignored the fact that the VAC receives a significant subsidy from the state government (exactly what Brownback is trying to get away from), which is what makes it eligible for NEA funds as well.

On ARTSBlog, Kathy Smith shares her perspective as executive director of ARTSConnect, an arts service organization based in Topeka, Kansas. ARTSConnect was set up following the City of Topeka’s decision to end public funding for the arts entirely. It was the private entity that was supposed to pick up the slack, and in this way bears a striking resemblance to Brownback’s vision for a private Kansas Arts Foundation. Sadly, Smith’s experience doesn’t suggest much promise for that model: after three years, ARTSConnect had to cease making grants to the arts community due to a shortage of resources. I guess that, contrary to the beliefs of many conservatives, private money doesn’t “rush in” as soon as the government decides to stop funding something.

Jay Dick, Director of State and Local Government Affairs for Americans for the Arts, contends this is all about power: Brownback, having been rebuked by his own legislature, felt he had to teach them a lesson by showing them who’s boss. (I think it’s about power in a different way, too. Some folks might remember that Brownback was briefly a candidate for President in 2008, and quite possibly still has his eyes set on that post. Gaining notoriety by becoming the first governor to destroy a state arts council in the name of smaller government helps to get him headlines and establish cred with the conservative wing of his party nationally.)

Janet Brown, the executive director of Grantmakers in the Arts who spent many years as a devoted arts advocate in another Prairie state, South Dakota, lets loose an invective against Sam Brownback and gets off some great one-liners like:

Brownback believes, or at least he says he does, that the private sector can pick up the difference in state and federal funding in his state. Does he know he’s in Kansas? Does he think that corporations and private foundations (of which there are few) will care about giving $500 to an arts fair or main street gallery in communities like Pratt, Lakin, St. Francis or Parsons?

This decision only perpetuates the stereotype that if you are a “real” artist you wouldn’t live in a place like Kansas or Nebraska, or Missouri or South Dakota. The myth that the Midwest is a vast wasteland of culture lives on in Brownback’s veto.

Laura Zabel, executive director of Springboard for the Arts in Minnesota, lived in Kansas until she was 22 and lets Sam Brownback know exactly what his state has lost in people like her. Laura’s open letter is a must-read. It employs what I call the “I am the face of your brain drain” approach, which I love because I can only imagine that it must feel like getting squeezed in the nuts to any budget-conscious state official who might be reading it. In devastating sentence after sentence, Laura points out that:

  • in 13 years, no one has ever asked her why she left Kansas;
  • she has paid nearly $37,000 in taxes to Minnesota since she left;
  • her entire family – two parents and three siblings – has moved to Minnesota as well, resulting in a loss of tax revenue for Kansas of approximately $100,000 thus far; and
  • her and her siblings’ six young children, having grown up surrounded by the arts, will now have little incentive to return to Kansas in the future. “In short, Governor Brownback, I think you’ve lost this family for good.”

Laura’s letter makes the excellent and rarely-heard point that this is not just about the arts organizations who were once directly funded by the state and will no longer be. It goes much, much deeper than that. It’s about building and maintaining an infrastructure for creativity – a friendly environment for cultural expression. If that’s missing, you’re going to lose people: smart, motivated people. As Laura sagely points out, “energetic, college-educated” folks like her — attributes shared by most artists and arts administrators — are like walking bags of money to states and cities. It only takes a few of them deciding to leave to make a big difference to a place like Kansas.

  • Flummoxed Artist

    What is the reaction of Chairman Landesman? Any word from the NEA? Is the deafening silence something other state arts agencies should be concerned about? Will it leave more funding for his particular projects (ie Our Town)? Or a negotiating position for the NEA with congress? Landesman’s Fy11 budget request was less than what congress gave.

  • Great coverage of this important event.

    I became a musician and got a great arts education in neighboring Missouri. I spent 7 years in the lively Kansas City, Missouri, which is a hotbed of live music and young artists. The UMKC Conservatory is a great (if somewhat secret) school.

    Arts activity in the state border-crossing cities of Kansas City and St. Louis are predominately on the Missouri side, rather than Kansas and Illinois, respectively. Coincidence? Just a thought.

    I couldn’t be more disappointed with Brownback’s actions, but I’m not a bit surprised. There are no major arts hubs in the state. Sure, I saw Pavarotti in Witchita, but he was scheduled at the huge local auditorium between dog show events. (really)

    I agree with your silver lining comment about getting Kansas artists and art lovers on a unified front. They seem to have been spread so thin in this rural state that the Governor fails to recognize this constituency.

    While I sing the praises of Missouri arts, I also admit that not one person has asked me why I left the Show Me State since departing in 2006. Laura Zabel’s letter speaks for many.

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