Wednesday, June 8, 2011
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Governor Sam Brownback's May 28 veto of the Kansas Arts Commission's fiscal year 2012 budget proves that he does not recognize what every other state and U.S. territory has recognized: that the expressive life of the people of a state is a public good.
The arts—not just the objects—but the sharpening of our sensory skills; the creative and problem-solving processes; learning how different cultures express their values and dramatize their issues; understanding the meaning of the images and activities that connect people and make a community; the use of our imagination to design products and services, envision new environments, make a living, and shape the future—are a public good. Just as with the systems that provide a good education, law enforcement, fire safety, transportation, defense, energy, mail delivery, waste management, clean air to breathe and clean water to drink, all citizens benefit from a community rich in arts activities, regardless of how they choose to participate. In the United States, to benefit from any of these public goods, people of many political viewpoints look to the public sector for a reasonable level of investment, a role in meeting basic needs, a forum to articulate their priorities, and for information.
The governor seems to think that because most museums and arts groups can survive the demolition of the Kansas Arts Commission (KAC), that is reason enough to swing the wrecking ball. An Associated Press reporter asked me what I think of that argument. For one thing, I think it should be obvious that there's a public benefit to assisting the small businesses of the arts to employ people and generate tax revenues. Also, a recessionary economy is no time to withdraw state support from any desirable industry sector that leverages local support and private-sector support. This is especially true for the arts industries, where we know that the jobs and tax revenues exceed the state investment, resulting in increased public resources to deal with other issues like health care and education.
Governor Brownback has been quoted as saying, "I'll be working to raise private moneys for the arts in this state." Actually, the incentive provided by KAC requiring local funds to match state funds already attracted private funds for the arts. The priorities there, however, were determined by a statewide public planning process, not by one individual. A private foundation—Brownback's other proposal—will not be obligated to act in accord with citizens' interests for equity, geographic accessibility, accountability and transparency. That's what state arts agencies do.
Equally flawed are the governor's cited precedents. The governor's press secretary has referred to the state of Vermont as having "propose[d] privatization of a state arts agency." But that agency was not privatized. It was created to receive and administer a state appropriation. In an open letter to Governor Brownback, Vermont Arts Council Executive Director Alex Aldrich points out that without state support the Vermont Arts Council would be forced to compete for contributions with the very cultural institutions its mission requires it to support. He explains that "our nonprofit state arts agency is effective only BECAUSE there is significant state investment in our work."
If Kansas were truly embracing "the Vermont model," the governor would increase the state's investment in the arts significantly. All of Vermont has about the same population as Wichita alone, so if Kansas truly did model its designated arts agency after Vermont's, it would provide it with more than $3 million in state funds annually.
This is not the last time we will hear the specious argument that funding the arts agency will compete with money for education, law enforcement, and health care. In fact, arts funding contributes to all those public purposes and state arts agencies are highly competitive in terms of cost effectiveness for the public dollar. We know the public cost of a high school dropout and we know that including the arts in the curriculum will help all students learn better and will keep them coming to classes. We know the costs of incarceration and we have known for decades that arts activities significantly reduce both violent incidents and recidivism rates. We know the costs of medication and falls and social isolation for the elderly, and we have solid research that arts activities significantly reduce all of these.*
Whatever outcome he seeks, the governor describes himself as a "trendsetter" in abolishing his state art agency. In fact, other state leaders are making every effort to continue supporting the arts. Some are repositioning their arts agency within state government, some are finding different sources of revenue, and some are realigning their arts programs to support the meeting of newly urgent needs. Contrast these efforts with the situation in Kansas resulting from the governor giving up on KAC. Not only is there no state investment approved for FY2012, the National Endowment for the Arts partnership grant may be lost as well, since it the federal requirements for a plan, a functioning council, nonfederal match, staff and accountability may not be met. In that case, the federal funds would be reallocated and Kansas taxpayers would be paying for the arts in other states. Not, one suspects, a circumstance many other states will be rushing to emulate.
Unfortunately, Kansans will immediately begin paying for the governor's decision. Laura Zabel, a former Kansan who now runs Springboard for the Arts in Minnesota, shows us how. In her letter to the Kansas governor, Laura observes that "Just for the 5 members of my immediate family who have relocated to Minnesota, I estimate that Kansas has given up about $100,000 in state and sales tax income so far (not to mention the numerous other ways that we contribute to the local economy). By that calculation, your veto of the Arts Commission budget only has to convince a handful of young, energetic college graduates that they'd be better off somewhere else for Kansas to be worse off financially because of this decision."
The people of Kansas should and will continue to reach out to their governor. Those who persuaded a majority of their legislators in both houses to fund KAC will broaden their influence, grow in number and organize through Kansas Citizens for the Arts. If the appointees to the new foundation the governor has created take their role as stewards of the state's cultural life seriously, they will join the effort to reestablish public-sector leadership and investment. Using all the tools available to draw upon the arts in Kansas as assets in community and economic development, education, and tourism makes too much sense to people all across the political spectrum. Sooner or later, the citizens of Kansas will restore public support for the arts at the state level. The motto of the Sunflower State is always an inspiration: Ad astra per aspera. To the stars through adversity.
* On the arts in education, see The Consequences of Dropping Out of High School; http://www.all4ed.org/publication_material/EconImpact; James Catterall's Doing Well and Doing Good by Doing Art; the College Board's 2005 College-Bound Seniors: Total Group Profile Report (Table 3-3) (noting the correlation between arts course–taking and higher SAT scores); and Critical Evidence; How the Arts Benefit Student Achievement. On the arts and reduction of disciplinary incident rates and recidivism rates, see William Cleveland's Art in Other Places: Artists at Work in America's Community and Social Institutions, and williamjamesassociation.org. On the arts and aging, see Dr. Gene Cohen's Creativity and Aging Study at George Washington University.