Tuesday, August 4, 2011
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NASAA has just compiled preliminary information on state arts agency (SAA) budgets for fiscal year 2012. By now we all know the sobering news those numbers convey: state appropriations to our field have declined by 42% during the last decade, with some serious losses incurred this year. What are we learning from these declines? And how can our experiences in this year, one of the most challenging legislative sessions in memory, inform and guide our ability to succeed in the future?
Rifts and Revenues
The recent federal difficulty in raising the national debt ceiling highlights the challenges that states face every year. Creating a budget in which expenditures are strictly limited by revenues has the immediate prospect of polarizing Americans who view various ways of achieving this as catastrophically unfair and those who view it as simply responsible. Fold into this endemic challenge two multiyear recessionary cycles in a single decade that have savaged the value of real estate and driven massive unemployment, causing revenues from all sources—sales tax, property tax and income tax—to plummet at unpredictable rates. State governments (whose aggregate budgets total in the ballpark of $700 billion) have just experienced annual shortfalls totaling more than $100 billion four years in a row. It is in this environment that citizens and their elected state officials are asking what an appropriate public sector investment in the arts is and how it can best be sustained.
Obviously, this budget context affects both the character and content of the deliberation over funding. The conversation between decision makers and stakeholders that once might have focused on how well an agency is doing fulfilling the goals in its plan must now address the role the agency plays in sustaining and creating jobs, assisting small businesses and balancing the budget. The conversation that once might have focused on how cost-effectively the agency produced the outcomes in its plan must now address why the agency is competitive with all other investments that can possibly produce those outcomes.
Headlines from the Field
Not every state cut its investment in the arts this year: 25 states expect to maintain or increase their appropriations to state arts agencies in fiscal year 2012. Nevertheless, this year brought some extreme challenges that highlight lessons learned for everyone. Looking at just five examples reveals a rich array of approaches to sustaining the arts in this environment.
In South Carolina, Governor Nikki Haley made numerous attempts throughout the year to eliminate all public funding for the arts in the state. The legislature decisively overrode her arts budget veto by overwhelming margins in both the House (105-8) and the Senate (32-6). Advocates and citizens achieved this victory through highly organized—and relentless—contact with elected officials in both chambers of the state legislature. They made a strong link to the relevance of the agency to job creation and made a special case for what the public sector does in South Carolina that the private sector simply cannot: ensure equitable access to arts opportunities across the state and incorporate the arts into other government systems—such as education—that affect the well being of every citizen in the state.
The Arizona Commission on the Arts, a resourceful agency in another state with a shortfall above the median, has seen the state dollars in its Arts Endowment Fund swept into the state's general fund. This year, following a recommendation from the governor, all general fund dollars for the agency in FY2012 were eliminated as well. However, the agency had diversified its revenues over the course of a generation, and state business license revenues will yield more than $1 million for the agency this year. In addition, the agency is relaunching its Arizona ArtShare Endowment, in which funds are held by the Arizona Community Foundation, with a $50,000 matching grant from the Foundation. Both the agency's media campaign, The Choice is Art, and its advocacy toolkit, Building Public Value, are national models and continue to help broaden the agency base of support.
In the context of a larger than average shortfall, the House in Pennsylvania initially passed a budget bill including a 68% cut to its arts agency, but ultimately reached an agreement with the Senate restoring almost all funding. The Pennsylvania Council on the Arts demonstrates a fundamental commitment to local engagement in its grants and programs. Public check-delivery ceremonies accompany the awarding of grants throughout the state, visible in local newspapers and on-line. Arts education support reaches every corner of the state, and the arts agency has a major emphasis on touring and presenting. As a result, advocates populate statewide budget hearings, fill government chambers at rallies and work together as an active constituency.
Even though the governor in the state of Washington proposed eliminating the arts commission and an 80% reduction in its appropriation, the agency won favorable consideration from a bipartisan team of legislators and emerged with a cut of approximately 10%. The Washington State Arts Commission benefited from a decade of engaged commissioners who built relationships with decision makers then focused in a disciplined way on this year's legislative process, including organizing an advocacy committee that met weekly to monitor and address events as they unfolded.
Likely the greatest challenge to state funding for the arts in the 45-year history of our field occurred in Kansas this year, where Governor Brownback decided that arts funding was not a core function of his state government. Kansas Citizens for the Arts (KCA) and the Kansas Arts Commission (KAC) were able to win majority votes for an agency budget in their state's House and Senate, but, ultimately, the governor's veto of state funding prevailed when the House did not produce a supermajority. Yet even this extreme outcome is not the final word in Kansas. The KAC statute remains intact. KCA is raising funds and organizing, and has announced its intention to build on the majorities it already represents to restore public funding for the arts in the state.
Not all changes occurring to state arts agencies are financial. State government officials are also looking for opportunities to consolidate agencies to demonstrate their ability to minimize costs. This year, the Connecticut Commission on the Arts has moved to within the Department of Economic and Community Development, the Georgia Council for the Arts is now an agency within the state's Department of Economic Development, and the Nevada Arts Council and the Wisconsin Arts Board are now parts of their states' tourism departments. What potential each of these structural changes has for new programs, impacts and arts supporters remains to be seen.
Several factors emerge as making a difference in the level of public funding for the arts in the current environment.
Rounding out Relevance: All state agencies must demonstrate how their programs and services advance the broader goals of the state. Economic arguments alone will not avert a crisis or grow an arts budget. It takes more than a single-issue platform to build and sustain a solid base of support for the arts and cultural activities within state government; many agencies contribute economic relevance. Dimensional arguments must include the effects of the arts on education outcomes, community well-being, equity, access, health and preservation of cherished traditions.
Educating New Elected Officials: Some of the largest SAA cuts are taking place where many of the decision makers are new to their tasks. More than 1,600 new legislators and 29 new governors took office this year. Newly elected officials require contact and orientation to make informed decisions—and to understand the arts as a constituency with political clout that can work for or against them.
Looking beyond Party Affiliation: The party affiliation of decision makers is not determinative. Leaders of the same political party that slash the SAA budget in one state urge investment in the arts in another state. The real driver in today's political mix are an official's preconceptions about government and the arts. The proposals most harmful to the arts are coming from people who have little confidence in any aspect of government, little allegiance to party leaders of any stripe, and an assumption that most of their constituents feel the same way. It is both possible and necessary to help these leaders understand that voting to fund their SAA is something their constituents expect them to do. Officials across the political spectrum respond to what they hear from those they represent. The recent vote on the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) budget in the U.S. House of Representatives is an example. That vote defeated by a wide margin (181-240) an amendment to cut $10 million from the NEA. Votes to reject the cut included 55 Republicans, many of them newly elected and affiliated with the conservative Republican Study Committee. Arts supporters of all political persuasions achieved that outcome by expressing their expectations in a targeted and timely way.
Agency Culture of Public Engagement: When the grant making, communication, technical assistance and decision making of an agency are purposefully aligned to engage stakeholders and the public, to distribute resources widely and in ways perceived as fair, and to make agency activities visible locally, we see a strong commitment to the agency by advocates and officials.
Active Engagement of SAA Council Members: When the volunteer appointees see themselves as leaders responsible for advocating on behalf of the arts and their agency, when they are comfortable with contacting and building on relationships with decision makers, they are a critical asset. When they do not, the SAA is weakened in its position to convey its value and respond to detractors.
Alignment with Strong Advocacy Group: Statewide advocacy groups with paid professional leadership, aligned closely and working together with their SAA, are a major factor influencing the legislative success of SAA budget levels. When the advocacy group diverges from SAA priorities, or when the group is under-resourced, expectations of public funding should be limited.
Strength and Breadth of Allies: Without diverse allies, the arts risk being perceived as a narrow special interest. Leaders representing business, education, health care, local government, civic and social service groups can be a critical success factor in conversations with decision makers. Minnesota offers a case in point here. Even with one of the largest state budget shortfalls this year, it boasts the highest per capita arts agency funding. This results from the coalition of clean water, wildlife, cultural heritage and natural resource interests that led to the establishment of the Minnesota Legacy Fund, which dedicates a portion of state sales taxes to these functions. Not every state can enact a sales tax solution for the arts, but joining forces with a strong cadre of allies is a wise tactic anywhere.
Use of Social Media: Many of our SAA leaders testify that the use of social media to connect advocates and to deliver messages to decision makers made a critical difference in the result of their legislative process. In particular, social media engage young advocates and facilitate quick response to critical events by large numbers of people.
At NASAA, we strive to learn from success and from failure, to share what any of us learns so we all increase our capacity to make strategic decisions. The agency that got cut may have brilliantly avoided elimination. The agency that got an increase may not have maximized its potential. There is much that state arts agencies can learn from one another, and NASAA is your forum for that learning and for exploring the consequences and potential of changes of all kinds. As always, your comments, questions and suggestions are welcome.