Arts transition

It’s hard for the Kansas Arts Commission to get back on its feet when so many key questions remain unanswered.

The transition to private financing of the Kansas Arts Commission doesn’t appear to be going very smoothly.

A meeting of the commission this week revealed a number of unresolved issues and a lack of transparency that is raising concerns among arts advocates and some arts commissioners.

To recap, Gov. Sam Brownback sought to abolish the Kansas Arts Commission and replace it with the Kansas Arts Foundation, which would raise private funds for arts in the state. Although legislators blocked his executive order abolishing the commission, Brownback used his line-item veto to remove all KAC funding from the current year’s budget. He also dismissed all of the commission’s staff.

The Kansas Arts Commission still exists, but it has no money and no staff to administer its program. Judging from last week’s meeting, it also appears that commission members have little idea how they will move forward.

First, there’s the funding. This week, new KAC Chairwoman Linda Browning Weis sent a letter (a letter that wasn’t shared with other commission members in advance) to the National Endowment for the Arts making the argument that KAC should remain qualified to receive federal arts grants. Obviously that question should have been answered definitively before funding for the KAC was deleted, but it was not. Kansas would be the only state to receive NEA funding even though the state government isn’t contributing any funding of its own. The Mid-America Arts Alliance, which distributes NEA funds, said all Kansas requests have been put on hold pending clarification of Kansas’ grant status. The funding is anything but certain.

So what about the private funds being raised by the Kansas Arts Foundation? The goal has been to raise enough money to at least replace the lost $700,000 in state funds. The governor reportedly donated $30,000 in leftover inauguration money, but how much money has been raised in addition to that? Weis told her fellow commissioners on Tuesday that she wasn’t prepared to share that information. Really? How are commissioners supposed to set a direction if they have no idea how much money they have?

The KAC reportedly will have part-time access to accounting and grant management services through the Kansas Department of Administration and the governor’s office. A Topeka company is donating office space to the foundation so KAC and/or the new foundation will have a place to do business if they ever have a staff.

Although we hope the NEA money is forthcoming, there are some solid reasons the national group would hesitate to send its money to Kansas. The KAC has no staff and no direction. It’s unclear how the Kansas Arts Foundation will work and how it will coordinate with the KAC. New policies to govern the new structure haven’t been drawn up. The Kansas Arts Commission is in such a state of upheaval, it is understandable that the NEA would be concerned about how its money would be used.

This seems to be another case of the Brownback administration taking action without having a clear idea of what the consequences will be or how a smooth transition can take place. We certainly hope it all works out, but even if the transition eventually is successful, it clearly isn’t going to be smooth or painless.