Public arts officials from the Midwest are wondering whether Gov. Sam Brownback’s elimination of taxpayer-supported arts funding in Kansas is a sign of things to come, or an outlier that other states will reject.
“We cannot be caught by surprise,” said Terry Ferguson, chairman of the Mid-America Arts Alliance. “We need to think about the situation that all of our states face.”
Ferguson, of Omaha, Neb., was among 40 Mid-America board members who met Friday at the Eldridge Hotel.
Last month, Brownback, saying he wanted to save money and focus on core functions of government, vetoed the Legislature’s $689,000 funding of the Kansas Arts Commission. He then appointed a new Arts Commission chairwoman who is also the leader of the private fundraising group formed by Brownback that he says will be able to fund the arts in Kansas.
Brownback’s actions make Kansas the only state that has ended public funding of the arts.
Members of the Mid-America Arts Alliance, a nonprofit organization that works with art agencies in Kansas, Arkansas, Missouri, Nebraska, Oklahoma and Texas, said the situation in Kansas has left funding of arts up in the air in the Sunflower State.
Art programs crucial
The arts are as crucial as any public service in improving lives, helping people learn about others and connecting with each other, Ferguson said.
But, he said, many people do not see it that way.
“The world we are used to, it may not be the world we have to deal with,” he said. “The situation in Kansas is one in which the governor was determined that public support of the arts was unacceptable and he chose another course. The exact implication of that is unfolding.”
He said it is unknown how the National Endowment for the Arts will work with Kansas and whether it will provide grants to the Kansas Arts Foundation, which is the private fundraising group started by Brownback.
During its meeting, the Mid-American Arts Alliance adopted a resolution that states the alliance will keep working with Kansas to maintain support of the arts.
“We are people of goodwill and will do the best we can to serve the needs of the people,” Ferguson said.
But others said they didn’t see Brownback’s actions as a precursor of what might happen in their states.
Alliance board member Ed Clifford, of Bentonville, Ark., said Arkansas has increased funding for the arts recently by providing $500,000 in regional grants.
He said Arkansas Gov. Mike Beebe supporters the arts. And arts supporters have demonstrated the economic impact of the arts through a recent study that showed “creative industries” in Arkansas ranked third behind only transportation and processed foods, he said.
Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon and legislators there have also expressed support for the arts, said Beverly Strohmeyer, executive director of the Missouri State Council of the Arts.
In Missouri, the arts council is a division of the economic development agency of state government. She said Brownback’s move is going to hurt Kansas more than the governor realizes.
Without an Arts Commission and accepted statewide plan, federal grants will dry up, Strohmeyer said. “They really didn’t look forward enough into the effects of it,” she said.
Hurt private fundraising
Suzanne Wise, executive director of the Nebraska Arts Council, said Brownback’s elimination of state funding of the Kansas Arts Commission hit Nebraska artists hard. “The Nebraska arts community is horrified and saddened,” she said.
Wise said she has worked extensively in raising private funds, and says having government support through an arts commission is crucial to leverage private dollars.
Programs approved by a state arts commission provide the “good housekeeping seal of approval,” for private businesses and philanthropists that receive many requests for funding from varied groups, she said.
As an outsider, Wise said she is mystified why Brownback did what he did. The Nebraska Arts Council, she said, has had its budget reduced along with most state agencies because of the economic downturn. But she said political leaders in Nebraska remain supportive of the council.
New leader optimistic
Brownback’s selection to lead the Arts Commission and the Arts Foundation is Linda Browning Weis of Manhattan. Weis, the broker-owner of a real estate company who has been involved in the arts for a long time, said she was optimistic that a privately funded enterprise will succeed.
Weis attended the alliance meeting and was politely received. “Please keep in mind, this is not about them and us,” Weis said. “This is about the arts. I don’t care which direction we go as long as we get money for Kansas arts.”
Weis said she wants to improve funding for the arts. “I’m a solution seeker,” she said.
When asked about Kansas’ position as the only state to de-fund the arts, she said, “Kansas has always been a leader. We think differently.”