Speaking out for the arts in Kansas

The Kansas Arts Commission has closed its doors. Kansas has become the only state in the nation to eliminate public funding for the arts.

Public funding is premised on one intrinsic rule: Art is for everyone, and our culture belongs to all. Public funding is about equal access. Public funding ensures that Kansas museums, concerts, dance and theater events are open to all Kansans, not just to those who can afford the price of admission or enjoy private access. Public funding is crucial in expanding audiences beyond elite circles. Public funding ensures that people across Kansas can build strong cultural communities in places large and small, rural and urban: Goodland, Hays, Fort Scott, Concordia, Salina, Lincoln, Greensburg, Wichita, Lucas, Lawrence and Kansas City.

Let’s not forget what the arts look like in Kansas. Art in Kansas is and has always been of the grassroots, nurtured by values, reflecting the unrelenting work ethic of its people, and exploring a common landscape that runs beyond our vast horizon. Every community in Kansas can point to local examples of how artists – musicians, visual artists, writers, actors, dancers — have helped shape the shared language of our state. Thriving arts communities are an integral part of Kansas’ independent, democratic nature.

On one hand, art is not about the money. Still, the financial impact of eliminating public funding for the Kansas Arts Commission is clear: The state cut a budget of $689,000 in funds that had yielded an investment of $1.3 million in federal funds, creating jobs statewide and supporting arts all over the state. All of those dollars, those jobs, those opportunities, are now gone.

In my career in the Kansas arts, and also as a steward for national public arts funding, I have experienced firsthand how powerful public support can be in stimulating philanthropic contributions among communities, artists, private business and foundations. In turn, these public-private partnerships have the power to draw national and international recognition for local arts programs and a reputation for innovation to the entire area. A renovated arts facility may owe its presence to a generous private donor, but sustaining its future often requires a public source. Foundations award prestigious challenge grants to arts organizations, but matching funds often depend on an arts infrastructure supported by city and state grants.

The Kansas Arts Commission once made it possible for generations of children in our state’s communities to experience a rich selection of arts opportunities, but now the organization and its network lie fallow, and Kansas children are the poorer for it. All of our residents deserve opportunities to develop creative and critical minds, capable of imagination and innovation, the same resourceful qualities that characterize us as Kansans.

If Kansas is to contribute to a national currency of ideas, then the state must invest in arts and education for our residents. Cultural capital and economic capital are not separate; they go hand in hand. If we shortchange our children and communities on one count, we will shortchange them on the other. For the sake of future generations of Kansans, public funding for the arts must be reinstated in the blueprint for the state.

Ultimately, art is not about money: Art is about innovation and improvisation, authenticity and insight. Art means exercising individual freedoms in conversation with a community. Public funding is about access and opportunity — investing in the marvelous diversity of human expression, sharing those perspectives among us all, and making us stronger as a people.