Editorial: Arts decline

There’s no good news in next year’s state budget for advocates of the arts in Kansas.

Struggling arts agencies across the state will find little hope for relief in the budget signed Saturday by Gov. Sam Brownback.

That budget cuts annual funding for the new Kansas Creative Arts Industries Commission to just $200,000 for the next two years. That is less than a third of the commission’s previous $700,000 annual budget.

The cut is a continuation of the governor’s drive to abolish the successful Kansas Arts Commission and eliminate state funding for the arts in Kansas. First, the governor tried to simply abolish the Arts Commission. Then he used his veto to eliminate funding for the group. Last year, he merged the agency with the Kansas Film Commission, establishing the new Kansas Creative Arts Industries Commission and putting the new group under the Kansas Department of Commerce’s umbrella. He initially recommended $200,000 for the agency but a more-moderate Legislature was able to gain support for a $700,000 budget.

Despite the spending bump, the new KCAIC has accomplished almost nothing this year. In October 2012, the head of the commission told legislators that the agency had distributed none of the $700,000 to state arts groups. In January, he told legislators that he was waiting to distribute funds until after the completion of a new strategic plan. He said he expected that plan to be complete later that month, but the KCAIC was still holding meetings across the state in April to collect input for the plan.

The plan now has been completed but leaves many questions unanswered, according to arts supporters, including Henry Schwaller, a member of the KCAIC board, as well as chairman of the Kansas Citizens for the Arts, a new volunteer advocacy group. On the Citizens for the Arts website and in a recent letter to the Hays Daily News, Schwaller raised key questions about the strategic plan. How, for example can the new KCAIC hope to implement its ambitious plan with an annual budget of $200,000? Does the group have a strategy to increase staff and funding to implement the plan? What are the plan’s priorities and how will success of the plan be measured?

These questions also are likely to be asked by the National Endowment for the Arts, which received the plan last month as part of an effort to requalify Kansas to receive federal matching grants for the arts. Those grants go only to states with state-funded arts agencies, which the NEA decided two years ago, did not include Kansas. Before that, Kansas received about $1.2 million a year in federal funds to support arts activities.

Restoration of all or part of those funds would be good news for the state, but the current inept state of the KCAIC leaves some doubt about how much even some additional funding will help the arts in Kansas.

It’s a bad situation that, unfortunately, shows few prospects for improvement under the state’s current leadership.