Your Turn: Restore the arts to their rightful place in Kansas

Dear Gov. Laura Kelly,

2019 marks a hopeful turn for Kansas. Your election as governor and the return of essential tax revenue bodes well for the rebuilding of our state, beginning, as you said in your State of the State address, with education, child welfare and Medicaid. There is also much more work that needs to be done if we want to embody the visionary calling of our state motto, “Ad Astra per Aspera.” A recovery of spirit and imagination are needed as well, one inspired by that poetic aspiration, “To the stars through difficulties,” and supported by you and our Legislature.

Our understanding of who we are as Kansans is shaped significantly by the stories we learn and the stories we create. From John Steuart Curry’s fiery depiction of abolitionist John Brown, to the revolutionary poetry of Langston Hughes, to the lost and found journey of Dorothy Gale, to the Afro-futurist visions of Janelle Monáe, to the legacy of the Kansa people, the creative works of Kansans give texture, color and context to our shared identity. This is also true for our own stories made in schools, arts centers and countless other venues, many of which depend on support from our state arts agency. Unfortunately, funding for that agency in Kansas is one of the lowest in all of the U.S.

As you recall, our state arts agency, formerly known as the Kansas Arts Commission, was defunded by a line item veto of Gov. Sam Brownback in 2011. This, after a successful bipartisan effort to maintain it in the Legislature. Defunding the KAC was tragic and unwarranted. It decimated local arts programming and put Kansas at the bottom of all states in support of the arts. Stifling the arts meant stifling the song, the painting, the poem, the quilt, the play and the dance of Kansas. In essence, it meant stifling the dream of Kansas expressed in our motto.

Since then, we have recovered a little thanks in large part to advocates who worked alongside Kansas Creative Arts Industries Commission Director Peter Jasso to restore funding from the National Endowment for the Arts and Mid-America Arts Alliance. But even with this effort, Kansas still ranked dead last in the U.S. in per capita spending on the arts in 2018. (National Assembly of State Arts Agencies, 2018 Report). Dead last. For comparison, a couple of our neighbor states are way ahead of us. Nebraska is 23rd in spending, while Missouri is 16th. (National Association of State Arts Agencies, 2018 Revenue Report).

We can and need to do better.

What’s at stake is much more than art for art’s sake. If we want to truly rebuild not just our critical social programs but also our sense of who we are as Kansans, what we stand for, and what we aspire to, we need to support the next generation of creative thinkers and doers. Let’s fortify them with the resources and tools they’ll need to imagine the culture of equality, education and opportunity so beautifully flowing from the façade of our Capitol at your inauguration. Our goal should be a reinvigorated state arts agency with increased funding, dedicated staff and a broader more inclusive vision of the potential that art can have in the lives of all Kansans.

To begin, we could gather together a group of Kansas artists, teachers, arts advocates and administrators for an imagining — a space to envision, explore and begin to plan a rejuvenated state arts agency that is on par with our neighbors in Missouri and Nebraska. The writer and artist Arlene Goldbard (who once consulted with the Kansas Arts Commission) says, “Everything created must first be imagined.”

Let’s imagine together.

— Dave Loewenstein is a Lawrence resident and artist.


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