OPINION: What’s The Matter With Kansas?

Some say, Publicly Funded Arts Programs

by guest blogger, David Kaplan

After the bitter brinksmanship that ended with the much-reviled increase in the debt ceiling, talking about the topic of public funding for the arts seems like an act of futile indulgence. The nation is facing potential cuts to Social Security and Medicare, and you want to talk about government support for miniscule cultural centers in fly-over country?

Next topic!

I hear you. But de-funding  the arts can have a chain of deleterious implications for the personal livelihoods of creative individuals and the economic viability of towns and regions across the country. And it will pit worried cultural institutions — those that nourish interest in the arts in places that can’t afford to put on blockbuster attractions like Alexander McQueen’s show at the Met — against each other for increasingly scarce private funding.

The NYT profiles Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback’s draconian cuts to the state’s arts programs. Or, I should say, the state’s former arts programs: Brownback has completely eliminated Kansas’ public funding of the arts. That’s right, it’s gone from a proposed budget of $689,000 to zero.

As the article notes, Kansas is a rather extreme example of a growing trend: Texas sliced its arts spending by 50 percent, while New Jersey chopped its arts support by 23 percent and Wisconsin issued a 67 percent decrease. Says Bill Ivey, Director of the Curb Center for Art, Enterprise and Public Policy,

 “The positioning of arts within the public policy arena has always been tenuous. The arts are considered an amenity — nice to fund when you have a bit extra but hard to defend when the going gets tough.”

Money is kind of a dirty word in the arts. That’s part of the reason conservative administrations have been so emboldened about cutting cultural dollars from their budgets. The arts community – including the private marketplace of dealers, galleries and large museums – need to impress upon lawmakers that arts funding promotes education, local commerce and serves as a crucial connection to the regional and national economy by serving as an incubator for new artists and curators.

Every urban area that has dealt with decay has found that if you attract the artists and the galleries with cheap rent and support,  areas that were written off as dead suddenly become vital. And this is true also for rural areas, that can use art as a foundation for creating a sense of community and character that attracts visitors with money to spend, thus lifting up other businesses that may have little connection to culture.

To most people, art is a luxury, the ultimate symbol of elitist extravagance that does nothing to build roads or remove trash. But the people and groups who create it and promote art, know that it provides necessary enrichment that contributes mightily to the lifeblood of American cities, towns and, yes, Gov. Brownback, states.

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