Kevin Boatright: In Kansas, the arts remain grievously underfunded by the state (Column)

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Note: The Lawrence Times runs opinion columns written by community members with varying perspectives on local issues. Occasionally, we’ll also pick up columns from other nearby news outlets. These pieces do not necessarily reflect the opinions of the Times staff.

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The Kansas Reflector welcomes opinion pieces from writers who share our goal of widening the conversation about how public policies affect the day-to-day lives of people throughout our state. Kevin Boatright, of Lawrence, enjoys volunteering as a docent at the Spencer Museum of Art and serving on the Friends Council of the Hall Center for the Humanities. 

Ten years ago last month, Gov. Sam Brownback’s “Executive Reorganization Order No.39” abolished the Kansas Arts Commission. His rationale: Private support for statewide art initiatives was preferable to public funding, and would save tax dollars.

The legislature resisted. It restored funding for the Arts Commission in the 2012 budget, but Brownback responded by laying off the commission’s staff and vetoing its funding. It ceased to exist, and an estimated 190 artists and organizations lost state support for arts education, professional development and programs in local communities.

For a time, Kansas was the only state without a public agency designated to promote the arts and culture, making it ineligible for more than $700,000 in annual partnership funding from the National Endowment for the Arts.

As promised, the Kansas Arts Foundation Inc. formed in 2011 to raise private gifts and make grants. But the Kansas Creative Arts Industries Commission was also established, in the Department of Commerce, with a $700,000 appropriation. With a designated state arts agency, Kansas could again receive NEA partnership funding, after a two-year hiatus.

It’s reasonable to ask whether Brownback’s 2011 experiment with private statewide arts funding was successful in Kansas.

First, state funding for the arts didn’t disappear, though it was cut 75% between 2011 and 2014. For fiscal year 2021, according to the National Assembly of State Arts Agencies, Kansas appropriated $500,000 for the Kansas Creative Arts Industries Commission. Another $60,000 came from “Kansas Arts” license plates and the tax return “Arts Checkoff,” and $643,000 in partnership funding came from the NEA. The combined amount of all revenue for 2021 — $1.24 million — is much better than the $885,000 in 2019 but much less than the $1.62 million in 2011, the Kansas Arts Commission’s final year.

Second, these Kansas totals didn’t include any private contributions. Nationwide, according to the NASAA, only 25 states did receive “private and miscellaneous” funding, and only five received more than 10% of their total revenue from this source.

What became of the private Kansas Arts Foundation Inc., which was to supplant public funding for the arts? It was dissolved in 2015. In that year, the foundation reported $3,494 in total support and made $21,581 in grants. During its entire five-year existence, it granted a total of $215,746. It never made a dent in statewide funding for the arts.

Feb. 7, 2011 — the day Brownback abolished the Kansas Arts Commission — was a setback for the arts in Kansas and an embarrassment for the state nationally. But arts agencies and individuals found ways to cope — especially in wealthier communities with motivated donors — and the Kansas Creative Arts Industries Commission has pursued its mandate with limited funding.

How limited? The NASAA reports that, in 2011, the total amount of state arts agency funding in Kansas, per capita, was 57 cents. In 2021 it is just 43 cents. That placed us 45th among the states. Nationwide, the per capita average among all states was $1.30. The arts remain grievously underfunded by the state in Kansas.

Some Kansans have forgotten the events of 2011 and the consequences that decision had for artists and local arts programming. So it’s noteworthy that the City of Lawrence legislative priority statement for 2021 includes this language:

“State funding for the arts is important. Research shows that the arts industry provides jobs, generates economic activity, produces tax revenue, and enhances a community’s quality of life. The arts are the infrastructure of our culture. Arts organizations are like farms. Instead of food, they produce culture. The city asks that state funding for the arts be restored.”

The Lawrence Chamber’s legislative priorities also expresses support for “restoring funding for the arts to the level it was in 2011 when Kansas became the first state to defund its arts commission.”

Given such sentiments, and the Kansas Creative Arts Industries Commission’s mandate of “promoting, supporting and expanding Kansas’ creative industries and enriching communities through arts and culture,” why doesn’t increased statewide funding for the arts (or even the word “art”) appear in the recently launched “Kansas Framework for Growth?”

The framework, far from being a comprehensive economic plan, is narrowly focused on “traded sector business activity” whose customers are mostly outside the state. Sales bring money into Kansas and expand the economy. The emphasis is on aerospace, advanced manufacturing, food and agriculture, and other target sectors, founded on the “four pillars” of “talent, innovation, community assets and policy.”

Aren’t the arts in Kansas founded on the same pillars, while also creating a little fun and a lot of beauty?

Future strategic planning efforts may address the arts, but not in this framework and not now.

Sadly, “not now” has been the refrain since Brownback’s senseless demolition of the Kansas Arts Commission. Today, creative thinking about sustained statewide funding for the arts, allied with targeted local philanthropy, could be a partnership that advances the state’s larger economic vision. It might also help regain the momentum Kansas lost 10 long years ago.

Through its opinion section, the Kansas Reflector works to amplify the voices of people who are affected by public policies or excluded from public debate. For information, including how to submit your own commentary, click here. To submit commentary to The Lawrence Times, click here.

Kansas Reflector is part of States Newsroom, a network of news outlets supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Kansas Reflector maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Sherman Smith for questions: Follow Kansas Reflector on Facebook and Twitter.

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