Responding To The Kansas Arts Veto

Mar 8 2012
Published by under Art, Poetry and Musings
Kansas Governor Brownback signing the 2012 state budget; John Hanna

[Editor’s Note: As I am facing numerous writing deadlines, this seems like a good time to give a
retrospective glance to the first two years of
Art of the Rural.
Over these weeks I will feature a few new articles, but also many
favorites from the archives. Thanks again to everyone who has read and
contributed; what began as a labor of love has become a project far
larger, and far more rewarding, than I ever could have anticipated – and
I deeply appreciate the readership and participation of such a diverse
audience. Starting March 19th, we will offer new articles and share some
new projects related to our mission.

Responding To The Kansas Arts Veto was originally published on June 21, 2011. To learn more about how national foundations only give 1% of their funds to rural America, please see our article here.]

**********
  
As
many of our readers have heard, Kansas Governor Sam Brownback used the
power of his line-item veto to erase funding for the Kansas Arts
Commission from the 2012 state budget, a move that effectively shut down
the organization and fired its staff. By deleting this state-sponsored
entity, Governor Brownback also shut the door on matching funds The National Endowment for the Arts would have granted to the Kansas Arts Commission. 


Today
we’d like to offer some viewpoints and commentary on this issue and its
devastating repercussions for rural communities. We’ll begin with this recent NPR report by Elizabeth Blair, aired on Morning Edition
last week. Ms. Blair’s piece is an excellent introduction to this
debate, and to the contrary opinions by some in the arts community that
suggest private funding would be a more effective and more liberating
avenue. Below is an excerpt:

Private
dollars have been really good for the Topeka Civic Theatre and Academy
where Shannon Reilly is artistic director. The company is celebrating
its 75th year. “Through most of that history we’ve been funded solely
through ticket revenue, donors and corporate support,” Reilly says.

Reilly
says for the most part, they have avoided government grants and that
has worked to their advantage. “More and more I’ve seen that arts
organizations … receiving tax dollars were constantly under fire
about their programming and what they were doing,” Reilly explains. “I
like being responsible to my donors and to the people who were
investing in what were doing more than a larger tax base.”

While
this model is certainly attractive, only at the close of her piece does
Ms. Blair allow for this harsh reality: private funding for the arts is
likely to replace (or exceed) public funding only in urban areas. We
can turn to this Kansas Citizens for the Arts press release for further analysis of the rural dimension to Governor Brownback’s arts veto:
 
“With
a stroke of his pen, the governor cost the State of Kansas $1.2
million,” said Henry Schwaller, chairman of the Kansas Arts Commission.
“On July 1, nearly 200 local arts organizations and artists will lose
critical support for local arts programs, operational funding and
professional development. Without this support, jobs in the arts are at
risk, and artists and arts organizations will lose the important
infrastructure that has been created largely because of the funding and
expertise of the Kansas Arts Commission.

Kansas
Arts Commission grants were crucial to many organizations,
particularly those in rural areas. If an organization received funds
from the Kansas Arts Commission, donors were more likely to contribute
to that organization, which leveraged additional dollars for the
organization and its community. Because few foundation or corporate
donors provide money for operations, the Kansas Arts Commission’s main
grant program, Operational Support, was an important way organizations
covered general expenses such as rent, utilities and salaries. Many
organizations, particularly those in rural or impoverished areas, will
find it difficult to replace the lost state and federal funds and will
either restrict or eliminate important community programs, cut staff or
close their doors.

The
horrible irony here is that Governor Brownback’s veto will
disproportionately affect the life of the rural communities from which
he has drawn overwhelming political support. His gambit overlays a
national “culture wars” argument on the local arts programming in towns
far removed from urban centers.  As The Kansas City Star
writes in a recent editorial, Governor Brownback is “hoping to make
points with conservatives nationally,” while ignoring the local and
regional dynamics:

As
was the case with Brownback’s misguided attack on public broadcasting,
he’s applying a national conservative cause to his home state, without
considering the damaging impact on rural areas. Public broadcasting
provides one of the only sources of news and information in the
sparsely populated western half of the state. Urban areas, the target
of this notion, have other options and can replace public funding. The
elimination of public arts funding, again, isn’t likely to hurt the
Kansas City area as much as Lincoln County, Kan.

As
rural developers know well, while technology makes it possible to
create new business in the high plains, new business will consider
quality of life as much, perhaps more, than tax advantages. Brownback
has handed surrounding states an effective tool to beat Kansas
communities looking to attract doctors and needed professionals.

In
the space of this site, we’ve tried to document and also to complicate
the notion of “the rural arts,” but Governor Brownback’s arts veto sets a
giant and unmistakable corrective in the midst of this project. While
we can turn to The Daily Yonder and The Rural Blog
for their excellent and consistent coverage toward defining what’s at
stake in the organizing “rural” moniker, there’s another dimension to
the other half, the “arts” definition, that we at The Art of the Rural have been perhaps slow to cover–and it lurks beneath the articles excerpted above.

This
would be the irreducible political element, voluntary or not, that
always coheres around the reception of the rural arts. What we find here
is an amalgamation of regional assumptions, as well as preconceived
notions about the “place” of the arts; in many respects it’s a remnant
of the politically polarizing climate of post-9/11 America. To return to
the dreaded red-state/blue-state mindset (as I intimately learned while
living in Boston), a great deal of people from the larger urban and
suburban centers of America implicitly view arts-making as a “blue
state” activity, complete with its own ideologies and politics.

What
the Kansas arts veto makes abundantly clear is that even some public
leaders from the interior of this country–despite a wealth of evidence
beneath their noses–have refused to challenge this cultural orthodoxy,
despite how reductive and just plain-wrong it might be. This is not a
Republican vs. Democrat or conservative vs. liberal argument, but a case
of recognizing that the arts are vital to all communities, and that
they can speak for a range of viewpoints and cultural histories beyond
the boogey-men of Robert Maplethorpe nudes or Chris Ofili elephant dung paintings.

In
turn, those of us making art and working to ensure its reception need
to continue to stress its “site specific” nature, and we need to welcome
work which challenges our own political and cultural orthodoxies. 

In closing, we will offer an excerpt from last weekend’s Kansas City Star editorial
by Joyce DiDonato, arguably the most acclaimed opera singer in
contemporary classical music. Born in Prairie Village, Kansas, Ms.
DiDonato has spoken up for her home state in interviews around the
world, and in the press following her award of the illustrious Gramophone “Artist of the Year” in 201o. (Her broken-leg performance of The Barber of Seville
has become the stuff of opera legend.) 

Here is an excerpt from Ms. Didonato’s eloquent response to Governor Brownback’s decision:

This
is the Sunflower State that I have proudly boasted about across the
world, fearlessly defending it even in the face of harsh quizzical
looks from the most skeptical of folks (“You live where?”). It’s
the state of my first piano recital and choir concert. The home field
of my artistic curiosity and education. The homeland that taught me to
freely dream big and without limitation; one where the arts were once
alive, vibrant and supported.

I’ve
welcomed the assumption of being an unsolicited but mightily proud
artistic ambassador for Kansas to the great cities of the world. Now,
for the first time, I feel shame. Eliminating a state arts commission
is an ignorant, short-sighted, fearful and unspeakably damaging act to
the spirit and soul of this great state.

I’m
not a politician or historian. I’m a humble opera singer, a home-grown
product of an agricultural state that used to value the arts, like all
great societies and cultures of the past. But my anger rivals a good
ol’ western Kansas Category 5 tornado’s destructive force when I begin
to think of where I’d be without an education fueled by the arts that
informed my way of thinking. Or without a community theater, choir or
art exhibit that gave me true solace and an emergency exit from some of
the great crises in my life. Or without that musical outlet that
helped me understand myself and the mystery of life a little better.

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