Arts Crunch in Kansas

Kevin Nance

Arts supporters in Kansas breathed a bit easier in March, as they succeeded in their struggle to preserve the Kansas Arts Commission (KAC), which distributes state and federal funds to arts organizations and individual artists, including writers. In February, Kansas’s new Republican governor, former U.S. senator Sam Brownback, had issued an executive order abolishing the arts commission and replacing it with a private foundation, which would have made Kansas the only state without a state-funded arts agency. But even with the KAC saved, it was unclear at press time how much government funding the agency would receive, if any. (For an update on funding for the KAC, check out the follow-up story.)

As the situation in Kansas develops, lawmakers in Washington are considering proposals to severely curtail arts-related expenditures on the federal level. Brownback’s move came in the same month that fellow Republicans in the U.S. House of Representatives passed a bill to slash funding for the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) by forty-three million dollars and eliminate federal arts-education programs—cuts the Democratic-controlled Senate and the White House are not expected to accept.

The Kansas governor’s plan hasn’t followed a smooth road to implementation either. On March 3 members of a state senate committee voted seven to two in favor of a resolution that would overturn Brownback’s executive order, which had been issued as part of an austerity campaign to reduce a nearly five-hundred-million-dollar budget deficit. A week later the full Senate approved the measure by a vote of twenty-four to thirteen.

“The arts commission is a good program, and we want to hang on to that which is good,” says the resolution’s sponsor, Republican senator Roger Reitz of Manhattan. “I was pleasantly surprised by how many of the senators were willing to go along with me without having to be cajoled. Some of those folks are very conservative people, but it doesn’t mean they’re beholden to anything the governor wants just because he wants to make a point on fiscal austerity.”

The legislative action came after an outpouring of grassroots support for the KAC in the wake of Brownback’s order. Through demonstrations in cities and on college campuses, a Facebook campaign, and a deluge of calls and e-mails to legislators, supporters pointed out that eliminating the commission would cost the state about $778,000 in matching federal funds from the NEA, along with about $437,000 from the Mid-America Arts Alliance, the KAC’s Missouri-based regional partner. KAC-funded arts organizations are important factors in economic development, proponents argued, attracting businesses and tourism and improving the quality of life in communities throughout the state.

“It was a tremendous victory for the people of Kansas,” Llewellyn Crain, executive director of the KAC, says of the full Senate vote retaining the arts commission. “It shows that this is a nonpartisan issue.”

At the same time, Reitz notes that members of the governor’s staff have indicated to him that Brownback is considering whether to exercise his line-item veto power to strip out whatever funding the legislature approves for the commission. A gubernatorial veto would be difficult to override; to do so requires twenty-seven votes. “Brownback has threatened to use his veto, but I don’t think he will,” Reitz says. “There’s nothing much to be gained by that type of behavior. It would draw the wrath of the folks who care about the arts, and, as we’ve seen, that’s a constituency with a lot of support on both sides of the aisle.”

Crain concurs. “We don’t believe the governor will gain any political capital by doing that. If the KAC doesn’t have any money, there would be no mechanism for the federal matching funds to come, and that would be a shame.”

Asked about the governor’s intentions regarding a possible line-item veto, his press secretary, Sherriene Jones-Sontag, said only, “Governor Brownback is focused on restructuring state government and finding ways to save taxpayers money.”

Throughout the debate, KAC supporters questioned the governor’s motives, pointing out that the state’s annual spending on the arts is very small—less than one-third of 1 percent of the state budget, or twenty-nine cents per capita. Rather than a cost-saving measure, they suggested, the governor’s move against the commission was primarily ideological. It’s true that as a U.S. senator, Brownback was a consistent opponent of government spending for the arts; in 2009–2010, at the end of his tenure in Congress, he received a grade of F on the 2010 Congressional Arts Report Card issued by Americans for the Arts, a national advocacy group. “He didn’t have one instance of support for the arts, in our measure,” notes Catherine Brandt, the organization’s media-relations manager.

“The governor was making a mistake,” says Susan Tate, executive director of the Lawrence Arts Center, which would have lost about seventeen thousand dollars in the next fiscal year if the KAC were abolished. “The move was shortsighted economically and in terms of investment in the arts. I personally think it was entirely based on the ideology that there should not be government support for the arts and, more generally, for the free, open, and challenging discourse that happens via the arts.”

Even some who take Brownback at his word—such as John Bushman, who heads the Writing Conference, Inc., which organizes literary programs for young adults and teachers in Kansas—questioned his decision. “I don’t see the governor as anti-arts,” Bushman says. “He has a budget crunch and he’s got to do something about it. I appreciate that. On the other hand, I think the arts are very important. We need the arts, just like we need a lot of other things.” If funding from the KAC were to disappear, Bushman adds, the consequences for his organization would be dire. “We’ll fold,” he says.

The bitter ironies of the situation were apparent at the 2011 Governor’s Arts Awards, an annual program sponsored by the KAC. Every year since the event’s founding in 1974, Democratic and Republican governors (or their appointed representatives) have attended the event in a show of support for the arts. But at this year’s event—on the same day Reitz’s bill was approved in the senate committee—Brownback stayed away and sent no one in his place.

“It made the name of the event oxymoronic,” Kansas poet laureate Caryn Mirriam-Goldberg notes dryly. At the ceremony, Mirriam-Goldberg, who oversees poetry programs funded by the KAC, delivered a poem she wrote for the occasion, “The Language of Art,” which reads in part:

Art maps the continual pulse of the wind in the reddening branches,
the stories of impossible loss and forgiveness articulating the heart’s
flaws and yearnings, the rising call of one voice winding around another
to break us open in love.
.  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .
               How can we not open wide
the closed places in time, budget, or intent to speak this language
of heron and chorus? How can we not return, how can we not begin
again and continue, how can we not come home to the words of days
so that we can hear what the world asks of us, and how we will answer?

Kevin Nance is a contributing editor of Poets & Writers Magazine.