Kansas Governor Guts State Arts Agency

Kevin Nance

After winning an important legislative skirmish in March, arts supporters in Kansas were routed in late May by the state’s first-year governor, Republican Sam Brownback, who shuttered the Kansas Arts Commission (KAC) by line-item vetoing its state funding for the next fiscal year. No attempt to overcome the veto in the state legislature is expected, because arts advocates have determined that they don’t have sufficient votes for an override.

Earlier in May Brownback’s administration issued layoff notices to the arts commission’s five employees, effective June 10. Since the state senate overturned the governor’s order to eliminate the KAC, the agency will technically continue to exist after that date—and board members say they will continue to serve in a grassroots capacity—but it will be effectively defunct, leaving Kansas the only state without a state-funded arts agency.

“It’s a devastating loss,” says KAC chairman Henry Schwaller. “This has happened because of the governor’s ideological belief that public funds should not be used to fund the arts. But it’s also related to his clear misunderstanding of the role of the arts in society and in Kansas in particular. Children and seniors, especially in rural communities, will lose access to the arts because of this. But the governor has the power of the pen, and he chose to use it in this negative, destructive way. That’s a shame for the state of Kansas.”

Brownback, a former U.S. senator with a track record of opposition to government funding for the arts, had issued an executive order in February abolishing the KAC, which for forty-five years had distributed state and federal monies to arts organizations and individual artists, including writers. To replace the KAC, the governor proposed to establish a private foundation to raise money for the arts. But arts advocates around the state mobilized against the measure, which the state senate overturned in mid-March. Both legislative houses then approved $689,000 in funding for the KAC, which would have been matched by grants from the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) and the Mid-America Arts Alliance (MAAA).

Brownback’s veto, issued on the Saturday before Memorial Day, stripped that funding from the state budget. “In difficult fiscal times such as these,” the governor said in a statement, “the state must prioritize how to spend its limited resources and focus its attention on providing core services.”

But arts advocates argued that voiding the KAC allocation, which represented only 0.005 percent of the state’s $13.8 billion budget, would make no dent in the deficit. They pointed out that state-supported arts organizations have been important catalysts for economic development and key factors in the quality of life in Kansas, especially in small, rural communities.

“The governor’s decision is a real shock, because the public clearly supports the KAC,” said Llewellyn Crain, the agency’s former executive director. (With the agency’s future in doubt, Crain recently took a new position as development director for the Kansas City Symphony in Missouri. She remains active in Kansas Citizens for the Arts, a statewide advocacy group.) “The rallies around the state and the outpouring of calls and letters to the legislature and the governor’s office in support of the KAC were remarkably strong—more than on any other issue. The fact that the governor did not listen to the desire of the people, expressed by them directly and through the legislature, is disappointing to say the least.” Perhaps worst of all, she noted, the governor’s move puts in jeopardy the matching funds the KAC traditionally received from the NEA and the MAAA.

Asked whether federal matching funds for the arts will now be withheld in the wake of the KAC’s demise, NEA spokeswoman Victoria Hutter declined to comment pending her agency’s receipt of official notification of the KAC’s new status. However, she provided a copy of a letter the NEA sent to the Kansas state senate in February outlining the federal agency’s requirements. “The funds utilized for the 1:1 match to the NEA Partnership Agreement must be directly controlled and managed by the state,” the letter read in part. “If the state does not provide state-controlled funds for support of the state arts agency, all federal funds are at risk.”

In his veto statement, Brownback said that “the arts will continue to thrive in Kansas when funded by private donations, and I intend to personally involve myself in efforts to make this happen.” But Schwaller called the governor’s plan for a privately funded arts foundation “unsustainable.” Aside from the question of whether the foundation will be able to raise enough money, which he doubts, Schwaller said the foundation would not be subject to open-meetings laws or required to disclose its donors’ identities, which could create a “pay-to-play” system in arts funding in Kansas. “We could be looking at an organization where if you want your art promoted, you’ve got to pay.”

In the meantime the KAC board and Kansas Citizens for the Arts intend to spend the next six to nine months canvassing the state to rally support for re-funding the arts commission in the future. “We’re very sad right now, but we’re going to take a moment and regroup and come out energized to move forward,” Crain says. “Kansans believe very much in the power of the arts, and we’re not going to let this defeat us.”

But how can arts advocates hope to succeed with the current state administration in place? “We may not have the same government in the future,” Crain says. “After what’s happened here, people may decide that this is not the government they want after all.”

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