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Senate votes to preserve Kansas Arts Commission

  • The Wichita Eagle
  • Published Wednesday, March 16, 2011, at 3:51 p.m.
  • Updated Thursday, March 17, 2011, at 5:47 a.m.

The Senate voted to preserve the Kansas Arts Commission as a government agency Wednesday, rejecting the governor’s push to change how arts endeavors are funded.

The 24-13 vote in favor of keeping the Arts Commission drew applause from arts supporters in the gallery.

Still unclear is how the agency will be funded next year.

Gov. Sam Brownback had sought through an executive reorganization order to end state funding to the commission and reassign its responsibilities to the Kansas State Historical Society partnership with a new, private Kansas Arts Foundation. He said that would cut $575,000 from the state budget.

Llewellyn Crain, executive director of the Arts Commission, said she was gratified by the Senate’s vote.

“We think they did the right thing. They realized that the arts bring so much value to communities throughout the state, that a little bit of money brings back huge dividends,” she said.

The commission funds arts projects across the state. Supporters had claimed that the state would lose roughly $1.2 million in grants from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Mid-America Arts Alliance next year if it abolished the government agency. Senators echoed that concern during the discussion Wednesday.

But Sherriene Jones-Sontag, Brownback’s press secretary, said that probably wouldn’t have happened. She pointed to the Kansas Humanities Council, at one time a state agency. It was moved to the historical society several years ago and successfully solicits grants — $769,000 last year — from the National Endowment for the Humanities.

Several senators spoke about their desire to support the arts and their responsibility to cut spending.

“Surprisingly, this was not an easy decision for me,” said Sen. David Haley, D-Kansas City, who voted in favor of the commission. “This is a program that by and large has lifted our spirits during this time of economic stress. But yet we have to closely evaluate our precious dollars and how they are spent during this time.”

Sen. Ty Masterson, R--Andover, voted against the commission.

“This difficult decision comes down to ‘What is the central role of government?’æ” Masterson said. “I don’t want to in any way discount the value that the commission has brought (to the state).”

Next step is funding

The Legislature eventually must decide how to pay for the commission in 2012.

The commission was allocated $775,000 in this year’s budget. Under Brownback’s plan for the next budget year, $200,000 would have been allocated to the historical society during the transition. The nonprofit arts foundation, made up of volunteers, was to raise private donations to offset lost revenue from the state.

The budget proposal allocated nothing to the commission.

The Legislature could use the $200,000 allocated to the historical society for arts programs, leaving the commission underfunded compared with past years. Or it could restore the allocation to its typical amount by shifting money from other programs.

Crain said she was urging constituents to ask legislators to keep the commission fully funded.

“This resolution maintains the Kansas Arts Commission,” she said. “The next step is funding for the Kansas Arts Commission.”

Jones-Sontag pointed to the state’s budget crunch.

“We’ve got a finite amount of resources,” she said. “What should we do with limited funds? We’ve got to set priorities.”

Foundation ‘not going away’

Brownback had proposed replacing the Arts Commission with the privatesector nonprofit Kansas Arts Foundation.

Sue Schlapp of Wichita, an appointee to that foundation, said she was disappointed but not surprised by the Senate vote. She said she believes the cost savings involved in Brownback’s plan would ensure that more money goes to the arts in Kansas.

She said the nonprofit foundation would continue.

“The arts foundation is a separate entity, and it’s not going away no matter what,” she said.

Brownback will not have another opportunity to reorganize the Arts Commission in this manner. Executive reorganization orders are a privilege given to governors only within the first 30 days of their administration.

Jones-Sontag said Brownback will continue to be involved in such efforts to make the government more cost efficient.

“At this point, the governor will look carefully at the budget,” she said. “He’s had a very aggressive plan to begin the restructuring of government, by focusing on core responsibilities of government and saving taxpayer money.”

Good news for artists

Charles Steiner, director of the Wichita Art Museum, said the Senate vote would be seen as good news by artists across the state.

The commission supports the arts by giving small amounts of money to organizations statewide. Last year, it gave $114,362 to groups in Sedgwick County.

The Wichita Art Museum, one of Wichita’s main arts attractions, got $5,446; other amounts went to the Kansas African American Museum, the Wichita Center for the Arts, the Orpheum Theatre, the Wichita Symphony Orchestra, Wichita Grand Opera and more.

“I think that the commission’s work, especially with all the smaller organizations in the state, is especially important,” Steiner said.

As any group with limited funding can tell you, he said, “$5,000 goes a long way for a small theater troupe or a struggling dance troupe or a small visual arts organization.”

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