Loss of NEA funding stings state arts groups

08/20/2011 12:00 AM

08/20/2011 6:47 AM

Middle school kids in Bourbon County probably won't make the annual trip to Kansas City, Mo., to see a play this year.

The Bourbon County Arts Council has closed its office and put its belongings in storage. It is operating out of the home of its executive director, Peggy Cummings, in Fort Scott.

"It's just been the biggest fiasco ever," Cummings said.

On the other side of the state, the Western Plains Arts Association in Colby, which serves nine sparsely populated counties located miles from large cities, will have to cut cultural programming and raise ticket prices.

"It's going to have a big impact on us," said Pat Ziegelmeier, executive director of the association.

Arts organizations across the state anticipated the National Endowment for the Arts' decision this week to deny the state's request for federal funds in the wake of Gov. Sam Brownback's decision to lay off the staff of the Kansas Arts Commission and veto its funding. Brownback has maintained that arts funding would not suffer as a result.

But the news still stung.

"If we don't have any additional funding, I don't know how long we'll be able to continue," Ziegelmeier said.

Kansas had been providing about $700,000 a year to the commission to receive about $800,000 in partnership grants from the NEA, and about $400,000 from the Mid-America Arts Alliance.

The Mid-America Arts Alliance is expected to withhold its money from Kansas as well, although it hasn't decided, said Abby Beckloff, director of external affairs.

In a letter this week to Kansas Arts Commission chairman Linda Browning Weis, the NEA said that the newly re-constituted commission "is deeply immersed in transitional activities and is not fully operational in ways that comply with the NEA's eligibility requirements."

It invited Kansas to apply for the grant next year.

Weis said she was disappointed. The commission had been reorganizing since July 21, replacing five of its 12 members and moving to new offices in Topeka, she said. She was required to act on the grant by Aug. 1.

"There's just been a lot of bridges that we've had to cross," she said.

Weis sent a letter to the NEA on Aug. 1 stating that even though the arts commission doesn't receive direct state funding, it is the lead agency in the state for arts programs.

Usually there's a chance to work things out when it comes to securing grant funding, said Weis, a Manhattan real estate broker who spent 30 years in music education.

"When the (NEA) letter said it was a final determination, I was stunned," she said. "I thought they understood we were a work in progress. Something that's done well takes time."

Blasting Brownback

Kansas Citizens for the Arts, which advocates for public funding for the arts, issued a statement blasting Brownback for vetoing the commission's budget.

"Governor Brownback has repeatedly and misleadingly claimed that his veto of state funding for the arts would not endanger $1.2 million in federal matching funds. With the state projecting a $180 million year-end surplus, we call upon the governor to listen to the Legislature and reinstate funding to the Kansas Arts Commission," the statement said.

Brownback, in a written statement, defended his revised commission.

"The Kansas Arts Commission is doing an excellent job in a short period of time moving forward with a new vision for funding of the arts. I fully support their efforts and hope the NEA will as well," the statement said.

The cuts are likely to have less impact on arts organizations in large cities like Wichita, where more funding resources are available.

Still, "Every dollar means a lot to us," said Parvan Bakardiev, general director of Wichita Grand Opera, which received $8,000 a year from the arts commission.

The opera is relatively independent, relying on private income, he said. But it also uses expensive costumes and sets for its productions.

"We have to make some modifications. We have to tighten the belt," he said. "We have seen that coming, so we are prepared for it."

Music Theatre of Wichita received about $7,000 to $8,000 a year from the arts commission, enough to pay for a production element for one of its shows, said Wayne Bryan, producing artistic director. But most of its funding comes from ticket sales and other sources.

The organization has been receiving its own funding from the NEA, ranging from $20,000 to $40,000 a year, and Bryan doesn't know if it will get that money this year. The organization just completed its application for next year and hasn't heard back yet, he said.

Bryan said he is concerned about the message that Brownback's veto sent to the nation about Kansas, which became the first state to eliminate its arts funding.

"It just confirms people's erroneous impressions of what Kansas must be like," he said.

In rural areas, the funding cuts have a deeper impact. The Western Plains Arts Association could lose up to $18,000 from the NEA and Mid-America Arts Alliance.

"That's huge for us," Ziegelmeier said.

It means cutting back on vocal, instrumental and theater programs for students, she said.

"We were the main vehicle for bringing cultural events to our area. We simply don't have the funding that cities do," she said.

"We're a long way out here, and many of our students never really travel very far out of the area to go to big cities," Ziegelmeier said.

NEA's letter

The NEA's letter to Weis, written by Laura A. Scanlan, director of state and regional partnerships, said the Kansas Arts Commission "has not demonstrated the availability of staff having relevant experience to carry out the programmatic responsibilities of the agency."

It questioned a plan calling for the newly created Kansas Arts Foundation to hire a transition consultant to support the commission. Brownback created the foundation, a private organization, to raise funds for arts programs to be distributed by the commission.

The NEA "has no basis for evaluating the Kansas Art Foundation's legal status or its governance structure vis-a-vis the Kansas Arts Commission," the letter said.

The NEA also said it "has no evidence that the Foundation has authority or funds available to hire resources for the commission."

The NEA letter said the commission hasn't provided a budget or any evidence that state funds are available to match a partnership award.

Weis, who heads the foundation as well as the commission, said she doesn't know how much money either organization has at the moment.

Brownback announced in July that he was donating more than $30,000 left over from his inaugural fund to the foundation.

Weis said $28,000 in federal funds was left with the commission, but she didn't know how much of that remains. Some will be returned to the NEA, she said.

The foundation has received some donations, she said. The commission also can receive funds directly, she said, but hasn't.

The NEA letter also referred to the commission's plans to eliminate programs such as the poet laureate program, arts management training and public receptions.

"There is no mention of how the core grant programs ... will be administered or adjudicated for artistic excellence and merit," the letter said.

Nor is there any mention of how cooperative agreements, partnerships and communications resources for constituents will be administered, the letter said.

Weis said she will work with the NEA to update it on the commission's activities so it understands the process.

Committees are revising commission by-laws, working on a handbook and developing a state arts plan to address budget and staffing needs, she said.

"We intend to do whatever we need to do to get this right," Weis said. "I know what a few dollars can mean to an artist."

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