Keeper of the Plans

How federal budget cuts could hurt Kansas artists

The arts are an important part of Courtland, a town of 275 near the Nebraska border. In other rural areas in Kansas, arts organizations could be in trouble if the National Endowment for the Arts and other federal agencies are eliminated.
The arts are an important part of Courtland, a town of 275 near the Nebraska border. In other rural areas in Kansas, arts organizations could be in trouble if the National Endowment for the Arts and other federal agencies are eliminated. Courtesy

Arts organizations in Wichita may soon rely more heavily on your donations, if the president gets his way.

As part of his proposed federal budget, President Trump called for the eventual elimination of the National Endowment for the Arts, the National Endowment for the Humanities and other cultural funding.

Eliminating those federal agencies would be felt far more keenly in the state’s rural areas, experts say.

Wichita’s fine arts organizations would likely survive the cuts if private donors step up, arts leaders say. The city and county could also face pressure to bolster their support of the arts with taxpayer money.

“For the arts and cultural organizations ... we’re going to have to dig deeper and give more,” said Diana Gordon, president of the Wichita Orpheum Theatre.

Hardest hit

Lucas, population 400, plays host to perhaps the only public restroom that’s also a major tourist attraction — a giant, mosaic-covered toilet in the heart of its downtown.

Not too far away is the bizarre “Garden of Eden,” a sculpture park/house filled with life-size concrete sculptures of Biblical characters. The Garden frequently attracts tourists from all over the country.

An estimated 15,000 people come to appreciate this quirky mecca of folk art every year, town officials say.

These are the types of places that will be hit hardest by federal arts funding cuts.

“You can’t dream big, that’s all there is to it,” said Rosslyn Schultz, director of Lucas’ Grassroots Art Center. “You can do your ordinary things, but to do any interesting, kind of innovative project, you need that ... state or federal funding to help jump-start things.”

There are six communities in Kansas that will always have the arts, according to Henry Schwaller IV, a Hays city commissioner and former chairman of the Kansas Arts Commmission: Wichita, Johnson County, Salina, Hays, Lawrence and Manhattan.

“But after that, what do you do with the other 99 counties?” Schwaller said.

Wichita and other cities have a larger population base from which arts organizations can solicit donations.

That’s not the case in rural Kansas.

And since grants typically go to events with large-scale impact, rural arts organizations are often unable to compete with against grant applicants from larger cities, arts leaders say.

That particular irony — that the cities receiving the most state and federal grant money are the ones the can more easily raise money elsewhere — is not lost on Luke Mahin.

As a member of the Courtland Arts Council and the Republic County Economic Development Director, he understands the struggle. Courtland, about 20 miles from the Nebraska border, is home to 275 residents.

“It might be just as valuable to our patrons, but because we can’t attract 1,000 fans to an event, they might not consider us for that grant for programming,” Mahin said. “It’s just like rural health care and rural education. They look at the scale of impact.

“Sometimes you feel like you’re almost less valuable as a citizen of Kansas or the U.S. being from rural, because there’s that little bit of discrimination by location.”

It’s not a new issue for rural Kansas — it’s merely a result of an economy of scale, said Jay Price, a board member at the Kansas Humanities Council. That council, partially funded by the National Endowment for the Humanities, supports programming with a focus on Kansas history and anthropology.

“Today there is such a focus on bang for buck, so bringing in large crowds is legitimately seen as a form of success,” said Price, who often speaks on behalf of the council in rural communities. “The challenge is we are also tasked with providing to underserved populations. If you have the same pool of money, regardless of where it comes from ... is it a better use of funds to have a program in, say, Wyandotte County or Overland Park that would attract a large number, or is it better to reach out to a small county seat in western Kansas that’s serving an underserved population?”

Arts funding

Arts organizations in Kansas — and elsewhere — can apply to receive grant funding at the state and federal level.

In Kansas, that funding comes from the Kansas Creative Arts Industries Commission. That organization was created to replace the Kansas Arts Commission, which was eliminated by Gov. Sam Brownback in 2011.

The National Endowment for the Arts, through partnership agreements with states, will add money to each state’s coffers if specific conditions are met:

▪ The state allocates a minimum amount of its own funding to go toward the arts, according to its partner agreement with the NEA.

▪ The state has an arts agency to manage the funds.

▪ The state has an arts plan.

If those conditions are met, the state will receive NEA matching funding.

Organizations also can apply directly to the NEA for more large-scale projects — the endowment last week announced $300,000 in direct grant money for the state, including a significant $150,000 grant for a Symphony in the Flint Hills project.

Organizations typically have to match grant money. It’s labor-intensive, requiring detailed accounting of all monies received and clear evaluation processes.

“It’s a complicated process — you work for the money you get from a grant is what I’m trying to say,” said Schultz, of Lucas’ Grassroots Art Center. “It’s no easy thing. ... It’s not like any of us (in smaller towns) have a grant-writing staff.”

Impact in Wichita

Day-to-day operations at Wichita arts organizations would likely not be greatly affected by the loss of NEA funding, but large-scale projects could be put on hold.

For example, an extensive restoration of Miro’s iconic “Personnages Oiseaux” mural on the facade of Wichita State University’s Ulrich Museum of Art received $600,000 from competitive federal grants. That includes money from the Institute of Museum and Library Services, another agency that is cut in Trump’s budget.

Music Theatre Wichita received a $10,000 NEA grant this year in support of its production of “The Hunchback of Notre Dame.” It was the first time since 2011 that music theatre which “had been a regular recipient” in years past, received NEA money, said Wayne Bryan, the group’s producing artistic director.

Bryan said his organization is “very fortunate that we have multiple avenues for attempting to get funding.”

“We have ticket sales, we have earnings from our endowment, we have revenue from set and costume rentals to other theaters, and we’re very fortunate to have corporate sponsors and community support,” Bryan said. “In years when we receive no NEA funding, it does not seriously curtail any hiring we would do or any programs that we would offer.”

Other arts organizations are not as fortunate.

Gordon, of the Orpheum, said, “many of the arts organizations are literally holding on by their fingernails to stay open.”

“Frankly, the Orpheum is one of those,” she said. “We’re falling behind on maintenance, we’re falling behind on equipment. We’ve got computers here that are 12 years old. We’re falling behind on raises — staff haven’t had raises in three years.

“Private money’s keeping us open — it’s allowing us to survive, but not grow.”

Gordon said the talk of NEA cuts “obfuscates the real issue” — that local government needs to find ways to increase funding for the arts.

“Let’s not point fingers outside of our own community,” Gordon said. “We have to make these things happen. There’s not some great NEA god out there that’s going to make everybody happy.”

Gordon said many cities use a portion of their transient guest tax — which is paid by Wichita hotel guests — to fund arts and culture organizations. In Wichita, that money is earmarked exclusively for Visit Wichita, the city’s tourism and convention bureau.

She said one option would be to increase the hotel bed tax so arts and culture organizations could receive some city funding too.

Another option, Gordon said, would be to increase property taxes to fund arts programs.

“The financial struggles of arts organizations in Wichita can be solved locally,” Gordon said. “If Wichita wants something, Wichita should make it happen.”

The situation in Kansas

The first step to getting federal and regional assistance is to have sufficient state funding.

Last year, Kansas did not receive $800,000 in matching arts funding because it allocated too little on the state level to meet NEA standards.

This year, Kansas had enough in its arts budget to qualify for NEA funding, receiving $637,600 from the federal agency. In 2017, federal funding accounted for nearly 74 percent of arts funding in Kansas.

Still, Kansas currently ranks 47th out of 50 states in per capita yearly spending on state arts agencies at $0.30 per Kansan. Oklahoma spends $0.99, Nebraska $1.73 and Missouri $1.33.

Most grants from Kansas’ state arts agency have a $5,000 cap, but it can award up to $15,000 for “some of the larger, more innovative projects,” said Peter Jasso, director of the Kansas Creative Arts Industries Commission.

“Some of the grants are designed to help strengthen the organization fiscally ... help to broaden their audience or diversify their programming,” he said. “Usually those projects also help sustain jobs. Sometimes they don’t create jobs, but artists might be compensated through some projects. Some create new pieces of art, some help revitalize communities’ downtowns through art.”

The focus of Jasso’s commission is to create jobs.

The forerunner, the Kansas Arts Commission, offered more support and entrepreneurial development for artists, said Schwaller the former chairman of the Kansas Arts Commission.

“The focus now under the Brownback administration and this new agency’s job is how many jobs do you create,” Schwaller said. “Let’s face it: jobs are a very important part of the arts — it is a vital part of economic development. That said, (the arts have) two other impacts as well. It makes communities livable and gives them a quality of life. ... When the state programs and grants focus on only one element — job creation — it’s like Greensburg or Lucas. They’re volunteers. They’re not creating jobs. They’re just doing something that makes their community unique and stand out.”

Matt Riedl: 316-268-6660, @RiedlMatt

What Kansas’ D.C. delegation said

Sen. Pat Roberts (R-Kan.): “I have long supported the arts and humanities education, and I will carefully review these programs as we debate the budget in the Senate.”

Rep. Ron Estes (R-Wichita): “The arts and humanities are fundamental to a civilized and educated society, and to that end, they should be promoted and thrive. As a Member of Congress, however, my constituents expect me to ensure that their tax dollars are being used effectively and wisely. Any funding for the arts and humanities should go directly to organizations in our local communities instead of to administrators and bureaucrats.”