Don’t ax arts agency

Gov. Sam Brownback disguised his order Monday abolishing the Kansas Arts Commission with wrapping paper and a big bow — by creating a new nonprofit Kansas Arts Foundation, complete with board of notables including three Wichitans. But this is no gift for either the arts or Kansas. State lawmakers should say “no, thanks” while they can and save Kansas’ tested, effective state arts agency.

In the sixth of his seven executive reorganization orders — more than any governor since Robert Bennett in the ’70s — Brownback formally transferred the commission’s responsibilities to the Kansas Historical Society in an effort to maintain the state’s ability to accept federal funds for the arts. His fiscal 2012 budget proposal includes $200,000 to help the transition from public arts agency to private foundation. The plan would cut the state’s arts investment by $600,000 the first year and perhaps entirely after that, as the private group supposedly assumed the commission’s mission.

“This consolidation is a modest step toward making our economic development structure leaner, more efficient, more accountable and more successful in growing the state,” Brownback said Monday, restating his goal of protecting “the core functions of government” in the face of a $500 million budget shortfall.

But that “modest step” will cost the state, starting with the message Kansas is sending around the nation by slashing arts funding and axing its state arts agency.

Even assuming the loss of federal arts dollars could be averted by funneling them through the Historical Society, worries about this damaging move remain: The new foundation’s fundraising would end up competing with that of local arts groups. The artistic life of rural communities would be especially at risk, as would an important portion of the Kansas economy.

And would the replacement group really attract enough donations to make a difference? Wouldn’t people prefer to donate locally, rather than have their dollars funneled through a Topeka-based nonprofit with no track record? Could the 242 recipients of the commission’s most recent round of grants — from the Marshall County Community Band ($1,644) to the Chanute Community Theatre ($1,871) to Ballet Wichita ($5,286) and the Wichita Art Museum ($5,286) — really count on the state nonprofit to be there as needed?

Besides, the money to be saved is minimal: Eliminating arts funding cuts just 0.014 percent of the state general fund, or 29 cents per capita.

Over the next few weeks, either chamber of the Legislature has the power to stop Brownback’s action. They should, giving the governor a wake-up call about what matters in Kansas.