For many Kansans, the first wrong turn on Gov. Sam Brownback’s road map was his defunding of the arts.
Many Kansans were unprepared for the new governor’s assault on what amounted to 0.014 percent of the state general fund, or 29 cents per capita – in part because ending cultural funding hadn’t been among his campaign goals. Though down from $7 million just a few years earlier, the state’s $815,000 annual investment in arts funding in 2011 was sufficient to leverage $1.2 million a year in federal and regional matching funds.
Yet one of Brownback’s first acts as governor was abolishing the 45-year-old Kansas Arts Commission by executive order, in an attempt to replace it with a private group and free up the money it had received for what he called the “core functions of government.”
What followed were 5,000 e-mails, letters and calls of complaint to the Legislature, plus a Kansas Senate vote to block Brownback’s order and action in both chambers to appropriate $689,000 for the rescued commission for fiscal 2012.
Brownback was relentless, though, terminating the commission’s five employees and using his veto pen to make Kansas the only state to zero out arts funding.
The governor now takes credit for establishing a Kansas Creative Arts Industries Commission within the Kansas Department of Commerce in 2012. That at least revived the state’s ability to secure federal arts funding, which has enabled the new commission to award what the Brownback campaign describes as more than $1 million in grant money.
But an entity allocated one staffer and only $200,000 per year – and with a restrictive focus on new programs and community development – cannot match its predecessor’s proud record of seeding, sustaining and fortifying cultural activity statewide. “In no way, shape or form,” said Hays Mayor Henry Schwaller, who served on the Kansas Arts Commission and also is a member of the new commission.
That explains why the Coalition for Kansas Arts, led by Schwaller and former KAC member Vicki Buening, recently endorsed Democrat Paul Davis.
Davis told The Eagle editorial board the governor made a “big mistake” on the KAC, which got a great return on the state’s investment and especially benefited rural areas. Davis would like to revive it, as well as the defunct Governor’s Arts Awards. “It’s a quality-of-life issue,” he said.
The arts also deserve to continue to be a high priority in Wichita, where the city’s cultural funding has weathered the Great Recession budget cuts well enough that the Arts Council will honor Mayor Carl Brewer with the Gordon W. Evans Award at its 45th annual Art Awards dinner Thursday.
Arts advocates will need to be involved in the spring municipal races, including for Brewer’s successor.
As Schwaller said in endorsing Davis: “Communities grow when their arts are strong.” So do states.
For the editorial board, Rhonda Holman