Opinion Columns & Blogs

Henry Schwaller IV: NEA was correct to deny arts funds

The decision by the National Endowment for the Arts last week to reject fiscal year 2011 funding for the Kansas Arts Commission was an unfortunate, but avoidable, decision. I applaud the NEA for rejecting a strategy by Gov. Sam Brownback to circumvent clearly defined rules for receiving federal matching funds for the arts.

On May 28, Brownback vetoed all state funding for the Kansas Arts Commission and fired the staff, despite support for the commission from the Legislature and the public. Even though there is no funding for the commission, it still exists by legislative statute.

Brownback's idea is that the Kansas Arts Commission will serve as a conduit for funding from the NEA, but that only private funds — as yet unidentified — will be utilized to make the required match. The commission will be directed by the private, not-for-profit Kansas Arts Foundation, formed in February. This organization has no staff, a governing board directed by the governor, no track record, no transparency, no accountability to the public, no oversight and no standing as the state arts agency.

The Kansas Arts Commission is now simply a shell agency, without funding, programs or focus except to serve as a vehicle to request and receive federal funds.

The Kansas Arts Foundation has not revealed its budget, its finances or a real plan. Foundation president Linda Browning Weis, who was also recently appointed as the chairman of the Kansas Arts Commission, has stated that the foundation does not have to make public its funding sources or amount raised as it is a "private" organization.

Four members of the board of directors of the foundation (all appointed by the governor) also are appointed members of the Kansas Arts Commission, which creates the appearance of a conflict of interest and troubles those concerned with governmental accountability and openness.

I am in touch with many Kansas arts advocates, artists and arts organization leaders through Kansas Citizens for the Arts. This organization recently developed and distributed a survey of arts organizations, artists and arts advocates. Ninety-seven arts organizations responded — about half the number of organizations funded by the commission in the past fiscal year. Forty-two percent had received grants of less than $5,000, demonstrating the small-budget, grassroots nature of the arts field in Kansas. Eighty-four percent of the organizations have been unable to replace the funds lost when the commission was eliminated. Many artists have lost paying jobs or other earned income opportunities.

The new Kansas Arts Foundation/Commission is doing nothing to alleviate the concerns of artists and arts organizations. Instead, board members simply repeat the idea that federal funding will be forthcoming, that private money will be raised and that volunteers can do the work formerly accomplished by eight professionals and also raise private funds.

Our state has a history of making extreme decisions only to reverse itself in a few years. This will happen with arts funding, but we all must hold to our principles and our core beliefs that public funding for the arts is vital and may not be subverted.