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Sam Brownback's crusade against the Kansas Arts Commission



Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback has officially prevailed in his six-month fight to strip Kansas communities of their arts funding. By using the line-item veto in the state's 2012 budget, Brownback cut funding for the Kansas Arts Commission — and made history of a dubious sort. Kansas is now the only state in the nation without an arts agency.

What does a state arts commission actually do? What will happen in Kansas without one? What's this guy Brownback's problem, anyway? All good questions.

From 1966 until the Memorial Day weekend just past, the Kansas Arts Commission received annual funding from the state of Kansas to distribute grants, develop programs and provide other assistance to arts organizations in the state. In 2010, it funneled a total of $1.5 million to 150 such organizations — locally, the Kansas City Performing Music and Arts, Asso­ciation; Arts in Prison; and the Kansas City Symphony. Much of that $1.5 million comes from organizations that match state funds, such as the National Endowment for the Arts.

"For every dollar the state contributes to us, the federal government contributes a dollar through the NEA," explains Henry Schwaller, chairman of the KAC. "Plus, the Mid-America Arts Alliance provides the KAC with about $400,000 annually. But both are contingent upon state funds — neither the NEA nor the MAAA recognize private arts groups like the one the governor says he intends to replace us with. So without a state commission, Kansas loses out on $1.2 million, in addition to what's been eliminated from the state budget."

When Brownback took office this past January, he announced his intention to abolish the KAC, and he quickly signed an executive reorganization order terminating the organization. In March, the state Senate overturned his executive order, reinstating the KAC. At that point, he apparently decided to wait until the state Legislature sent over the budget in May, then veto anything with the word arts in it.

Why is Brownback picking a public fight over 0.005 percent of a $13.8 billion state budget? He says he believes that private donations, not taxpayer money, should fund arts and culture in the state. But conservative politicians say things like that all day and never act on it because they know that slashing government agencies and programs means slashing jobs. And fewer jobs mean fewer votes come election time.

The difference is Brownback's political ambitions, which extend beyond the Sunflower State. He has already run for president once, and his recent move from the cozy confines of the U.S. Senate to the governor's mansion suggests that he's looking to get a little bit of that sweet "executive experience" Republicans are always talking about before he makes another go at the White House. This is a résumé-building period for Brownback, a time for him to push through statewide legislation that'll endear him to the GOP base in a presidential-nomination race. Privatizing the arts — the sinful, secular, Jesus-hating arts — is a winning symbolic gesture.

Arts funding is an inexpensive trial balloon for Brownback, but it's a financial nightmare for groups that depend on state and federal funding. "It's the rural communities that will be more affected. Those cities and counties are already hurting financially," Schwaller says. "Many have pulled their arts funding already. Some of those organizations are reliant on KAC funds to the point where they'll have to either scale back or even shut down completely."

The Junction City Arts Council is one such operation staring down an uncertain fiscal 2012. After losing city funding last year — $90,000 out of a $110,000 budget — it has been scrambling to solicit new contributions and increase revenue. Losing the $10,000 it receives annually from the KAC, plus additional grant money from the MAAA that it no longer qualifies for, is a huge blow. "We were really counting on it [KAC money] to provide operational support for the next few months," says executive director Gail Parsons. "If we don't find additional funding soon, it's likely we'll have to close."

Here's why the Junction City Arts Council and its impending closure matter to those of us not living in Junction City, Kansas: In Geary County, where the JCAC operates, two art teachers serve 14 elementary schools. Elementary school students receive about eight hours of art education per year (and no music education till fifth grade). One of the JCAC's primary objectives is to pick up that slack by offering classes and awarding small scholarships to children who show interest in the arts. "Losing those youth-education programs would be a huge loss to our community and a huge disservice to our children," Parsons says.

Brownback's position that private funding will fill the void is intellectually bankrupt. Apart from the obvious fact that nonprofits exist outside Brownback's fantasy free-market system, most rural Kansas businesses and philanthropies are already overextended, due to cutbacks at the municipal and county levels. Other than Brownback's billionaire buddies the Koch brothers and a corporate farm here or there (farm subsidies are fine by Brownback), rural Kansas is not exactly booming with business.

But Brownback thinks he can be president, and as long as he harbors White House dreams, there are going to be fewer opportunities for artists to work in Kansas — and far less revenue from arts-related tourism. Children in rural communities will grow up with embarrassingly limited exposure to music and art. And struggling Kansas towns will inch closer to the grave.

It doesn't have to be this way. On June 16 at 1:30 p.m., the KAC, along with Kansas Citizens for the Arts, is holding a public meeting at the Lawrence Arts Center (940 New Hampshire, in Lawrence) to begin discussions about how to approach the Legislature next session.

"We want to tap into the same grassroots energy that helped us get reinstated as an agency back in March," Schwaller says. If you're uncomfortable with Brownback's arts-strangling Kansas and want to be part of changing its course, this would be a good place to start.

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