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States Slash Arts Funds, Sometimes to Zero

by New York Times

For 10 years Erika Nelson, an artist in Lucas, Kan., has been making miniature models of giant pieces of Americana, putting them in a van and driving around the country to show people.

She has made tiny copies, for example, of the World’s Largest Ball of Twine, which is down the road in Cawker City, and the World’s Largest Can of Fruit Cocktail, which is in Sunnyvale, Calif.

She calls her mobile museum The World’s Largest Collection of the World’s Smallest Versions of the World’s Largest Things.

But this year she may not be able to travel far. Kansas, which has one of the country’s smallest state arts budgets, has decided to shrink it even further, to zero.

“I think it’s a sad day for Kansas,” said Ms. Nelson who lost a $2,000 state grant that had helped underwrite her van’s trips to colleges and county fairs.

Across the country this is a tough time for small arts groups because state grants have largely shriveled up. Thirty-one states, still staggered by the recession, cut their arts budgets for the 2012 fiscal year, which began on July 1, continuing a downturn that has seen such financial aid drop 42 percent over the last decade, according to data compiled by the National Assembly of State Arts Agencies.

The impact may hardly be felt at places like the Metropolitan Opera, established regional theaters or other large organizations that rely primarily on loyal donors and ticket revenues to underwrite their budgets.

But much of America’s artistic activity does not happen in major recital halls and theaters; instead it occurs in places like Lucas, population 407, where the cultural attractions include S. P. Dinsmoor’s Garden of Eden historic folk art site and where smaller arts organizations are highly dependent on state grants.

“When any form of government funding is cut, the organizations that tend to get hit the most are rural, organizations of color, avant-garde institutions — those that have a harder time raising individual and corporate money,” said Michael M. Kaiser, president of the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington.

Nationwide, state aid represents just a small portion of the money used to underwrite the arts, perhaps 2 to 5 percent of total expenditures, according to Americans for the Arts, a lobbying group. Budgets adopted this spring in the 50 states call for a total of $259 million in spending on culture, or slightly more than the yearly spending of the Metropolitan Museum of Art alone.

The impact of state cuts is magnified, though, in smaller settings where operating margins are slender and where state money is often used to leverage other public funds or to convince private donors that an organization is worth backing.

In Kansas, for example, where a proposed budget of $689,000 was vetoed by Gov. Sam Brownback, groups like the Music Theater of Wichita stand to lose their matching funds from the National Endowment for the Arts. The endowment notified the state last month that it will not receive a planned $700,000 grant unless it puts forward a new viable state arts agency. (In May Governor Brownback fired the entire staff of the Kansas Arts Commission, which distributed the funds.)

Kansas is an extreme example. Texas, though, cut its aid to the arts by 50 percent and New Jersey by 23 percent. In Wisconsin, where state arts money was reduced by 67 percent, the Milwaukee County executive, Chris Abele, said the county could no longer afford a new sculpture planned for outside the courthouse. Four designs had been in the running, from a figure of Lady Justice to a giant wildflower.

“We’re furloughing employees,” said a county supervisor, Joe Sanfelippo. “But we want to spend $800,000 on a sculpture? It just doesn’t make sense.”

The downturn is largely a product of tough economic times, not a clash of values between conservative state governments and more liberal cultural organizations. States controlled by both Republicans and Democrats have cut grants as officials debate whether support for the arts is a core mission of government comparable to, say, road repair.

“The positioning of arts within the public policy arena has always been tenuous,” said Bill Ivey, director of the Curb Center for Art, Enterprise and Public Policy at Vanderbilt University. “The arts are considered an amenity — nice to fund when you have a bit extra but hard to defend when the going gets tough.”

This year Rocco Landesman, the chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts, prompted an outcry when he publicly suggested that the supply of arts organizations may have exceeded the demand. He seemed to be promoting a cultural Darwinism in which government could seed promising theaters, museums and other groups, but after that they would largely be on their own.

The ability of the endowment to help may be limited this year, with some members of Congress proposing to cut the agency’s $155 million budget by $20 million. In response the National Endowment has been promoting the benefits of investing in culture, like the $278 billion in economic activity that federal research showed was spun off by the arts in 2009.

Across the country community-based arts groups typically receive small state grants funneled through regional commissions. In Kansas the Junction City Arts Council has received $10,000 a year from the state arts commission annually since 2005, money it used to provide visual arts scholarships for underprivileged children, a summer community theater program and a storyteller who performed at schools.

Gail Parsons, the council’s executive director, said that to offset the state cut the council is scrambling to add fund-raising events, like selling work by local artists and staging murder-mystery dinners. “We have to focus on the almighty dollar a lot more,” Ms. Parsons said.

Governor Brownback has created the Kansas Arts Foundation, dedicated to private fund-raising to fill the void left by the budget cut. “The governor campaigned last fall on returning the state to core responsibilities such as education and public safety,” said Sherriene Jones-Sontag, a spokeswoman for Mr. Brownback. “He believes that the arts should be privately funded.”

Recently he sent a letter to citizens urging them to contribute to the foundation. “I have no doubt that the arts will continue to thrive through private donations,” he wrote.

Rosslyn Schultz, the executive director of the Grassroots Art Center in Lucas, said via e-mail that she thought it was incredible that the governor, having just cut $4,300 from the council’s $78,000 operating budget, was looking for donations.

“Really,” she asked, “are you kidding, Governor Brownback?”

Established arts institutions often find it easier to secure government assistance because they are prestigious and have board members with political clout. Smaller programs that may rely more on grant money can have a harder time because their work — and its impact — is not as well known.

Ms. Nelson of the mobile museum says she will have difficulty competing for contributions. “Everybody is reaching out to private donors now,” she said.

In addition to the $2,000 grant she will not receive, Ms. Nelson anticipates she will lose additional revenue because groups that hire her to run programs are themselves heavily dependent on state funds. As a result she is planning to drop her operating budget to $3,000 from about $12,000 and reduce her travel.

“People are saying that Kansas doesn’t appreciate the arts,” she said. “But there are so many of us out here who do and struggle on a daily basis to give arts to people who can’t afford to pay $90 for a symphony seat.”

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