Late last month, Kansas became the first and only state to defund "the arts." It began in February, when Gov. Sam Brownback eliminated the Kansas Arts Commission from the state budget to predicable howls of protest. In March, the Kansas Senate voted to restore the KAC and the legislature crammed rather modest funding (totaling $689,000) back into the budget. On May 27, the governor crossed out the commission again using the line-item veto.
With major news organs like the Los Angeles Times taking notice, it's doubtful whether this will stand, but it's an interesting battle to watch. The governor acknowledges the importance of the arts but proposes to fund them through the private non-profit Kansas Arts Foundation. Of course, that's not good enough, since that would make the KAF ineligible for grants through the National Endowment for the Arts and the Mid-America Arts Foundation. Besides, it's just . . . embarrassing.
"Neighboring states, especially Missouri, Nebraska, and Oklahoma, fund their state arts agencies at a fairly high level," says a news release from the Kansas Citizens for the Arts, which adds this commercial dig: "Not only will we lose crucial federal dollars to those states immediately, but we will also lose our long-term ability to compete with them to attract businesses."
Arts funding always involves a number of questionable assumptions. For example: The arts are necessary to attract business (how is this determined?). Or, the arts will wither without tax money (even though they seemed to do OK in the pre-NEA days). Or, something will go out of the soul of the state if music and dance and painting are not provided for. (The state has a soul?)
State-funded art is politicized art. Period. Not that it's all bad, and some state-funded projects have actually been worthy. But it still doesn't follow that the state must provide art, which until the last century has mostly depended on wealthy patronage and public support. When the state provides, someone must choose among the thousands of grant applications, and the criteria varies according to who's in charge. But in providing art for "the people" the state actually removes art-and artists-from the people. Art is incomplete without a sympathetic relationship between the artist and the audience, which is damaged when a third party steps in as mediator. And it's all too easy for any agency to misplace its original mission in the business of perpetuating itself. That might be one reason why the NEA, which has backed off the shock therapy of the 1990s, is now offering to fund video games.
After almost 45 years, the NEA's relationship with the arts has become so entwined it may be impossible to sever without radical surgery, and the same goes for state arts commissions. But overall it's a noble experiment that Sam Brownback has begun in Kansas, and the dramatic value may be worthy of an opera someday. Privately funded, of course.