Republican governor Sam Brownback of Kansas signed a new $13.8 billion spending plan over the weekend, affecting sweeping reductions across state governmental expenditures, and taking a shocking step toward the privatization of the arts while he was at it. Brownback has, in fact, dealt the fatal blow to the Kansas Arts Commission, which was founded in 1966, by eliminating all of that organization's state funding — making Kansas the first state to effectively shut down its own arts agency.
In a series of events the commission's chairman has dubbed the "Saturday morning massacre," Business Week reports that the Kansas governor cut the entire $689,000 budget legislators had set aside for the commission, leaving it without offices and forcing the firing of its five-person staff. Brownback's plan, all enacted in the name of fiscal purging, is to replace the organization with a private, non-profit agency. But advocates of the arts have decried his actions, stating that such budget slashing will devastate local programs, particularly in rural regions of the state.
Brownback had previously attempted to cut the commission in February, but his order was overturned by the state senate in March. In the present case, it was through his line-item veto authority that he managed to push through the elimination of the agency, specifically targeting the arts.
Proposals to nix state arts councils have already been introduced in states such as New Hampshire, Texas, and Washington, but as the CEO of Washington-based lobbyist group Americans for the Arts, Robert Lynch told the Associated Press, Kansas has now become a "huge outlier." "It's the only such decision made this year or in the past 50 years," Lynch said. According to the Greenfield Reporter, Brownback, on the other hand, maintained that "while we may be a trend-setter now in the area, I think you're going to see a number of states pursue this very same avenue," adding, "This is a good trend."
The Kansas governor has often cited Vermont as a model for a state that successfully privatized arts funding, but in an open letter, the New England state's art council executive director Alex Aldrich retorted that Vermont's nonprofit state arts agency receives "significant" government support, an investment that is in turn lucrative for the state. Last year alone Vermont saw a massive 775 percent return on its annual arts funding, he said. Aldrich also points out that without state support, his state would have to privately raise funds to match its National Endowment for the Arts federal grant — an act that would put it in direct competition with the very cultural institutions the council aims to support. Kansas will now most likely forfeit matching grants from the NEA and the Mid-America Arts Alliance totaling some $1.2 million.
Meanwhile, the Los Angeles Times reports that the local branch of billionaire David Koch's anti-tax Americans for Prosperity organization has released a letter from director Derrick Sontag praising Brownback's actions and stating that no one "should be compelled to have part of their tax bill fund the tastes of those on an arts commission." To this he adds: "Art is in the eye of the beholder. Some may enjoy Picasso or listening to Beethoven. Others may prefer a Dogs Playing Poker painting."
Who will be the next victim to Brownback's cultural-funding scythe? The answer is already clear: Public broadcasting, the budget for which the governor promises he will cut next year. According to Business Week, he even went so far as to warn stations to "make appropriate preparations."