If President Trump gets his way eliminating the National Endowment for the Arts as he has proposed in his budget, it would be another blow to a Kansas arts community that took a hit when state funding was eliminated a few years ago.
With that in mind, The New York Times sent a reporter to Hays, Kansas last month to see how the budget cuts have played out there. The online story, which has created a stir among local arts supporters, proclaimed Can the Arts Thrive without Washington? A Kansas Town says Yes.
The headline provoked a prompt rebuttal (The Arts in Kansas Depend on Federal Aid) from the directors of 19 arts groups across the state.
Brenda Meder, who heads the Hays Arts Council and was the main source in the Times article, says the headline mischaracterized her message.
“I would never claim that they’ll thrive,” says Meder. “But I also know that they will survive — just like if all funding is cut off for roads in Kansas, we’ll still have roads. I don’t know what kind of roads they’ll be, but we’ll still have roads.”
Meder is proud to say that the first arts council in Kansas was this one in Hays, and it's now in its 50th year. Her office is in the Hays Arts Center, which is currently displaying a striking collection of framed pencil drawings on heavy paper. They’re the work of Fort Hays State University graduate student Jeromy Antle.
In addition to serving as the administrator of the arts council, Meder has also had to serve as janitor and the caterer for arts openings. She took on these duties after Governor Sam Brownback wiped out the Kansas Arts Commission six years ago. The governor argued that tax dollars shouldn’t go to support the arts. But Meder says the arts commission’s state tax bite was miniscule.
“Between 25 and 29 cents per citizen for the entire year," Meder says. "So when someone says, ‘I don’t want my tax money to go to the arts,' how many people won’t even pick up a quarter if they see it on the side of the curb these days?”
The state created a new arts-funding agency in 2013. But the Kansas Creative Arts Industries Commission has less money to distribute. Last week, commission members visited the small town of Lucas, known for a hundred-year-old sprawling jumble of concrete sculptures called the Garden of Eden. Lucas has a thriving arts scene — especially yard art. And then there’s the “Bowl Plaza”, a public restroom with an entrance built to resemble a toilet bowl.
Commission chairman Larry Meeker says the arts can make a town unique.
“Lucas is a great example right here — a community that thrives because of the arts. And it draws not just tourism, but creative people living here,” says Meeker.
The NEA matches the funding his group provides. The grants are often small, but they can make a big difference in a little town like Lucas.
“You know, I realize to a large organization $5,000 doesn’t sound like much, but to us that helps leverage other money,” says Rosslyn Schultz, who runs the Grassroots Arts Center in Lucas.
She realizes that the NEA simply doesn’t matter to many of the folk artists with whom she works. They create art simply for their own enjoyment and self-expression. The same is true for Hays photographer Leon Staab.
“The arts have been around long before there was public funding. They’ll probably still be here long after public funding is gone,” says Staab. “Making art doesn’t depend on what kind of funding I have. My art is what I do, and I do it … because.”
If it matters, Staab says he voted for Donald Trump last November. He says his vote had nothing to do with whether Trump would support federal funding for the arts.
But those who run arts organizations say public funding is important. Joyce Harlow directs the Lincoln Art Center, about 40 miles northwest of Salina. Her entire budget is $35,000 a year. Harlow says a lot of programs ended when the governor scrapped the Kansas Arts Council.
“We can’t do artist-in-residence programs anymore, because we don’t have the funding. And there’s some exhibits that we can’t bring,” says Harlow.
The Lincoln Art Center gets no local tax dollars from the city or county.
Salina has an embarrassment of riches in comparison. The Salina Arts and Humanities Commission is a city department, with a budget of $1.4 million. Director Brad Anderson says federal taxes for the NEA amount to about 47 cents per person annually. He thinks it would be a huge loss if the art we see, hear, and experience were funded only by private sources.
“The most democratic thing we could do, the most open and accessible thing we could do — even on a limited basis — is to have federal and state funding help be that representative and neutral voice for many who wouldn’t otherwise be able to write that check,” says Anderson.
As members of the House and Senate are fond of pointing out, the President can propose a budget, but it’s Congress that ultimately sets spending levels. Arts administrators throughout Kansas are counting on Congress to continue support for the National Endowment for the Arts when the final budget is approved.
Bryan Thompson is a reporter for the Kansas News Service, a collaboration covering health, education, and politics across the state. You can reach Bryan on Twitter @KSNewsBryan.