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Outgoing Mid-America Arts Alliance Leader Says She Is 'Deeply Concerned About Kansas'

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Mid-America Arts Alliance
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Mid-America Arts Alliance CEO Mary Kennedy has made arts accessibility a focus of her career, sparked by childhood experiences with dance classes.

"As a kid, I grew up in a really tough neighborhood, and the arts were really my way out," said Kennedy, a native of Topeka, Kansas. 

After nearly 30 years with M-AAA, the regional arts organization based in Kansas City, Missouri, Kennedy announced in August that she'd be stepping down as of October 1. 

In a wide ranging conversation on Up to Date, Kennedy told host Steve Kraske that, while she was leaving the organization "in a fantastic place," with strong funding and widely lauded programs, there was one thing she worried about.

"I have to say, I am deeply concerned about Kansas, and the public funding for the arts in Kansas," Kennedy told Kraske. 

Until recently, M-AAA served a six-state region including Arkansas, Kansas,  Missouri, Nebraska, Oklahoma, and Texas. But in July, M-AAA's board of directors voted to suspend its partnership with Kansas' state art agency, the Kansas Creative Arts Industries Commission (KCAIC), for fiscal year 2017.

That's because at $191,200, the state's arts budget was far short of the $400,000 minimum amount to receive a matching grant from the National Endowment for the Arts.

Kennedy said that meant the state would lose more than $1 million in funding from the National Endowment for the Arts. 

What to do about Kansas, said Kennedy, will remain one of the challenges facing her successor. Surrounding states, she said, present a sharp contrast to the situation in Kansas. 

"Texas received an extra $5 million this year for their budget," Kennedy noted. "Arkansas is holding steady. Nebraska has a cultural endowment and they're continuing to grow. Missouri received extra funding this year."

Kansas, meanwhile, is "like an island in the middle of a sea of publicly funded entities. And it's very, very difficult for the artists and the arts organizations in that state." 

Kennedy said it will continue to be difficult to argue for a boost in arts funding because of the state's tax cuts. Until there's an increase in state revenue, she said, asking for more arts funding is "a blood from a turnip kind of thing" because there's so little money available.

But, despite the "difficult situation," she said, "you see artists continue to make art, you see arts organizations continuing to work, it's just they're really hobbled by what they're doing in comparison to others."

Laura Spencer is an arts reporter at KCUR 89.3. You can reach her on Twitter at @lauraspencer.

Kansas City is known for its style of jazz, influenced by the blues, as the home of Walt Disney’s first animation studio and the headquarters of Hallmark Cards. As one of KCUR’s arts reporters, I want people here to know a wide range of arts and culture stories from across the metropolitan area. I take listeners behind the scenes and introduce them to emerging artists and organizations, as well as keep up with established institutions. Send me an email at lauras@kcur.org or follow me on Twitter @lauraspencer.