Sunday, May 29, 2011

The Kansas Arts Commission Is Eliminated – and the blame begins with us.

Good morning.

“And the beat goes on……………………………”

A Bit of a RANT on the elimination of the Kansas Arts Commission:
Note: I tried to ignore this most glaring example yet of the chickens coming home to roost as it were, but just can’t.  Here's the short version for most of you who will not take the time to read this:  Kansas lost its state arts funding agency.  They won't be the last.  It is ALL our faults for refusing to act politically and get invovled in politics.  No whining about it.  We could have done something that might have led to a different outcome - we didn't. It may well get a whole lot worse.  A few encouraging signs that some people now get it -- but only a few.

The Long Version:
From Jonathan Katz at NASAA comes news that Governor Sam Brownbach in Kansas has vetoed arts funding for the Kansas Arts Commission – making it the first state arts agency to be eliminated due to zero state funding:

“A $689,000 appropriation to the Kansas Arts Commission would have comprised 0.005% of the total state budget, one half of 1/100 of one percent. Governor Brownback's veto won't make even a modest dent in the state's budget gap. It will, however, diminish the state's ability to leverage public and private investment, compete in the creative sector, improve education, and make Kansas a more rewarding place to live, work, visit and raise a family.
The Kansas Arts Commission:
• fostered an arts and cultural sector supporting more than 4,000 jobs and generating more than $15 million annually in state and local government revenues;
• brought home $5.9 million in federal dollars to support arts activities for all Kansans over the past 10 years;
• engaged 300,000 students in arts education programs in and out of school last year;
• provided important social and creative outlets for seniors, persons with disabilities, children and underserved populations.

Rather than achieving any savings, this veto creates a net loss. Without the Kansas Arts Commission, the state's eligibility to secure its designated share of National Endowment for the Arts funds is in jeopardy. Those dollars can be allocated elsewhere, leaving Kansas taxpayers to pay for the arts in other states. Also lost through this veto is the state's power to leverage private and public investment. Last year the Kansas Arts Commission awarded $1.4 million in grants, which was matched by $60.7 million in local and private dollars.

The citizens of Kansas deserve better.”

Jonathan is right, of course. This is a short-sighted decision, based more likely on the expediency of political rhetoric than any actual well thought out strategy to deal with bad economic times. But given the economic slide of the past three years and the history of failed advocacy by the arts sector and its’ inability to develop real political clout that might have better protected our interests, this isn’t surprising. And now the precedent is established. Will there be a domino effect?

I don’t know. And neither do you.

I don’t want to say this was inevitable, but it was certainly a distinct realistic possibility – in Kansas as well as any number of other places across the country. And you can say that going back several years. This didn’t just fall on us out of the blue. It isn’t my purpose to cast blame on anyone specifically, or those in any single place (and nothing herein is meant to single out in any negative way the Kansas effort to save their state agency), for my point is that the whole sector must shoulder some responsibility for this outcome. This isn't because those in the advocacy trenches didn't work hard enough.  The fault lies with all of us on the sidelines.  It is ALL of us who have failed to heed the advice to play the political game as the rules are constituted, to launch political action committees and raise the requisite funds to engage in both meaningful lobbying and access building, AND to support arts friendly candidates in their bids for election or re-election.

And this last plank is the Holy Grail in the arts sector’s refusal to act politically. We tell ourselves that we cannot, should not, must not, will not get involved in supporting candidates (with money) that would support us - despite widespread expert consensus that the essence of political power and the development of meaningful political capital lies precisely in supporting candidates. We have all kinds of reasons why this is our attitude -- mostly all either weak or wrong. We have told this to ourselves for so long, that we believe it as gospel. It is our crutch and blanket. We are actually smug in our refusal to give up so comfortable an addiction – no matter that it is killing us.  In its stead, we pontificate and try to rationalize and make logical arguments, ignoring the obvious reality that politics is often anti-rational and illogical and, well, political.

It is you and I, as individuals, who did not make those $20 checks out to local advocacy organizations. Oh we meant to didn’t we? But we didn’t do it. It is those performance and exhibition based arts organizations who didn’t join those same advocacy groups and who didn’t (and won’t) hold benefit performances or exhibitions for that effort.  It is those larger cultural organizations who see too little in it for themselves and for whom the whole of the sector simply isn't a big enough priority.  It is all those foundations that have refused to fund advocacy efforts – even as benign as modest efforts to train our core in how to advocate – pretending, ever so conveniently, that they were legally prohibited from engaging in anything that smacked of politics (an absolute falsehood and simply not fact), and their timidity is partly to blame -- much as we are for clinging to the lie that we cannot lobby, and cannot support candidates with money (we can legally do both if we just set up the right structure and follow the simple rules).  Let me just shout that again out loud in the winsome hope that it will finally get through - because some of you just refuse to accept the law - WE CAN LEGALLY LOBBY and SUPPORT CANIDATES WITH MONEY.  YES we can - [not as 501 (c) (3)s, but as 501 (c) (4)s and PACs!] Of course you have to be careful and judicious how you exploit this kind of power on your behalf - but how you use power is a different question than amassing it to begin with. 

It is our collective failure to make the time to reach out to form the kinds of stakeholder bonds and partnerships that might have helped us to rally support – to join the local Chambers of Commerce and become active in their governance hierarchies, to insinuate ourselves into local PTAs, to carve out the time and money to make public policy and political involvement the priority it ought to have been. It is we who have let our Board members off the hook time and time again and failed to leverage their political connections or insist they shoulder the responsibility to raise funds for the efforts. God forbid we should sully our clean little hands in anything so unseemly as defending ourselves against ridiculous, spurious, ad hominem political attacks. God forbid we should actually demonstrate any courage or leadership.

Bless all of those in our ranks who daily take on the onerous tasks of trying to rally the troops to advocate and lobby on our behalf. And I salute those in Kansas who fought so hard and gallantly in defense of their agency.  But I am sick of all the urgent requests to stand and fight and contact my legislator blah blah blah. Oh I do it, every time - and perhaps there is value to it. But why didn’t we all respond years ago and build the kind of infrastructure and machinery that would have made these constant last minutes pleas less necessary. Where were we when those same people who are now forced to remind us of the “urgency” of their entreaties, meekly suggested we prepare for the future by building some strength before the situation was so desperate? Where were our pro-active efforts that might have mitigated the need to always be re-active? Where were those foundations and funders and patrons and all of us regular folk, when we had the time and even wherewithal to build for the down times that have now befallen us.

Where? Like the little piggies who built their (advocacy) houses out of straw and sticks, we danced the night away on other pursuits. Shame on us. Now we pay the piper. The big bad wolf has blown down the Kansas house. That’s how it works. And so all of our lofty mission statements are compromised. And my guess is this IS the tip of the iceberg. And where will we all be in the face of what now confronts us – a year down the line? The big bad wolf is on the prowl. Alas, most of us live in paper houses.

Yes, of course, some will argue that we didn’t have the time or luxury to engage in such questionable action, being far too busy just trying to survive. Others will remind us that the conservative nature of Boards obviate against this kind of citizen political participation. Some will note that political clout is meaningless in these dire times. And still others will argue that we did in fact make the case for our value -- strenuously, vociferously, with conviction and even bulwarked by data and studies. But those arguments are a cop-out and beg the question. They ignore the hard cold reality, that government funding, while only a percentage of our overall revenue model, and even irrelevant to many, is nonetheless an absolutely crucial part of the whole nonprofit arts financial ecosystem and that should it disappear, so will that ecosystem as we know it. They ignore the responsibility for us to educate our Boards and remind them of their mission statements. And I would argue that those with political clout are suffering less in the current crisis than those without. They also ignore the reality that politics is about more than making the case. Everybody can make the case for their value. It isn’t enough and never was. Sounded real nice, but it was a trap. And it is our job – yours and mine, to make sure the arts not only survive but thrive. That is our real collective mission. That is what we owe to ourselves, and to generations to come. And like every other interest group, we must make the time to garner power and pay for it ourselves.  We do not.

Perhaps, even if Kansas had begun three or four years ago to change the political landscape and had succeeded in the daunting task of raising money to fund professional lobbying at a high level, started a PAC and had a operational 527 organization (e.g., type) -- had systematically and strategically cultivated meaningful relationships with elected officials all across the state, formed active partnerships with business and other potential stakeholders – and galvanized an army of volunteers that they still would have met this fate. I personally believe otherwise – that such an effort would have gotten a different result.

I don’t know for sure, and neither do you.

I know this: if someone keeps punching you, over and over again – at some point it makes sense to defend yourself and punch back. Politics is a contact sport and it does not embrace the Gandhian approach of passivity. Not, in my opinion, in our situation anyway. Yet we have for years now claimed victory via our passivity merely because they haven’t yet killed us. Well, maybe the Kansas Arts Commission will rise up again someday (and that ought to be a priority for all of us), but right now we have a dead body on our hands. Not a wounded comrade, but a dead one. (And look around, we've had a lot of dead organizations litter the sidelines as government funding has been decimated).  Another victory for sitting on our hands? I don’t think so. Wake up people. It’s long past the time to get serious.

And the thing that riles me is that we are not, contrary to what many have clung to as institutional belief – some 98 pound weakling. We are one big elephant – and if we would just flex our muscle and do a tiny bit of training – and, most importantly, get our mind in synch with our body - we could successfully defend ourselves against all odds. Yet we remain Oliver Twist -- without his courage.

I read an article recently that suggested that the 9+% unemployment level is a new reality. That it isn’t likely to ever again return to below 5% in this country. Yet, that is precisely what America expects and is waiting for. Rather than see reality scenarios for what they are – we prefer to embrace fantasy. That scares me for the country’s future because it may well mean we waste the most precious commodity left to us – time -- before we embark on measures to truly address the challenges facing our country. I fear the same is true for the arts sector – and we can’t afford anymore to wait to act. Henry Kissinger noted in a brief interview in Time Magazine this week (in observing the difference between Americans and the Chinese) that Americans believe that problems are solvable, while the Chinese believe that problems come in layers, and that you just have to deal with each layer as it comes. To which one might note that you can’t very well begin to solve a problem (or just deal with it layer at a time) if you can’t correctly identify it. That’s America’s current state, and I fear also that of our little sector. Our problem is easy to identify: it is our failure to act.

Is Kansas the tip of the iceberg? Will it be looked to, to justify similar eliminations in other states, or even cities? Is this just the beginning of a downward spiral that will eventually make government support of arts and culture basically a thing of the past?

I don’t know, and neither do you.

Shall we just wait it out and see? From the Endowment to the smallest municipal agency – I would keep my resume current and my contacts active were I you. Your gig may not be there for the long term. And any and every organization that depends in any way on government support for any position or any program – I would think of some alternatives were I you – for down the line (and maybe not that far down the line.)  And ditto for all you consultants out there who survive on government contracts for your services.  An alarmist position? Talk to Kansas.

I suspect, and certainly hope, that we do still have time to leverage our enormous numbers and our potential to raise huge amounts of money, and play the political game the way it is played across the board to defend ourselves and protect what we offer to America. Tick, tock. I hope we will finally move towards taking our future into our own hands and stop standing by idly like deer caught in the headlights while government gets out of support for the arts. Because I am just not sure how we functionally survive that eventuality – at least at this point in time. Will we wake up in time? If what is going on in Arizona is any indication, then I am optimistic. The leadership in that state now fully realizes that power based political defense must be one of the arrows in its quiver.  I see other people coming to the same conclusion.  Will others follow?

What will happen in Washington, and Texas and South Carolina in the near term, I don’t know. And neither do you.

We must now – collectively - face the Herculean challenge of resurrecting the Kansas Arts Commission – and that ought to be everybody in the whole sector’s job and priority. It might take a couple of years to accomplish, it might never happen – but we all should shoulder the work to make sure it does come back. We’re either all in this together or we’re not. And if we’re not – then we ought to say that out loud for everyone to understand.

In the coming days there will be a long series of condemnations of Governor Brownbach's action - all pointing out the cost to Kansas in such an ill-conceived move.  I join with and echo those sentiments.  But if that is all we do then we deserve whatever comes next for us.  If this isn't a wake up call to action, to anger, to activism -- then I suppose there isn't ever going to be one. 

If even half of all of the people involved in arts organizations in this country would donate $20 a year for the next five years to a state arts advocacy organization (and that organization would send 20% of that money to Federal efforts, and 30% of that money to local city efforts) we could raise in the aggregate some $25 million a year (minimally) to defend ourselves politically. That’s a lot of power ladies and gentlemen. And that doesn’t even count how much money could be raised by arts organizations doing a benefit performance every two years for the effort. Or what we might raise from artists, supporters and elsewhere. Rocket science? No. Legwork? Yes. If you need an example, Americans for the Arts’ Arts Action Fund stands clearly right smack in front of you. Been there for several years now, yet states and cities won’t follow the example. Why? Why in hell will the arts not at least pick up a sword to defend itself?

I don’t know. I just don’t. Maybe you do.

I have been saying this for so long I think I am turning purple.

I can only echo Jonathan’s conclusion:

The citizens of Kansas (and America) deserve better – from you and me and all of us.

Have a good week.

Don’t Quit. (Just don’t !)