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Kansas Cuts Public Funding For The Arts

As dozens of states struggle to balance their budgets, state arts councils are worried they'll lose funding. In Kansas, Gov. Sam Brownback recently gutted the Kansas Arts Commission, laid off its staff and closed its doors.

Brownback, a Republican, says he wants to see the private sector pick up the slack. "I believe this will be a more successful way for us to move forward," he said. "We'll be able to leverage and raise private dollars."

Private dollars have been really good for the Topeka Civic Theatre and Academy where Shannon Reilly is artistic director. The company is celebrating its 75th year. "Through most of that history we've been funded solely through ticket revenue, donors and corporate support," Reilly says.

Reilly says for the most part, her operations have avoided government grants and that has worked to their advantage. "More and more I've seen that arts organizations ... receiving tax dollars were constantly under fire about their programming and what they were doing," Reilly explains. "I like being responsible to my donors and to the people who were investing in what were doing more than a larger tax base."

The arts are simply too important to be dependent on the government.

From Texas to New Hampshire to Wisconsin to Pennsylvania, state arts councils are facing deep budget cuts. Sometimes the bickering over government funding for the arts sounds like a broken record: Arts advocates say the arts are good for local economies, while politicians say taxpayers can't afford to subsidize ballerinas and basket weavers.

Lawrence Reed, an economist with the Foundation for Economic Education, believes the government shouldn't fund the arts. "The arts are simply too important to be dependent on the government," Reed says. He thinks government funding makes arts groups jump through too many hoops. "When you are dependent even partially on government funding, you always run the risk of being buffeted by changing political winds."

The political storm over federal funding for the arts in the 1990s forced some groups to find private alternatives. Ruby Lerner is executive director of Creative Capital, an arts funding organization launched in 1999 by a small group that wanted to find a new model for support.

"I say we're small but mighty," Lerner says. With an annual fund of about $1.2 million, the organization takes a venture capital approach. Unlike most government grants, Creative Capital donors treat artists like investments.

In a lot of places, the Kansas Arts Commission provided the only monies available for any arts education whatsoever for kids.

"Because if you think you're going to benefit ... future generations of artists based on the success of everything you support, then you're going to work really hard to make those projects become successful," Lerner explains.

As for the return on investment, Lerner admits that, so far, it's been pretty small, if you're measuring it in dollars and cents. And for many arts advocates that's the fear: That if left to the private sector, programs that aren't flashy will disappear.

Reilly is disappointed that Brownback eliminated the Kansas Arts Commission even though his theater company in Topeka didn't depend on it. "In a lot of places, the Kansas Arts Commission provided the only monies available for any arts education whatsoever for kids," he says. "I loved that, and I'm terrified that's not going to continue now."

Meanwhile, Brownback has named someone new to lead the efforts to raise funds from the private sector. In an interview, that new appointee said she doesn't think it will be that hard ... since the Kansas arts commission's budget was so small to begin with.

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Elizabeth Blair is a Peabody Award-winning senior producer/reporter on the Arts Desk of NPR News.