The Biggest Losers: The People of Kansas

Late last week, Kansas Governor Sam Brownback line item vetoed appropriations for the Kansas Arts Commission in the 2012 state budget. KAC staff has already been given pink slips. Unless the Legislature over-rides this veto, which is not likely based on what I’ve read, Kansas will be the first state to eliminate its state arts agency since the inception of these offices in every state in the late 60’s. I could go on about the state of arts advocacy but I’ll let you read Barry Hessenius’ blog.

This isn’t about the money. The dollar amount is one half of one hundredth of a percent of the state budge. But the message is clear. Taxpayers don’t deserve support in their communities for arts events, children don’t need professional artist residencies and programs in their schools and creative industries and artists (unlike agriculture, education, transportation, communication, human services and energy to name a few) don’t need the slightest of governmental economic incentives or investment.

Executive director of the National Assembly of State Arts Agency, Jonathan Katz wrote: “The "savings" justifications cited as a rationale for this veto do not reflect the real mathematics of what the state gains through the Kansas Arts Commission. The real poverty expressed in the governor's action is not of the pocketbook; it is of understanding and appreciating the value of the state's cultural life.”

What sickens me most about this decision is that it will hurt in places that need it most. Brownback believes, or at least he says he does, that the private sector can pick up the difference in state and federal funding in his state. Does he know he’s in Kansas? Does he think that corporations and private foundations (of which there are few) will care about giving $500 to an arts fair or main street gallery in communities like Pratt, Lakin, St. Francis or Parsons? Does he understand that support with taxpayer’s dollars means access for children to see a string quartet in a school that has no orchestra program in a town without an orchestra? Clearly he does not.

This decision only perpetuates the stereotype that if you are a “real” artist you wouldn’t live in a place like Kansas or Nebraska, or Missouri or South Dakota. The myth that the Midwest is a vast wasteland of culture lives on in Brownback’s veto. Having spent most of my life in the Midwest, I can tell you it is not a wasteland but I can also tell you that it isn’t easy being an artist, being an arts education advocate or keeping theatres, galleries and museums alive in places with small populations and without resources, businesses or jobs.

In 1995, Garrison Keillor spoke before the Senate Subcommittee on Education, Arts and Humanities in support of funding for the National Endowment for the Arts. He said “Today, in every city and state, when Americans talk up their home town, invariably they mention the arts, a local orchestra or theater or museum or all three. It didn’t use to be this way. Forty years ago, if an American meant to have an artistic career, you got on the train to New York. Today, you can be a violinist in North Carolina, a writer in Iowa, a painter in Kansas. Today, no American family can be secure against the danger that one of its children may decide to become an artist.”

Well, Toto, if you’re a painter, you might be glad you’re not in Kansas anymore. And the people of Kansas will be the biggest losers because you’re gone. I sent the Governor an email stating this and I hope you will too.

Comment viewing options

Select your preferred way to display the comments and click "Save settings" to activate your changes.

Laura Zabel's Open Letter to Gov. Brownback

Laura Zabel, executive director of Springboard for the Arts in Minnesota, on creative brain-drain in Kansas:

I packed my truck to move to Minnesota the night I finished my last commitment at the University. In the last 13 years I can safely tell you that no one--not one single person--has ever asked why I left Kansas. Because my career is in the arts. The assumption is that, because I wanted to make a career and a living in the arts, I had to leave Kansas.

Kansas Arts Commission

Open letter to the Kansas Legislature

“What’s the matter with Kansas?”

This is what my friends across the country are asking me this week. Although it’s been decades since I lived there, they know me to be a Kansan through and through. I grew up in Manhattan, collected degrees from KU, but learned the extent of my Kansas-ness while crisscrossing the state, working with volunteers to bring cultural opportunities to their communities, thanks to the Kansas Arts Commission, shortly after it was born.

In a few short years, the number of arts councils in the state blossomed from eleven to fifty-nine. (Yes, fifty-nine arts councils in a state with so very few communities with populations of over 10,000 people!) Thirty-five years later Kansans participate in the arts in unprecedented numbers. They have access to resources that allow them to express their own Kansas-ness. Doesn’t the world deserve to know about our wide open spaces, our core values, our ability to feed the world both literally and figuratively through hard work, dedication, and creativity? This is what the arts do; they allow us to express ourselves and to train our brains to have twenty ideas instead of just one.

My head is back in Kansas this summer. I’m writing a novel about the fifty-nine Carnegie libraries that were built in the state in the early 20th Century and about the renovation of many of those same buildings into community arts centers more recently. Andrew Carnegie, a private sector guy if there ever was one, changed our state with his philanthropy … but each and every one of those Carnegie grants required government matching funds! Mr. Carnegie knew that it was government that would provide ongoing, consistent support to protect his investments. He grew libraries in places most people have never heard of … and now, thanks to the ongoing support of the Kansas Arts Commission, many of those same libraries have become thriving arts centers, full of talented Kansans, ages 3 to 103.

Honorable Legislators, I can fudge the facts for my novel to give it a happy ending, but the lives of our fellow Kansans lie in your hands. Please, do the right thing, and overturn the Governor’s veto of Kansas Arts Commission funding. Let us be remembered in a hundred years for our foresight, generosity, and commitment to future generations.

Most respectfully,
Romalyn Tilghman
Long Beach, CA

Thanks Romalyn

What a great letter Romalyn. So true to connections between Carnegie and these small towns across America. We all have saddened hearts because of this.

They lost more than arts access

Janet: You're spot on about who the losers are here, but it's not only the arts that have been lost. With this line item veto, the people of Kansas lost their democratic voice. Remember that Brownback's original executive order to close the agency was overturned after a public outcry and a bi-partisan vote of the Kansas legislature. The people and their representatives want the agency to continue, but their voices have been ignored. (see


Thank you, Janet, for pointing out the importance of both public and private support for the arts in a rural state like Kansas. I noticed you referred to the prospects of arts support in small towns such as Pratt and Parsons. Many years ago, in my first budget presentation as director of the Kansas Arts Commission, I handed to the state budget director that week's copy of the Wall Street Journal. On the front page, on the left above the fold was the headline, "Ski a 300-foot Mountain and see a Big Ball of Twine"[which happens to be in Pratt]. Now, to that headline could be added, "See the National Flatpicking Championships in Winfield, the resident professional modern dance company in Topeka, the William Inge Theatre Festival in Indpendence, the Lawrence Arts Center, and the Carnegie Arts Center that is home to the Parsons Arts & Humanities Council" -- none of which existed then and several of which were supported in their start up years by the Kansas Arts Commission. The value, impact and lasting benefits of the state's investment in a public agency to provide leadership for the artistic dimension of life in Kansas is what the governor fails to perceive. The legislature, which sent an agency budget to the governor, may or may not override his veto this time around, but eventually elected officials in Kansas will act on what the people told their legislatore they want: a reasonable measure of public support of their broad and deep participation in the arts. -
Jonathan Katz, CEO, National Assembly of Stat Arts Agencies

Thank you Jonathan


What an irony that of all the turmoil we've had over the past 30 years that Kansas would be the state to eliminate their state arts agency. I can feel your passion and disappointment in what you've written here and other places. I heart goes out to you and all those who built such a wonderful cultural atmosphere in the state from Topeka to Parsons. We know that politics are only for the moment we're in and there will be other governors and legislators that will undo the damage done by Brownback. I am sure of it.

Thank you

Thank you, Janet. You inspired me to write the governor, too.

Post new comment

(If you're a human, don't change the following field)
Your first name.
(If you're a human, don't change the following field)
Your first name.
(If you're a human, don't change the following field)
Your first name.
  • Web page addresses and e-mail addresses turn into links automatically.
  • Allowed HTML tags: <a> <em> <strong> <cite> <code> <ul> <ol> <li> <dl> <dt> <dd>
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.

More information about formatting options

Enter the characters shown in the image.