How Is Your State Arts Agency Doing?

(3-9-10) I recently visited GIA board member Robert Booker, Executive Director at the Arizona Commission on the Arts. They lost 34% of their funding from 2009 into 2010 and are looking at more cuts as their state legislature seeks to reduce budget deficits in 2011. I also had a conversation with Phillip Horn at the Pennsylvania Council on the Arts. They are in the same situation and were nearly zeroed out last year. Both these men are veteran arts agency directors with political savvy, and an understanding of the democratic (small “d” intentional) mission and importance of governmental funding for arts and culture. They are doing everything right. And still they may face more cuts. At this point, state arts agencies are hanging in there. We haven’t lost any and hopefully, through all our efforts, we won’t.

Most state agency directors understand is that they are part of a large business that is in economic crises. The arts, like all state departments, will take cuts. The National Assembly of State Arts Agencies press release dated January 11, 2010 cites, “States continue to struggle with what experts are calling the worst recession since the 1930s. States reduced general fund expenditures in fiscal year 2009 and are expected to reduce them again in fiscal 2010. This marks the first time that state spending has declined in back-to-back years. Between fiscal years 2009 and 2011, states expect to face budget gaps totaling $250 billion. Analysts predict that state revenues will likely not recover until 2014 or 2015. Appropriations are likely to decline in 2011 for many state services, including the arts. Most state arts agencies that experienced cuts during the last recession have yet to fully recover.”

In the eco-system of arts funding, state agencies play an important role. Like governmental local arts agencies, they have an obligation to serve underserved populations, rural areas, inner-city neighborhoods and ethnically diverse artists and arts organizations. I once told a governor that state funding was important because it assured access and that is what governmental dollars were meant to do. He seemed to get that idea. When the argument comes up that government shouldn’t fund the arts, it makes me think about our other cultural and natural treasures that the government protects for all citizens without question: parks, lake fronts, ocean beaches, libraries. Should access to music, theatre, dance and visual art be any different than access to a baseball field or a good book?

As arts funders, what we all know is that no single entity can support a healthy nonprofit arts sector. We are all in this together. I suggest if you are a private foundation, community foundation or corporate funder of the arts, you might just pick up the phone or email your state executive director and ask, “How are you doing and how can I help?” Some will have a suggestion for action, others will simply be thrilled that you cared enough to call. It’s a troubling and lonely time to be a state arts agency director. Private funders, whose dollars are invested along side governmental dollars in many, many of our arts organizations should be concerned. They should be ready to help even if its just informing the board of trustees of the situation or making a phone call to a fellow funder who is working every day to keep the doors open, get through the storm and stay alive to fight another day.