The Unique Role of State Arts Agencies (Janet's Blog)

(1-10-2011) A member emailed me recently and asked, “What do you know about state arts agencies privatizing? Our governor might eliminate our state agency and…”

This conversation could have come from any number of states this year. As new governors take office and legislatures begin new sessions, most states are facing deficits like they’ve never seen before. There will be the tendency to get rid of everything in state government that isn’t tied down in order to balance budgets (or attempt to come close.) What about those cultural arts commissions, and state arts councils? What happens if they aren’t appropriated enough funds or staff to continue operating as they have in the past?

This was the topic of a recent symposium sponsored by WESTAF (Western States Arts Federation). An interesting and provocative discussion included changing organizational structures away from grantmaking and towards technical assistance, advocacy and resource development for nonprofits and artists. I wasn’t in attendance at this meeting but have talked to a couple people who were and their preliminary report entitled Rethinking the Structure and Scope of State Arts Agencies is pretty interesting.

State arts agencies were almost all created in the late 60’s with a challenge grant of $25,000 from the newly created National Endowment for the Arts. Essentially, the federal government, through the NEA, said, “if you will match this money and create a government office solely to support the arts, we will give you this money.” All states, except Vermont, created state offices to receive and match the funds. Vermont incorporated as a nonprofit organization but operates today as a quasi-governmental agency passing state funds on to nonprofit organizations.

Today the basic state grant from the NEA is around $900,000. Forty-five years later, all states have managed to preserve those offices. In many cases, the carrot of federal funding has kept them alive. States like California and Colorado, for example, where budgets were cut severely, maintain an office and staff with enough state appropriations to receive the federal match.

In my opinion, the uniqueness of state arts agencies doesn’t lie in its traditional role as grantmaker but, rather, in its larger responsibility to promote, inspire and lead state government policy in cultural education and growth. When we talk about “privatizing” state arts agencies, we minimize their essential role as a connection between state government policy and practice and the service that arts organizations and artists provide to citizens. We also assume, in these economically challenging times that the private sector will contribute where government would not. I have two basic problems with this.

First, I believe that government has a responsibility to consider the cultural wellbeing of its citizens. Just as states feel the need to preserve and maintain our areas of natural beauty at state parks for its citizens, so should it preserve and maintain, in whatever form it deems locally appropriate, our intellectual and humanistic beauty. We have state parks because we believe all citizens should be able to enjoy this oceanfront or mountaintop. We fund the arts because we believe there are certain cultural opportunities that the marketplace will not provide that are important to our citizens.

Secondly, privatizing a statewide granting program for the arts would be tough. It is our inclination as individual and as organizational funders, for the most part, to want to support the communities in which we live and work. One only has to observe the phenomenal growth of community foundations in the past twenty years to substantiate this. Even rural states with few metropolitan areas see their local community foundations in those small cities raising more dollars than their state community foundations. So where does this leave those folks living and working outside the economically more viable cities? Local arts agencies have an obvious relevancy with a practical and direct link between citizens and the artists and arts organizations that provide services. Statewide organizations are once removed from “ownership” which makes raising private dollars more precarious.

The purpose of state arts agencies, as I see it, is to improve the lives of citizens living in the state by promoting and supporting the work of artists and arts organizations within that state. This mission doesn’t require grantmaking, although, let’s face it, having more money to give to local arts groups and artists is always an admirable goal. But, without it, there still remains a fundamental purpose for a cultural agency within state government. That mission is as an advocate, promoter, partner, technical assistance provider and entrepreneur within government to give artists and arts-centric organizations the opportunity to provide the kind of cultural education and growth that improves our daily lives and makes us a vibrant society.

You don’t have to be a public administration expert to understand that elected officials don’t like creating new entities. The creation of a new state agency later after a shutdown would be difficult, at best. Consequently, we have to work hard to keep that office intact and functional within state government. We continue to defend and request appropriations for a state government arts entity through these challenging economic times. Private funders should become active in that debate in order to protect their own investments and to maintain a healthy eco-system for the arts in their state. The preservation of our many cultures, our people and our histories that are unique to our states and territories are what’s at risk.