Arts can't depend on politics

Friday, February 9, 2007

For most of us, art and culture are probably the last things on our minds when we think about state politics.

In a place like Jefferson City -- where political turf battles over gay sex bans, college loan funds and how to spend revenue surpluses are the standard -- it seems that the beauty of artistic expression has no place. It can get ugly in the statehouse, where the political discord would be loud enough to drown out a symphony sometimes.

But ask Dr. Robert Gifford about the arts and state politics, and he'll tell you the two are intertwined in ways that go far beyond which band is playing at the inaugural gala. For art lovers, Jefferson City can be a battleground, and in the not-too-distant past, it has been.

Gifford is one of the many arts advocates who descended upon the state Capitol Wednesday to stress the need for arts funding in the state budget. As a member of the not-for-profit lobbying group Missouri Citizens for the Arts, Gifford wants to see the arts get their proper due in the state budget, and he and his colleagues will use as much political pressure as they can muster to see that happen.

In other years, when the state coffers weren't in such good shape, Gifford and his colleagues had a lot to be angry about. During the Holden administration, the Missouri Arts Council -- an agency that funds arts-related programming around the state, especially funding for local arts councils -- was actually funded at $0 one year. Zero money makes it a lot harder to keep that arts programming going. Take the ArtsCape festival for instance. Without state funding, that event may not even take place.

This year Gifford and his colleagues have something to be happy about. Despite a rather nasty lawsuit filed against the state by the Kansas City Symphony alleging an illegal lack of state funding, Gov. Matt Blunt has given arts advocates what they want -- cash for culture. Blunt is recommending the transfer of $7.8 million of funds from the athletes and entertainers tax into the Missouri Cultural Trust, which funds the arts council and state arts grant programs. That's twice the level of last year's funding. The head of state is also recommending a $500,000 transfer from general revenue to fund the state arts council.

Of course, the arts are often at the losing end of the state budget in lean years, so one wonders if this kind of expressed commitment to the arts would exist within a meager budget. The answer can be predicted with almost 100 percent probability -- no.

And the news is good on the federal level, too, with President Bush recommending $128.4 million for the National Endowment for the Arts.

But not everything is kosher. Arts advocates want more than just funding for cultural programs -- they want an emphasis on arts education.

No Child Left Behind has left arts education behind, and an already developed arts section of the state MAP test now sits in a drawer somewhere, not being used.

"We need to increase the math and reading scores, but there are all kinds of statistics that show if we cut the arts, we're going to hurt learning," Gifford says.

So when the arts advocates went to the Capitol this week, you can bet the legislators didn't just hear praise for Blunt's proposals.

But this is only one year among many, and there have been a lot of bad ones in the past. Arts advocates can't count on the legislature forever, because in another budget year, as soon as things go wrong, funds will dry up. That's a guarantee.

There's only one true answer to the dilemma -- instead of letting the government fund the arts through taxes, why don't we the people take things into our own hands. We can fund the arts in our own communities, all it takes is a concentrated effort. Why trust government to do so for us? Are the arts a public good like highways?

Of course, that means more people have to care about the arts -- enough to open up their wallets, not just their hearts and minds. Many people already do care that much, and you may know some of them, but I guess there just aren't enough of them, because arts advocates still cry out for more funding. It's time to take matters into our own hands and not depend on the government. Everyone has something to give, be it time or money. In the end, we'll all be better for it.

That is, unless you don't mind your taxes being spent on arts programming (actually, most of that money comes from people who don't reside in-state). I don't, but then again, I don't mind spending my tax money on health care for the poor, either. I wonder how many people like me are around here?

Regardless, it's time to shed the arts' dependence on government. Power to the people.

Until then, we just have to keep hoping for good budget years.

Matt Sanders is the Arts & Leisure editor for the Southeast Missourian and the editor of OFF Magazine

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