Whither arts funding in bad economic times?

It didn’t take long. Within hours of Gov. Mike Rounds announcing he was proposing cutting all funding for the South Dakota Arts Council, the e-mails started flying. One I received even contained a sample letter to cut and paste and send your legislator (or the entire Legislature) urging reinstatement of that funding. And arts organizations aren’t alone in seeking to keep their funds in the budget. But is that realistic?

Let me be clear about one thing. I wholeheartedly support government funding for the arts and agree with the Arts Council that “access to the arts by all South Dakotans is intrinsic to the well-being of our communities and the state.” In fact, if I had my druthers, the arts would have a greater share of the budget and increase each year. Yet I have the same wish for for all levels of education, health care, roads and so on. And if wishes were horses…..

The fact is the state has a budget problem. When times are tight you have to cut back on spending. We do it in our personal lives and the state is constitutionally required to have a balanced budget. I certainly don’t think wholly eliminating arts funding is necessary. But those of us who support the arts must recognize that cultural activities are not and should not be exempt (although, ironically, the Arts Council is within the Department of Tourism and Economic Development, whose funds for tourism advertising and economic development are not proposed to be reduced). Look at some of the other cuts: $20.9 million from education, $15.3 million from health and human services, $4 million from public safety. The fact the $668,509 for the Arts Council seems like a drop in the bucket comparatively doesn’t mean other programs don’t have equally strong arguments to keep all their funding. Nor does it mean the pain should not be spread around.

Unquestionably, the pain of loss of or reductions in arts funding would be felt statewide. Take a look at the Arts Council’s 2008 annual report and you’ll see just how much impact it has. Just through its “challenge grants,” money has gone to arts councils in Aberdeen, Brookings, Deadwood-Lead, Rapid City, Sioux Falls and Yankton; theatre companies from the Prairie Repertory Theatre to the Black Hills Playhouse to community theatres in Aberdeen, Mitchell, Pierre, Rapid City and Watertown; and entities such as the South Dakota Art Museum, the Black Hills and South Dakota symphony orchestras, the Sioux Falls Jazz & Blues Society and the National Music Museum. Anyone who thinks these groups don’t, in the words of the Art Council, “contribute to vibrant, progressive communities [and] enhance the state’s quality of life” is oblivious to the real world.

That isn’t the only reason a total cut is ill advised? Not only does the money help generate federal funds, the economic stimulus package passed last week by the House includes $50 million for the National Endowment for the Arts. And if you claim arts funding isn’t important to economic development, you’re not using common sense.

There’s no easy answer but it strikes me the arts shouldn’t try to be untouchable given the other services and programs facing the axe. Patrons of the arts and artists need to recognize the necessity of state government living within its means but advocate that a proportional approach, not complete elimination, is the only sensible solution. For example, the education, health and human services and public safety cuts range from 3 to 3.7 percent of their total budgets.

Documenting how the arts impact sales tax or other revenues is important but the effort also needs to be ready to show where the money should come from. Is it reallocation of funds within the Department of Tourism? Should budget reserves be tapped for other essential items or for discretionary spending like the arts? Should changes in the licensing of or the state’s share in video lottery go for, say, artists in the schools? Should there be a quarter or half percent increase in the sales tax on “spectator events” for arts funding?

I don’t know if any of those is all or even part of the solution. What I do know is that in our current economic situation, the arts community cannot be or be perceived to be insular. If the arts are an essential part of our communities and culture, we must also recognize there’s a concomitant obligation to share the burden created when economic issues confront us all.

And the nation which disdains the mission of art invites the fate of Robert Frost’s hired man, the fate of having “nothing to look backward to with pride, and nothing to look forward to with hope.”

John F. Kennedy, Amherst College, Oct. 26, 1963

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