This morning I noticed the Oklahoma City Chamber of Commerce posted a Youtube video a few days ago. Essentially it states that OKC is a city on the rise. Let’s wipe away the misty tears of pride for a second. Whether you believe the hype or not, you have to admit, OKC and the Metro area have come a long way in the last few years. What else is featured? The arts. The narrator proclaims that OKC’s cultural diversity feeds its creativity and innovation. The video later goes on to highlight various arts institutions and programs.
Sounds amazing doesn’t it?
Well, as it turns out House Bill 1895 is poised to burst this otherwise upwardly mobile bubble.
Representative Josh Cockcroft (R-Tecumseh) wrote a blog post explaining the rationale for cutting State funding for the arts. And it appears he is taking notes from Kansas Governor Sam Brownback. Last year Gov. Brownback eliminated the Kansas State Art Commission claiming it was not a core function of state government. Cockcroft makes a similar argument and backs up his position by stating that a study group held last summer, in conjunction with Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs – a conservative think tank, after studying the issue, decided to introduce fiscal legislation to bring the Oklahoma state government back on point. The bill would cut funding by 25% from now until 2017, which is when all funding for the Oklahoma Arts Council would be eliminated.
Cockcroft writes, “The question each of us must ask is if we are properly funding the core functions of state government. If the answer is ‘no’ in any area, it must be our responsibility to ensure that each taxpayer dollar is going to the funding of those core functions before we ever look at the many side projects of which we have been so ready to fund in years past. My goal is not to destroy the arts in Oklahoma, but rather to start a discussion of what our responsibilities are. I have nothing against the arts, in fact; quite the contrary. However, I do not support the misuse of taxpayer’s dollars. Every dollar saved from these side projects is a dollar better spent for our education system, state employees, and agencies across Oklahoma.”
Currently, where the two politicians diverge in budgetary tactics is that Brownback has learned from his mistake. According to Stateline, “This year Brownback quietly reversed course. He proposed the creation of a new “Creative Arts Industries Commission” that would focus on the potential of the arts and creative industries such as graphic design and architecture to help the state’s economy.”
So what about the Oklahoma State Arts Council? You may or may not know this, but in reality this state agency does help to generate a lot of revenue given how little funding it receives. You see, the Oklahoma Arts Council receives 85% of its funding from state appropriations and another 15% from a National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) grant. The catch? The state of Oklahoma is only eligible to receive federal funding through the Oklahoma Arts Council, which must meet strict NEA funding guidelines. According to the Oklahoma Arts Council, 80% of their budget goes onto fund community grants, which are then distributed throughout Oklahoma.
For those of you who live in Oklahoma City Metro, consider all the progress OKC has made within the last year alone. Mayor Mick Cornett made a series of posts via social media about the State of the City 2013. Yesterday he said, “In March came word from a publication called Business Journal. They were trying to determine which cities were growing in the world of arts and entertainment. We were in the top 10 percent.”
Why knock OKC out of the race now? Or perhaps it is better to ask, if OKC is actively trying to attract new businesses and young professionals from other cities, how is slowly defunding a very effective state agency going to aid in this endeavor?
Cockcroft, nor HB 1895, provide no clear explanation. Remember, Cockcroft says it is not his intent to destroy the arts in Oklahoma, but when it comes to starting the discussion on what our responsibilities are, he doesn’t list many alternatives nor does he examine the pros and cons with any kind of depth. He essentially says we should privatize the management of the arts, but he fails to suggest how that should be accomplished nor does he discuss what core values should be protected. A few questions that go unasked are : how will diversity be fostered, who will decide what kinds of public art projects will be approved, and how will families afford to fund their children’s access to quality arts education?
To put it in perspective: Oklahoma spends $4 million dollars so that cities like OKC can host cultural events like Festival of the Arts, fund public art projects, and much more. And according to a Los Angeles Time article, which cites a 2010 study by Americans for the Arts, it is estimated that in Oklahoma the arts generate about $29 million dollars in annual tax revenue.
Think about it. This issue goes beyond the tourism trade and hits us right here at home. When local arts districts and institutions host events such as a monthly art walk, consider what people do. Where are they getting their gas? What are they buying? Where are they going to eat? What shows are they going to see? Now let’s take our focus off consumers for a second. Here’s another example: when a city purchases public art consider the money paid to local contractors to build or install it. Consider the local businesses from which supplies and raw materials are purchased.
Everything I just asked you to think about, that generates tax money for cities as well as the state. It also employes people and supports the economy as a whole. How is privatizing the management of this system going to improve our lives?
Alright. So we taxpayers spend $4 million dollars and generate $29 million dollars: I’m not a Harvard-trained economist, but the math would suggest earning $25 million dollars a year is a good return rate for Oklahoma, as the sum goes well beyond breaking even.
Going back to Cockcroft’s statement about not supporting “the misuse of taxpayer’s dollars” because “every dollar saved from these side projects is a dollar better spent for our education system, state employees, and agencies across Oklahoma;” let us now ask the following:
What else does the Oklahoma Arts Council do in addition to helping communities across Oklahoma diversify their economic strategies while also improving the quality of life?
The quick answer: it helps to fund art education in schools through grants and assists in arts education program development.
It is no secret that the majority of Oklahoma schools lack a solid arts foundation even though Oklahoma law mandates the subject be taught statewide. As a parent of children in the public school system, I do appreciate what our school and teachers can provide. But when I consider the pressure schools are under to prepare students for standardized testing and how much classroom time is devoted to that goal, I realize my children are not getting the highest quality of arts education. Which is a shame, because time and again the studies suggest that access to a quality arts education plays a huge role in academic success.
According to the Oklahoma Arts Council: “Studies show that students who have four years of high school arts education score higher on college entrance exams than students with little or no arts education. Arts education often improves performance in math and science, increases school attendance, promotes civic engagement, and decreases anti-social behavior.”
This is to say nothing of the therapeutic role the arts provide for special needs students. But I digress. By Oklahoma standards my family is solidly middle class, so we pick up the bill and send our kids to arts programs like those provided by The Firehouse Arts Center in Norman, we also enroll them in other arts programs as opportunities arise, and we often attend a good majority of art-related events.
If Cockcroft finds support for his bill, I’m worried that the classes and local institutions I can afford to send my children to will have to radically alter their programs for lack of funding or that I will see prices go up drastically as the institution becomes a privatized for-profit venture. Yeah, I said it. I’m worried that our family will be priced out of these opportunities. As it is, these classes are not cheap and I doubt families who make less than mine can afford to send their kids to the programs that exist now. I worry about the events I have been taking my children to for years, which are available to all regardless of socio-economic status, will suffer a loss in not only quality but diversity.
As a taxpayer who lives in this state, it troubles me to see such short-sighted legislation being proposed. I have not lived in Oklahoma all my life, but I’m here now. Frustrating as it is, I want to know why this state tends to see such backwards legislation when cities like Oklahoma City are striving for progress. And this is to say nothing of the money and time that is wasted when blatantly unconstitutional legislation passes and then goes on to be overturned in the court system. With that in mind, why do most of the conservative legislators in Oklahoma seem to be relying solely on think tanks to generate new bills?
Is it really that hard to look across the nation to examine which states are finding success with their public policies? Clearly Kansas realized its mistake, and yet we have Rep. Cockcroft pointing to what Gov. Brownback did last year as an example of how we should move forward. I mean, even Mitt Romney is capable of proposing progressive legislation. Oklahoma, conservative as it is, would do well to focus on being innovative instead of short-changing itself for the sake of political ideology alone. To be honest, if Oklahoma mandates arts education, but then cuts funding to a state agency that aids in that endeavor, I’m not entirely sure how HB 1895 is going to help advance the government’s core function.
At any rate, many Oklahomans and arts advocacy groups appear to be voicing their opposition to HB 1895. But it is not all discontent. There are advocacy opportunities for people who want to work with legislators. Saturday Jan 26th at 2:00 p.m. the Oklahoma Artists Network meets to promote a more cohesive coalition of citizens and politicians alike. Its goal for Saturday is this: “Supporting the arts is a uniting issue among politicians across party lines on all levels of government, but inspiring real advocacy once the election season ends remains a tricky endeavor for the state’s creative community. The Oklahoma Artist Network are bringing together civic leaders, politicians, and members of the arts industry to discuss how to further develop advocacy on the city and state level for the FREE Event.”
If you are troubled by this issue here is a short list of organizations and resources that you may find of benefit:
You can also e-mail Rep. Cockcroft at: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Or contact his office via the following methods:
Oklahoma City, OK 73105