Starving Arts

“…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.”

–President John F. Kennedy, Amherst College, October 26, 1963

Legislative committee meetings are often places where the real people speak. Their voices often are lost or drowned out in the often partisan or narrow agenda-drive floor debates. That’s why the Missourinet staff tries to cover dozens of committee hearings each year, especially early in the legislative session when bills are molded to at least some degree by committees and the voice of the citizen sometimes is raised.

Appropriations, or budget, committees–the House and Senate differ on what to call them–are holding a lot of hearings now. It’s time for agencies, organizations, and individuals to make a case for their share of the state’s estimated $24 billion spending plan. The governor will announce Monday night his recommendations for cutting the fiscal pie. The legislature will spend the next three months writing its version.

Arts organizations appearing before the Senate Appropriations Committee this week told committee members the legislature and the Nixon administration have put them on a starvation diet and have reduced the Missouri Arts Council to skin and bones, and not much skin at that. Arts Council chairman Nola Ruth pleaded with the committee for three million dollars “so that we can survive.”

Here’s a key thing that Missouri’s tight-fisted taxpayers might want to remember about funding for MAC and its related organizations. Out-of-staters pay the taxes that are supposed to support the council’s work. The next time Albert Pujols of the California Angels and the other millionaire athletes of whatever sports play games in Missouri or the next time a big time popular singer comes to Missouri to perform, the part of their salary that they earn while performing in Missouri stays in Missouri. It’s the Athletes and Entertainers Income tax and 60% of it is supposed to go into the Missouri Cultural Trust Fund under a law passed twenty years ago. That money is then split up among library networking, public broadcasting, historic preservation, the state humanities council, and MAC.

But backers of the arts programs those millions of dollars are supposed to fund say some sleight of hand is taking that money away from them.

The President of Missouri Citizens for the Arts, Carol Gregg, notes MAC was “zeroed out” in the state budgets for FY 2011 and 2012. It got about one-fifth of what it should have gotten this fiscal year. Nola Ruth says MAC has had to use its reserves, mostly privately-raised, to continue its programs. Now, she says, there is so little left that the council can provide an average of only 15% of the costs of arts programs at the local level.

Even in its reduced circumstances the arts council supported 15,000 events that drew 8.2 million people last year. Ruth says the council continues to “make sure the citizens of the state of Missouri receive the benefits of the arts, which are massive.”

But here’s what has been happening to the money the law says must go into that trust fund–as Carol Gregg and some legislative budget-writers have explained it to us and to each other. The governor has in the past withheld money appropriated by the legislature to keep the state budget in balance (the state constitution forbids deficit spending) or to meet an emergency. But the governor does not need to return that money to its source when he decides the state can afford to spend it. The best example is the $172 million he withheld from various state programs and used for disaster relief after the Joplin tornado of 2011. State auditor Tom Schweich filed a lawsuit in October, 2011 challenging the constitutionality of the governor’s actions. We’ve been told that case is headed to oral arguments before the Supreme Court in March.

Arts advocates say that’s what has happened to the money that state law specifically says should go to them. And the legislators we have talked to agree but they say this is not the hill they want to die on in their fights with the governor; there are more important fights to pick.

Some would argue that the arts are not essential at a time when our state has failed to meet its promises for funding public schools by about $450 million, when other programs critical to thousands of Missourians have curtailed services to the state’s citizens, when roads continue to deteriorate and state colleges and universities keep jacking up tuitions because the state no longer adequately supports its higher education system. What good is a concert, an art exhibit, a quilt show, a storytelling festival at times like this?

Fifty years ago this year, less than a month before he was murdered in Dallas, President Kennedy went to Amherst College to speak in honor of the great poet Robert Frost, who had died earlier that year. He answered the question that day.

“I look forward to a great future for America, a future in which our country will match its military strength with our moral restraint, its wealth with our wisdom, its power with our purpose. I look forward to an America which will not be afraid of grace and beauty, which will protect the beauty of our natural environment, which will preserve the great old American houses and squares and parks of our national past, and which will build handsome and balanced cities for our future. I look forward to an America which will reward achievement in the arts as we reward achievement in business or statecraft. I look forward to an America which will steadily raise the standards of artistic accomplishment and which will steadily enlarge cultural opportunities for all of our citizens. And I look forward to an America which commands respect throughout the world not only for its strength but for its civilization as well. And I look forward to a world which will be safe not only for democracy and diversity but also for personal distinction.”

And that’s what’s behind people such as Nola Ruth and Carol Gregg telling the members of the Senate Appropriations Committee this week that, surely, the state can find three million dollars in a $24 Billion budget for the arts in Missouri.

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