Kansas has become the first state in the union to eliminate its funding for the arts. Thank you, Governor Sam Brownback, for this Dickhead move. I expect nothing less of you.
I’m a product of Kansas’s public arts programming. I don’t know if those programs actually received funding from the Kansas Arts Council, but the programs I participated in were publicly funded somehow, and I wouldn’t be the person I am today if it hadn’t been for public arts funding.
I was fortunate to go to a public high school with pretty robust arts programs. The theater department was seemingly well-funded, and the teacher was without question the most important high school teacher I had. Public school, public funds.
During my high school years, I also participated in a city-funded theater program for youth. It was an amazing program. It kept school hours, mostly, which was great for parents, I’m sure. And the director, an enormous influence on my life then (and now), kept us busy. If you had a big role in the main production, you were often in rehearsal for most of the day. If you had a small role, or even if you had no role, you spent the day making up short plays, sometimes one or more per day. Also, it was free to participants. Public funding.
The theater itself (still in operation under the same director) is housed within one of the city parks, so its funding comes primarily, I assume, from the Parks & Rec Department. It’s a vibrant, small community theater that does a full season of productions all-year round. It’s under constant threat of cuts, and the woman in charge has done a tremendous job keeping it going, and now, friends I knew from those days have kids participating in the same teenage theater program. Publicly funded.
The Parks & Rec Department also runs a slew of summer camps. One is a theater camp, for which I was a counselor during two of my college summers. Part of my job was collaborating with one of the other counselors to write all of the scripts that the 9-13 year-old actors would perform. Highlights included “The Seven Voyages of Sinplaid the Salesman” and “Jane Bonda: Secret Agent.” Another play was nothing but vegetable puns held loosely together by the premise that the Vegetable of the Loom was suing the Fruit of the Loom. It was my first writing job; paid for by the City of Topeka. It was minimum wage (or perhaps a hair above it), but still: publicly funded arts programming.
What our government pays for — and what it doesn’t — tells us what we value as a society. What does it say about us (or about Kansans), if we don’t value creativity and beauty? There are plenty of statistics about the economic or educational value of the arts, and this open letter from an arts professional is just one result of devaluing the arts in society. But ultimately, this is about our values themselves. The arts are the purest expression of our humanity. How can we not value that?
My parents valued the arts. While some of my friends were being forced by their parents to get jobs over their summer vacations, my folks recognized the inherent value and experience of this summer theater program. But we also didn’t have so much money that I’d have been able to pay a fee to participate in a program at, say, a for-profit or even a nonprofit arts organization.
I wouldn’t be writing today if it hadn’t been for the publicly-funded arts programs I was lucky enough to participate in. That’s true for my day job, as well as my other creative writing.
I don’t know that Governor Brownback’s decimation of the Kansas Arts Council will mean the immediate demise of the theater programs I grew up loving. As I said, it probably gets the bulk of its funding from the Parks & Rec Department.
But the Governor’s action sets a tone that makes it okay to cut them, or gut them, or eliminate them all together. And that’s not okay. It’s really not okay at all.