What are we to make of the new Kentucky Arts Council, the latest state agency to be “abolished, recreated and restructured” by Gov. Matt Bevin?
“The reorganized Council strikes the appropriate balance of expertise in the arts and entrepreneurship,” Don Parkinson, Secretary of the Cabinet of Tourism, Arts and Heritage, said in a news release. “The new arts council will focus on ensuring that Kentucky artisans have the skills and knowledge to develop and successfully sell their products.”
On the face of it, that makes sense, which is why the council has been aggressively doing it for years. Among its many successful programs: Kentucky Crafted; the Architectural Artists and Performing Artists directories; a peer advisory network; business training and legal resources.
If Bevin wants to do even more to help Kentucky’s artists sell their exceptional work, that would be terrific. But many are skeptical of his motives.
Bevin reduced the board from 16 to 15 members and replaced all but four with new appointees. Three are designated to represent expertise in education, workforce and economic development. Some of the new appointees are experienced or seem well-qualified; others are relatively unknown.
But what attracted the most attention was Bevin’s dismissal of the council’s executive director, Lori Meadows, whose 11-year tenure has been highly successful despite budget cuts of more than 40 percent over the past eight years.
It is a mystery why Meadows and several respected board members were dumped. Was it just politics, or is this a pretext to cut state arts funding even further? The council gets only about $2.6 million in state funds, plus $800,000 in matching grants from the National Endowment for the Arts.
Meadows is widely respected in both the arts and business communities. It will be interesting to see who is hired to replace her — an experienced arts administrator, or a political hack?
Soon after Bevin was elected, rumors swirled that he planned to slash the arts council’s funding. So far, that hasn’t happened. But the governor was said to have been furious in August when the Affrilachian Poets, a 25-year-old group of black Appalachian writers, refused to accept a Governor’s Award in the Arts.
“It is the opinion of the group that the governor’s comments, positions and actions regarding education in general, the Humanities specifically, universal healthcare, criminal justice reform, and the LGBTQ community have been reprehensible and go against the core of who we are as writers and educators and as artists committed to resisting oppression,” the group said in a statement.
We can expect battles in Washington soon over funding for the national endowments for the arts and humanities, which have long been targeted by conservatives. And Donald Trump’s hissy fit over the “Hamilton” cast’s respectful appeal to Mike Pence provided another troubling glimpse into the president-elect’s lack of respect for artistic expression and free speech.
I have always suspected that the issue is not that conservatives don’t like art; they just don’t like most of the people who create it. Artists are unconventional, and they believe there is more to life than money. They tend to be liberal — socially, intellectually and politically. And they are not afraid to speak out.
I understand why some conservatives don’t think public money should be spent on the arts. It is similar to the argument liberals make against spending public money on religion, such as incentives and tax breaks for Kentucky’s Ark Encounter theme park. But as long as government money is spent to promote economic development, both kinds of investments must be considered.
Studies clearly show the growing importance of a vibrant arts community to economic development. The creative thinking learned through arts education and appreciation is increasingly essential to business success. While sometimes hard to directly measure, arts education, exhibits and awards programs create more artists, more customers for their work and attract tourists, businesses and residents to the places where they are located.
But more than that, a vibrant arts community creates a stronger, healthier society. This has always been true in Kentucky, which is famous for its outstanding writers, artists, musicians and craftsmen. The arts are central to Kentucky’s identity.
How will Bevin and his appointees carry out his stated goals for the Kentucky Arts Council? Will Kentucky Crafted and other entrepreneurial programs be adequately funded? Will the small fellowship stipends be continued to help Kentucky’s most talented artists become more commercially successful?
Will several hundred thousand dollars in grants go out to about 75 arts groups in February as scheduled? Will exhibits, community arts programs and arts education be funded? Will diversity continue to be a priority? Whom will Bevin appoint to succeed Kentucky Poet Laureate George Ella Lyon to promote the literary arts when her two-year term expires Jan. 1?
Kentuckians who appreciate the arts and free expression will be watching. And we are not afraid to speak out.