Though the Kentucky Arts Council was not cut from Gov. Matt Bevin’s budget Tuesday, an overflow crowd gathered at ArtsPlace Wednesday that had no interest in gearing back its advocacy for arts funding.
“Let’s not take yesterday as a ‘phew’ moment,” said Aldy Milliken, organizer of the group Kentuckians for the Arts, which was formed over the weekend in the face of a widespread rumor that the council was on the chopping block. “Forty percent, 40 percent since 2008, that’s how much money has been allocated away from the Kentucky Arts Council and support of the arts. We need to get people to start thinking about the arts as an economic development platform, and economic development idea, as well as an educational idea.”
While it was repeated several times that, despite the rumor, the Arts Council received the same cut as many other organizations in the budget – 4.5 percent immediately, by executive action, and nine percent over the next two budget years – the feeling in the room was that the arts had taken enough hits in previous budget cycles, and advocates needed to show lawmakers the value of the arts.
The panel addressing the issue included Milliken, LexArts President and CEO Ellen A. “Nan” Plummer, who organized the event; State Rep. Kelly Flood, D-Lexington; Arts Council board member Jayne Moore Waldrop; Arts Council vice-chair Everett McCorvey and Commerce Lexington Board Chair Alan Stein. Arts Council director Lori Meadows was also in attendance, but did not speak, and in fact is not allowed to speak publicly about the budget.
Flood said that the fact that the arts have been so often targeted in budget cuts across the nation helped make the rumors about the Governor’s budget easy to believe.
“I think it is significant that we did hear a rumor that the Arts Council was going to be cut,” she said. “Frankly, of all the places that could be cut, I did think the arts council was a possibility. That isn’t a disparaging remark, looking at the reality of how many people pull back fast, and this is where they go. And we wonder why later, everybody’s life feels more depleted because of it.”
McCorvey said that the Arts Council board had not stayed silent as the rumors swirled, but added that it was not appropriate for the board to respond publicly until it knew the facts. But, he said, the board had a plan if there had been a total or significant cut.
“Our next steps are to galvanize the energy around the state, and have appropriate conversations with our legislators so that we can do what is best for the Commonwealth of Kentucky,” McCorvey said. “We have an administration in place that was democratically elected – elections have results – so what we have to do now is work within that system to make sure that we work with the administration to do what’s best for the Commonwealth of Kentucky.”
McCorvey lightly admonished some “mean-spirited” conversation on social media and in other corners as the rumor spread, but said for the most part there was positive talk and “wonderful stories about how the arts have impacted your lives.”
He introduced a new website, Growkyarts.org, where he said people are encouraged to share their stories of the arts to be used in advocating for arts funding. He emphasized that the site was not presented by the Arts Council, but “by the citizen members of the board.” In addition to a forum for stories, the site contains information such as statistics that show things like the Arts Council losing more that $2 million in funding from the state legislature since 2001.
Much of the conversation of the meeting, which ran around an hour and 15 minutes and included time for comments and questions, was geared toward talk about connecting with legislators and advocating for the arts with stories and statistics that show the economic and social value of the arts.
Of Commerce Lexington, Stein said, “We all unanimously consent to the idea that the arts are an economic driver in our community. Commerce Lexington has always used the arts as a selling tool for Lexington and Central Kentucky.
“We are always encouraging young and old entrepreneurs, and so often we find that those folks are rooted in or come from the arts communities. Artists are in fact small businesses and entrepreneurs, in each their own way.”
He added that the arts scene is often part of the discussion when encouraging businesses to come to Kentucky.
“When we have the administration suggesting that we should cut across the board, perhaps we should think about growing the top end,” Stein said. “I’ve been in business 45 years. I have never believed that you can … cut your way to prosperity. You have to drive your top end. You have to create revenue. You have to be smart how you do that, and we’re smart when we use the arts to do that.”
Speakers from the panel and the audience encouraged building relationships with legislators from visiting them in Frankfort to inviting them to concerts and openings where they can experience the arts to performing and showing work around the Capitol during the legislative session.
There was also discussion of how to know which legislators are supportive of arts funding and which aren’t, to which Stein commented, “If the NRA can tell us what everybody’s voting record is on guns, there ought to be a damn group that can do the same thing for the arts.”
One speaker from the audience did caution against too much preaching to the choir.
“I’m a little worried about the bubble, I’m worried about insularness,” the speaker, who identified himself as Carl, said. “Go find non-artists and bring them to the arts. If we bring more people in, we raise the level of all the arts.”