Tom Eblen

State investment in the arts pays big returns. Why doesn’t Gov. Matt Bevin get it?

Stephanie Brown of Tenth Post Handwovens in Louisville looks on as Emma Taylor, 11, Harrison Ward, 9, and Libby Taylor feel the textile she is weaving on the loom at Kentucky Crafted: The Market at Lexington Center on March 7, 2015. The Kentucky Arts Council organizes the huge annual show, which helps Kentucky artists and craftsmen find customers to buy their work.
Stephanie Brown of Tenth Post Handwovens in Louisville looks on as Emma Taylor, 11, Harrison Ward, 9, and Libby Taylor feel the textile she is weaving on the loom at Kentucky Crafted: The Market at Lexington Center on March 7, 2015. The Kentucky Arts Council organizes the huge annual show, which helps Kentucky artists and craftsmen find customers to buy their work. Herald-Leader File Photo

Gov. Matt Bevin’s plan to slash education funding and eliminate 70 entire programs rather than face up to long-overdue tax reform has attracted a lot of attention. It also has distracted from deep cuts he wants to make in state support for the arts.

If Kentucky lawmakers have any sense, they will restore Bevin’s cuts to the arts, or at least limit the damage. This isn’t just about arts and culture — it is about jobs and Kentucky’s economy, both now and in the future.

It also is about a pattern of hostility and cluelessness Bevin has shown toward the arts in general, the Kentucky Arts Council in particular and the vital role they play in education and economic development.

Among the programs Bevin zeroed-out was the Kentucky Folk Art Center in Morehead. He cut several hundred thousand dollars in support for performing arts. And he has proposed a 35 percent cut — about $932,000 — in funding for the Arts Council, which already has seen its budget reduced by more than 40 percent since 2008.

Arts Council funding is peanuts in the overall state budget, but it has a big impact.

In fiscal 2017, the Arts Council invested about $1.2 million in 93 local nonprofit arts organizations, many in small towns and rural communities. That included about $700,000 in grants from the National Endowment for the Arts, which, by the way, President Donald Trump wants to eliminate. The organizations that received that Arts Council funding provided jobs for 694 full-time, 770 part-time and 2,457 contract workers and returned $7 million in state, local and federal taxes and fees, the council says.

“Even the little bitty grants mean so much to some of these organizations,” said Todd Lowe, a Louisville investment manager who was on the Arts Council board until Bevin removed him and several others two years ago. “The council is about making sure the arts are available in every county in the state.”

LexArts President Nan Plummer said Arts Council grants, small though they are, provide vital operating funds for organizations that support Lexington’s arts community, which employs nearly 1,200 people and generates $3.2 million in state and local taxes.

“The dollars from the Arts Council have an enormous multiplier effect,” she said. “To cut this funding is to damage revenue streams to the state, including tax dollars.”

Arts organizations are an important foundation for Kentucky’s “creative” industries. A 2014 Arts Council study found that those industries create 60,500 direct jobs. That’s 10 times the direct employment of Kentucky’s dwindling coal industry. The Arts Council teaches business skills to artists and creates markets for their work through the annual Kentucky Crafted market and other programs.

Bevin has spent two years trying to undermine the Arts Council and its work. In addition to his 2016 board reorganization, he forced out veteran executive director Lori Meadows. Her successor, Lydia Bailey Brown, lasted nine months. Since Brown quit five months ago, there has been little apparent effort to find a new director.

The annual Governor’s Awards in the Arts, which the Arts Council manages for the governor’s office, also has gotten weird.

When the 2016 winners were announced in August of that year, the Affrilachian Poets group declined their award in protest of Bevin’s policies on education, the humanities and other issues. But the public presentation ceremony for other winners went on as usual that October.

When the 2017 awards were announced last month — five months late — it included plans for the usual public awards ceremony in the Capitol Rotunda. A week later, the public event was canceled and the ceremony became an invitation-only event in the governor’s mansion. Unlike in past years, award recipients were not allowed to speak.

Each year during the General Assembly, the council sponsors Arts Day. Artists, arts patrons and community leaders from around the state come to Frankfort to meet and talk with legislators about the importance of the arts in Kentucky. This year’s Arts Day is Feb. 20 from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. in the Capitol. But you wouldn’t know it from the Arts Council’s website, where there seems to be no mention of Arts Day. Is the council no longer allowed to promote its own event?

Lowe, who has served on pension commissions for two governors, understands the financial pressures facing state government. But he also knows that the small investments government makes in the arts pay big returns — in education, jobs, tourism and economic development.

“Businesses desperately are in search of creative people,” said Lowe, who also chairs the board of the new Kentucky College of Art and Design at Spalding University. “It’s not just people who can get on a computer and design something. It’s people who think creatively about business issues and business problems.”

Arts, music and literature teach creativity and promote entrepreneurship. That’s why top companies often look to liberal arts graduates when hiring future leaders.

“The whole impact of creative thinkers is something that needs to be talked about more,” Lowe said. “We have to do a better job of educating legislators and the people who vote for them about the value of arts and culture.”

Tom Eblen: 859-231-1415, @tomeblen

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