Q&A With Henry Schwaller, Who Was Head Of The State's Recently Liquidated Arts Commission

Can The Arts Be Saved In Kansas?
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Over Memorial Day Weekend, while most people were relaxing, Henry Schwaller was facing the reality of the assault on the arts in the United States. The chair of the Kansas Arts Commission found his agency in the crosshairs of Republican governor Sam Brownback, who employed his line-item veto to completely eliminate support for the arts in the upcoming state budget. The move made national headlines, not just for the dire affects that it will have on the arts in Kansas, but because Brownback publicly claimed to be setting an example for the rest of the nation.

Henry Schwaller shakes hands at the Fort Hays State University Homecoming parade in Hays, Kansas / Courtesy Henry Schwaller

On Friday, ARTINFO's Ben Davis talked to Schwaller about the background of the cuts, the governor's plans to replace state money with corporate cash, and the possible effects the liquidation of the Kansas Arts Commission on communities throughout the state. Minutes after the interview, Governor Brownback removed Schwaller from his post as chair of the now defunded agency, replacing him with Linda Weis, chair of the governor's newly created private-sector arts foundation (her letter of introduction can be found at the Kansas Arts Commission Web site).

According to Schwaller, staff were ordered by the governor's office to delete the commission's Twitter account, Facebook page, and other online content advocating for state support of the arts. Weis also canceled the June 16 open meeting of the commission that Schwaller speaks about below, saying that it did not have the governor's backing. However, a new Facebook page has already been established to continue advocating for arts in Kansas, dubbed Kansas Arts Movement.

You've called what happened the "Saturday morning massacre." Can you go over how you found out about the cut and the sequence of events that led up to it?

Let's start with the sequence of events and then we can go to that day. When the governor was inaugurated, he gave a "State of the State" address, indicating that because of budget concerns he would eliminate eight state agencies. This was in January. He then submitted a proposed budget to the state legislature, in which those eight state agencies were eliminated -- and one of those was the Kansas Arts Commission. But in that budget he also provided $200,000 in funding for a new entity called the Kansas Arts Foundation. The Kansas Arts Commission received $800,000 in funding in the current fiscal year, so that still represented a big change. Then, on February 7th, he signed what we call in Kansas an "executive reorganization order" that eliminated the Kansas Arts Commission and replaced it with the Foundation. Now, under Kansas law, either the state House or the Senate may override an executive reorganization order with a simple majority -- and the Kansas Senate did so on March 16th. Subsequently, in the process of creating a budget to present to the governor, both the House and the Senate agreed to fund the Kansas Arts Commission $689,000 for the new fiscal year that begins on July 1st, and they transmitted that budget to the governor.

So, at this juncture, we had heard rumors that the governor would absolutely, positively line-item veto us -- he has that power. But he was very coy. He wouldn't say. When he was approached by fellow Republicans, certainly donors, he would say, "Well, I just haven't made up my mind," or if it was a Republican who he knew was in favor of the arts, he would say, "Yes, I know you are a big supporter, thank you." He never really made any statement. Even his spokesperson said that the cut was something they were "considering." Then we received word last week that the governor would absolutely sign the budget with line-item vetoes last Friday, but this did not happen. So we were kind of confused -- and then on Saturday morning, I received an email from one of my board members that a newspaper was reporting that the governor had indeed line-item vetoed us. The reason it came as a surprise was that it really could have been done at any time. He chose Saturday for a reason. He chose the weekend because he knew it was a quiet time for the media. He also knew that most people would be thinking about either those who served our country or celebrating a three-day weekend with their loved ones. He has not had the guts to stand up and say this is my decision and I stand by it; he keeps kind of tap-dancing around it.

If you go the Kansas Arts Commission Web site, one of the first things you find is a set of pictures of you at something called the 2011 Governor's Arts Awards. How do you go from the Governor's Arts Awards to the Governor specifically targeting the arts with a line-item veto?

Well, that's an interesting thing. In fact, the Governor's Arts Awards have been a tradition for not quite 40 years. This incarnation, I don't know how long it's been around. But this particular governor was contacted when he was governor elect to ask if we could use his name for the Governor's Arts Awards, and to see if the date we chose, March 3rd, was convenient for him. His office never responded. They wouldn't approve the invitation, they wouldn't approve the date, and they wouldn't give us his name. He was invited. He sent no one, not even a lowly cabinet secretary. It was probably just as well, because the audience had a lot of fun without the governor there -- it was much more relaxed than if he had been present. Because there was a lot of tension. That was the day that the Senate considered and passed out of committee the resolution, so there were hundreds of people who had come from across the state to convince the Senate to support the arts, and we had been successful.

What is this Kansas Arts Foundation that he wants to replace the Commission with?

The governor created, through staff and friends, a private-sector, nonprofit foundation entitled the Kansas Arts Foundation. And the theory is that this group of citizens will raise corporate money that will be used to replace the state money that had been funding the arts. But there are a few problems. Number one, the foundation really hasn't got off the ground with much success. The governor has had difficulty finding 12 people to serve on his Foundation -- most arts people have avoided him, because they're not happy. Second, there has been some conflict with the National Endowment for the Arts. Originally, the governor said that his organization was just like Vermont's arts organization, which is a nonprofit. Since then, the executive director of the Vermont organization has said, "No, what you're doing is not at all like what we're doing." So, he had to keep changing his tune. The point is that he thought, falsely, that he could invent something that could replace state dollars and still receive matching funds from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Mid-America Arts Alliance.

What has the public response been to the elimination of the Kansas Arts Commission?

It's been overwhelmingly in support of the Commission. The folks that have been supportive of the governor have been few, with comments such as, "I don't want my taxes raised to pay for art." Or there was a comment from the state representative for Americans for Prosperity: "We all have different tastes, from Beethoven to 'Dogs Playing Poker' -- it's not for the state to decide." Now, I don't understand why we can't have both: I love Beethoven, I love "Dogs Playing Poker." The state has never decided what art is appropriate. We take money we receive from the state and the federal government, and we distribute it to 190 local arts organizations and artists for programming, arts education, professional development, and programs that are appropriate for their communities. We don't pick art and say this is what the state's art is. I believe very strongly that there is an incredible misunderstanding in the governor's office -- and in the governor's mind -- of what the arts mean for Kansas.

Are there some things that the Commission has sponsored in the past that are particularly notable?

Absolutely. We are the lead agency for Poetry Out Loud, and we have a really fantastic young woman in Topeka who has gone two years in a row to the finals in Washington, D.C. We sponsor Arts in Education programming that provides arts experience to young people, primarily grade school but really K through 12, throughout the state. For many, many young people this is their only experience with the visual or the performing arts or meeting an artist. We support operational funding for all local arts organization. This is not a lot of money -- some organizations get as little as $1,500. But that's what keeps tiny arts agencies in rural communities open. In addition, we provide really important training and programming for the administrators of these local arts organizations. We talk with them about how to put a budget together, how to put together a balance sheet, how to run a board meeting, how to pick board members, how to write a strategic plan. So, it's not just about money, although that is important. It's about getting everyone prepared to run a professional organization.

What are the immediate effects of the cuts? I know there has been a lot of talk about how rural arts programs are going to be hit. What's going to happen?

Well, on July 1st, 150 arts organization and 40 or 50 artists will not have a source of money. They will certainly have no outlet for professional development opportunities. So many of them are now scrambling to think about other places to turn -- maybe the city, maybe the county. But it's very difficult to make up those dollars. So I am sure that at some point these local arts organizations are going to have to think about staffing, that is, whether or not to maintain or reduce pay for staff. And certainly they will have to ask what programs will get cut. And probably it will be youth programs, young adult programs.

We know that there are about 4,000 nonprofit arts jobs in Kansas related to what we do. They generate $150 million in economic impact, and $15 million in revenue for the state. So this is going to be a slow, painful process.

And as for your own staff, there are five people affected?

There are five paid office workers. Their last day will be Friday, June 10th. They received layoff notices last month on May 10th -- before the legislature even passed a budget. We had two program directors, a communications officer, an individual serving as our financial officer, an interim executive director, and an office manager. Those folks are now unemployed.

Governor Brownback framed the ending of state arts funding as a "good trend." Obviously, you don't think it's good, but do you think that what happens in Kansas is going to affect the direction of arts policy nationally? Is it a trend?

You're right, I don't think it's good. But no, I don't think it is going to set policy across the country. Most legislators in other states, and most governors, know the value of federal money. They understand that every dollar they put into this program comes back to them, first from the federal government. And they also understand the economic impact of the arts. Certainly, two or three other states have flirted with this idea. But the overwhelming message that they received from voters in their states is "don't touch the arts." So I don't think this is going to set a national trend. It really follows up on Kansas's foray into not discussing evolution in science and discussing creationism, and it just keeps sending the message across the country -- in fact across the world -- "What's the matter with Kansas?" And that's sad to me.

The reason why the arts are important is not just the jobs, although that is part of it. It's also because the arts create a quality of life, particularly in rural communities. There's a small community in the southwest portion of the state, a tiny town near Dodge City, and its arts center is the community center. People go there -- little old ladies go there to paint watercolors, but they also go there on the holidays to wrap Christmas gifts for service members in Iraq or needy children, and they gather there for coffee and other things, and that's what the arts centers across Kansas do. They provide access to programs and a quality of life we wouldn't have otherwise. As I said before, for young people, the Arts Commission and our programs give them exposure to things they have never seen before and probably would not see, and give them an opportunity to think creatively and be innovative. These are people that could be very good employees in the future. And on top of all this, certainly there's the economic impact of the arts that I talked about before. It does raise money for the state. It's an industry, no different than aviation or agriculture.

What's next? Is there an opportunity to fight for the arts, or is it pretty much a done deal?

Well the legislature had "sine die," which is a Latin term for adjournment, on June 1. They need a two-thirds vote in both chambers to override the veto. Typically, only about half show up, and that's what happened this year. So there were not enough people present to override the veto. Consequently, beginning July 1, there is no funding for the arts in Kansas.

We are going to continue to work. Our board has a meeting on June 16. We're going to prepare a strategy for moving forward. It's going to difficult, there's no doubt about it. But in Kansas we're no strangers to difficulties. We just roll up our sleeves and keep working.

-Ben Davis, ARTINFO

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