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What’s the Matter with Kansas?: Hurting the Small, But Mighty Organizations

Mary Kennedy McCabe

For those of us who call Kansas home we have one more opportunity to suffer Thomas Frank’s oft-quoted book, What’s the Matter with Kansas?.

Mid-America Arts Alliance (M-AAA), my organization, has been struggling for months with how to handle the elimination of the Kansas Arts Commission (KAC) since this situation is unprecedented in the 47-year history of state arts agencies in America. We are an alliance of six states (Arkansas, Kansas, Missouri, Nebraska, Oklahoma, and Texas), serving a part of the country with tremendous arts participation but minimal political capital for the arts.

We are deeply concerned for the artists, arts organizations, arts educators, and arts participants and audiences, who will undoubtedly be affected by the loss of the KAC support and leadership. There is no doubt that individuals will lose their jobs and organizations will go out of business as a result of Governor Brownback’s action.

We are also deeply concerned about the impact on our other state arts agencies. Our state arts agencies understand that the elimination of one state arts agency increases the risk of the same situation occurring in their own state.

One of the great strengths of the arts in Kansas that has been admired by others is the extraordinary network of rural arts councils, small museums, and performing arts series, which can be found in so many rural towns across Kansas. These are small but mighty organizations that keep the arts alive and relevant in their hometowns, where most children (and many adults) experience the arts for the first time.

Some of the most profound arts experiences I have experienced in my life occurred in Iola, Garden City, Winfield, Marysville, and Newton—where the arts and community life are one and the same. The loss of the KAC and M-AAA’s work in Kansas will undoubtedly mean the loss of some of these rural arts organizations that have been transforming small town Kansan life for decades.

The larger organizations in the metropolitan communities of Kansas will likely sustain minimal damage from Governor Brownback’s action.

The KAC grants and the M-AAA grants and programs they receive are a minor portion of their operating budget and while every dollar counts, this loss will not threaten their survival.

No, the real damage will occur at organizations like the Goodland Arts Council, the Bowlus Fine Arts Center in Iola, the Brown Grand Opera House in Concordia, the Carnegie Center for the Arts in Dodge City, the Marysville Area Community Theatre, and the Stauth Memorial Museum in Montezuma—all of which exist through civic pride, elbow grease, and an undying belief in the transformative power of the arts. M-AAA’s region is made up of far more organizations like these than of major cultural institutions.

The loss of the KAC and M-AAA’s work in Kansas will hurt Kansas arts organizations, but it will also hurt Kansas artists working to make a living by performing in other M-AAA states through our regional touring program. It will hurt other arts organizations within the region because arts organizations throughout the region depend on one another for block-booking performing artists and traveling exhibitions to make new and exciting arts experiences affordable to their communities. And it will hurt all of us who work to make the arts accessible for all the people in our region.

M-AAA’s board members from across our six states meet next week, ironically, in Kansas, and the question of “what’s the matter with Kansas?” will undoubtedly be at the forefront.

I expect our board to respond with a strong call to action for other states to advocate for the arts, lest they suffer the same fate as Kansas.

And although I am so proud of my fellow Kansans for their valiant, ongoing grassroots efforts to keep the KAC alive, as the past few months have shown, it is simply not enough to be reactive when your state arts agency comes under attack.

This is the time for citizens of every state to be proactive in supporting the arts. Your collective voice is needed, now more than ever.

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