When the Washington State Arts Commission (WSAC) got word of the governor's plan to slash the department by 80 percent last week, the commissioners' response was "unsettlingly quiet," one said. The department gives grants to organizations and supports arts education all over the state. In the proposed state budget—which is brutal all around, for every department—the amount the office gets annually from the general fund would drop from $1.2 million to $250,000, the staff would be cut 50 percent, and the office would be incorporated into the Department of Commerce.
The quiet response was due, in part, to shock, said commissioner Andy Fife, director of Shunpike, a sponsor of local arts. "I think that the magnitude of the budgetary situation for the state in general—and the type of action that's going to be required to make up for it—makes it hard to form very quick responses," Fife said in a phone interview later. "Coming up with critical and creative responses is going to take us a little bit longer than we're used to."
But over the next several days, blogs and social media were muted, too, yielding only a handful of comments compared to the onslaught that's been flowing for months about ongoing threats to funding for 4Culture, King County's arts arm. Does nobody care about the Washington State Arts Commission? Why? Learned helplessness? Cutting losses—letting the weak go, so the stronger can survive?
WSAC's annual operating budget is $2.7 million. It's been reduced to this paltry size over the years, compared to annual operating budgets of approximately $6.7 million at 4Culture and $3.7 million at the city's arts agency, Office of Arts & Cultural Affairs (OACA). (All these numbers apply to 2010 and do not include the wildly fluctuating percent-for-art programs, which depend on and are funded through capital projects, not general fund dollars.) 4Culture and OACA simply mean more to local organizations when granting time comes around. If you're local to Yakima or Walla Walla, of course, you're basically screwed, but you probably also don't expect much (sorry!).
If the state arts department were cut entirely—which is not on the table, and shouldn't be—Washington would become the first state in the union to kill its arts commission, Fife said, and Washington would also lose a matching $900,000 in annual support from the National Endowment for the Arts. That's why the first priority, Fife and WSAC spokesman Mark Gerth agree, is making sure the cuts don't violate NEA requirements for funding eligibility, including the rule that every state arts department must include a citizens' advisory commission (like WSAC's 20-member board). As Mary Langholz of the Washington State Arts Alliance advocacy group put it, "Nobody has lost their agency yet, so we don't want to be the first."
Typically, WSAC would release its grant applications now for the spring cycle, but those are on hold until the legislature adjourns with (they hope) a final budget in April, at which point the department will have a plan in place for the future. Any grant already awarded will be honored, Gerth said. It's unclear how the public art program will be affected by the cuts, but since new commissions come through the capital budget rather than the general fund, they are naturally low in lean years. The governor's budget does include mention of continuing to maintain the state's current collection.
Is anybody fighting the WSAC cuts? It'll be hard to do without looking like a jerk. Meanwhile, arts advocates have to save their fire. One e-mailed, asking to remain anonymous, "Well, I guess I'm kinda glad for the WSAC cuts... it might even look bad for the arts to be preserved in this kind of environment... I think in Seattle we can accomplish more by defending 4Culture and OACA."
Fife, who heads the commission's advocacy committee, also advocates for 4Culture and OACA, and doesn't see a conflict. There isn't one—there's just no political will to pay attention to the arts, in which case focusing on 4Culture and OACA might be the only chance that public money for art doesn't disappear entirely.
Meanwhile, WSAC has this chance to consider how it dropped to the bottom of the pile in the first place—what can and should states do that cities or counties can't? Beyond leveraging money from other funders, what do state arts agencies do well? What kind of reforms would also apply well to city and county agencies? "The talk among all arts agencies right now is how to dramatically remake ourselves," Fife said. "We recognize that it's time to rethink." If this is a bad place, it may also be the proverbial rock bottom. Let the rethinking begin.