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Art funding cuts proposed

One of hundreds of bills readied for the new legislature, HB 2850 lays out plans to defund the Oklahoma Arts Council by 2018.

Devon Green January 23rd, 2014

Experts warn that funding for the arts in Oklahoma may soon hit a crisis point if proposed cuts are approved.

House Bill 2850 is a measure to cut public funding for the Oklahoma Arts Council on what is phrased an “emergency basis.”  The bill lays out a plan to defund the OAC and is cued for consideration when the Oklahoma Legislature convenes Feb. 3.

Bill author Rep. Dan Fisher proposes that OAC funding be cut by 25 percent each year until 2018. The bill states, “It is the intent of the Legislature that by the fiscal year ending June 30, 2018, the Oklahoma Arts Council shall not receive appropriations from the Legislature.”

Fisher did not return requests for comment by deadline.

Community response to House Bill language
Approximately 400 programs are funded by the Oklahoma Arts Council, and the effects of cutting funding for these programs do not stop with the programs themselves, said Jennifer James, director of Oklahomans for the Arts.

However, cuts would hit hardest those who most need support.

Half of OAC funding supports art in rural areas; 80 percent of its total funding goes directly into communities via grants. Recipients include nonprofits; city, county and tribal governments; universities and public schools, according to OAC literature.

James said that, if approved as written, the bill's cuts “would be devastating to these programs, especially those in smaller, rural areas and it would also be devastating to their communities.”

Oklahomans for the Arts is a nonprofit advocacy group for public arts funding founded in 2011.

Organizations like the Oklahoma City Philharmonic would incur dramatic cuts immediately, but that isn’t what most bothers Eddie Walker, executive director of the OKC Phil. The OKC Phil receives part of its overall operating funding from the Oklahoma Arts Council but doubts cuts would cripple his organization.

“If this bill succeeds in getting passed,” Walker said, “we will have to trim back some programs, and we may have to go knock on more doors.”

He, too, said the greatest impact would be in “these rural communities, who don’t have a corporate base, who have no programs are typically supported completely by the OAC.”

Devoid of funding, Walker said, these smaller programs will likely cease altogether.

How arts funding grows communities

James cited Guthrie when asked what clear-cut impact publicly funded art programs can have.

The Pollard Theatre, a publicly funded community theater in Guthrie, serves as an anchor for its community.

Also, world touring act Mumford & Sons made its The Gentlemen of the Road festival home in Guthrie as one of only five U.S. tour stops last summer. As a result, millions of dollars went into the community and nearly all business in Guthrie saw a boost.

A decade ago, James said, the festival would not have happened. Through OAC funding, the sleepy city developed a reputation for its music and theater, which, in turn, helped bring in tourism and festival dollars, as well as build credibility for investors.

James said it wouldn’t have been possible without early and prolonged vision and funding.

“We have always enjoyed support from the Oklahoma State Legislature,” she said.

Cost/benefit analysis

Many art advocates question why arts funding is a target of spending cut proposals.

“We are talking about budgets that are less than 1 percent where the returns are clear,” said Jonathan Fowler, vice president at Fowler Holding Company and a passionate supporter of the arts.

He and his family support and work with projects from the Norman Arts Council to OKC’s Plaza District and Tulsa’s Blue Dome District.

Fowler said he doesn’t understand the drive to fully defund something that is a relatively small investment and reaps provable financial gain for local economies.

In 2008, Oklahoma City University conducted an economic impact study, The Economic Impact of Nonprofit Arts and Culture Organizations in Oklahoma, to determine the overall benefit of art and art education at the community level. The results showed that revenue generated by community-supported art programs earned revenue above what was spent to fund them.

“The money they give us? We don’t cost them money; we make them money,” James said.

James said she believes HB 2850 was proposed not out of any malicious intent but out of ignorance of the proven value of art and arts programs.

“I would challenge any legislator to take a good, long look [at these programs]. They would be surprised,” she said.

For more information

James said letting the bill author and legislators know how the arts personally impact people is the best way to educate lawmakers and halt or reduce proposed defunding.

Find your legislator at
Visit Oklahomans for the Arts at
View HB2850 here: INT/hB/HB2850 INT.PDF
View The Economic Impact of Nonprofit Arts and Culture Organizations in Oklahoma at
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