Money Talks

Alene Valkanas arrived late to “The Case for Public Funding for the Arts in a Time of Fiscal Crisis,” a public lecture last week by Jonathan Katz, who heads up the Washington-based National Assembly of State Arts Agencies. By the time Valkanas made it to the conference room at the Chicago Historical Society, Katz had already announced that the combined budget shortfall of state governments this year amounts to $60 billion and is on its way to $80 billion in 2004, thanks to a bad economy and soaring costs. “It’s not that big a factor at the federal level: they get to print money there,” Katz said. “National Endowment for the Humanities funding is up $25 million.” But at the state level it’s dog-eat-dog, and that’s where a weapon like his “strategic triangle”–with vertices V for value, C for capacity, and S for supporters–comes in. If V and C aren’t communicated properly to S, explained Katz with flip chart and diagram, your funding could drop to a big Z.

Valkanas, executive director of the Illinois Arts Alliance, had been held up by something dear to the heart of everyone in the room: the just-released details of Governor Blagojevich’s proposed budget. In spite of Illinois’ deficit of almost $5 billion, IAA lobbied to maintain or increase arts spending, which last year amounted to $1.50 for every resident of the state. That didn’t happen. Instead, Valkanas reported, Blagojevich wants to reduce Illinois Arts Council funding from $19.6 million to $18.5 million. “That is unacceptable to us–we will continue to campaign for $2 a person,” she added. “But that being said, it could have been considerably worse. We weren’t singled out, it’s not disproportionate to cuts made in other areas.” The audience exhaled in unison and Katz congratulated Valkanas, confiding that in comparison to the carnage in other states, “you’ve done very well.”

Between 1993 and 2001, said Katz, total annual funding for state arts agencies more than doubled, reaching a high of $447 million and growing faster than the budgets for the states themselves. But in the last two years the number has dropped by almost $100 million. The dip makes this the best time in a decade for uniting the arts community (big and small; urban, suburban, and rural), which needs to speak with a unified voice but doesn’t unless there’s a “high level of pain,” Katz said. Arts advocates need to figure out gubernatorial agendas (education, for example, or growth) and demonstrate how the arts can advance them; staffers need to use board members to open doors; and board members need a road map of what’s expected of them (he favors written agreements on this). Sit down with your legislators, he says, and have the hard-nosed conversations that “members of your family fought and died for. Tell them what you want them to do.” Then–and this is the part “many people find very awkward”–turn the screw: “Say, ‘What can you promise me that I can go back and tell my friends who feel the same way?'”

According to Katz, the motives of powerful people are simple. Do they want to make the world a better place? Sure. But more than that, “they want to maintain and increase their power” and “be loved and respected by people they care about. To the extent you can help them do that, they will talk with you.” When they do, “have fact-based communications. You have to be able to say here’s the difference that cutting a thousand dollars makes, and here’s the difference that adding a thousand dollars makes. Position the arts to solve problems. And if you can express it with jobs, economic activity, that’s the best.”

But Sometimes Numbers Lie

Fact-based communication for the arts these days usually means an economic-impact study. But D. Carroll Joynes, head of the Cultural Policy Center at the University of Chicago, which sponsored Katz’s talk, says the center will look into the problems of such studies next fall. “I heard a couple of sharp attacks by academic economists who feel these studies are almost always poorly done–far too simplistic and not in enough depth to give an accurate picture,” Joynes says. While rigorous economists may view them as a debasement of their discipline that does more harm than good, “the foundations and organizations [that use them] are simply all agreed that this is an OK way to make arguments, whether they’re accurate or not.” Joynes says he’s been warned that he could get himself in trouble for raising this issue, that he should “tread carefully, because everyone’s agreed the emperor has no clothes.”

The picky economists include Don Coursey, also of the Cultural Policy Center, who says the studies “typically look at revenues generated but don’t look at them in the context of all the other things happening in the local economy,” and Michael Rushton of Georgia State University, who thinks they “overestimate the effects of arts spending while underestimating quality-of-life issues” that would make strong “public good” arguments. “I have not seen good quantitative evidence that spending on the arts is really going to change your job picture or the amount of investment going into a city,” Rushton says. Joynes and Coursey plan to put about ten economists and eight arts advocates in a room together for several days next fall to dissect a few studies and have it out.


The Illinois Arts Council is in the path of another of Blagojevich’s proposed changes: an effort to “streamline” state boards and commissions. Effective as soon as July 1, the 35-member board may be cut to 21 members, with the governor taking over the board’s power to select its chairman and executive director….The ten-year-old Silver Images Film Festival, which last year at this time was screening 40 films at venues including the Chicago Cultural Center and the Gene Siskel Film Center, has been reduced this year to a yet-to-be-determined number of showings at senior centers over the summer. The festival’s budget fell from $50,000 to $12,000 when major funders like the Chicago Community Trust and the MacArthur Foundation dropped out….Around the Coyote executive director and new-mom-to-be Olga Stefan is looking for an arts manager with grassroots experience to replace her. The job pays $27,000 to $32,000.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Bruce Powell.