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Art and commerce

Oklahoma’s revenue failure puts the squeeze on arts funding

Philbrook’s ‘My Museum’ program

On Monday, February 1, as Oklahoma’s 55th Legislature reconvened for its second regular session, Gov. Mary Fallin gave her State of the State address, announcing plans to grapple with the state’s $900 million budget shortfall in part by reducing appropriations to most state agencies by six percent, with smaller cuts for core, critical agencies.

As legislators figure out what the state will and won’t spend money on, Oklahomans for the Arts, an arts advocacy nonprofit, is asking Oklahomans to call legislators in support of public funding for the arts and the Oklahoma Arts Council (OAC). Since the OAC receives state appropriations, they therefore received the 3 percent mid-year cuts, which brought their overall FY16 budget reduction to 10.25 percent. 

Besides consistent reductions to their appropriation, there were two bills introduced in the last three years to eliminate or defund the OAC. In 2013, House Bill 1895, authored by Rep. Josh Cockroft (R-Tecumseh), called for a 25 percent reduction in funding per year to the OAC, which would cause the appropriation to end in 2017. A year later, in 2014, House Bill 2850 was introduced, which also set out to defund the agency, because author Dan Fisher (R-Yukon), believes that arts funding is not a core function of the government.

Fortunately, there was opposition from both lawmakers and their constituents. According to Julia Kirt, executive director of Oklahomans for the Arts, the public ensured those bills did not go through. “There was such a resounding outcry from across the state that the legislators heard and knew people cared.” 

In Kirt’s opinion, individuals calling legislators is key. “There’s no question that when those elimination bills came up, they would've gone a lot farther if advocates hadn’t spoken out.” Kirt said these advocates were everyone from artists to business leaders to residents of rural communities. “The environment has been ripe for elimination and consolidation and the fact it hasn’t happened says a lot about people speaking up.” 

Sixty Tulsa organizations and programs, including Tulsa Ballet, Philbrook Museum of Art, American Theatre Company, Chamber Music Tulsa, Tulsa Community College, Tulsa Opera, Pocket Full of Hope, Tulsa Performing Arts Center Trust, and the Woody Guthrie Center, receive grant funding from the Oklahoma Arts Council. 

Many of these organizations also receive funding from faithful corporate sponsors and the new United Arts Fund, Arts Alliance Tulsa. In that sense, the arts in Tulsa are fortunate. But having support elsewhere does not mean allocations from the state are unnecessary. Grants give organizations leverage for raising private dollars and they guarantee funding.

Chad Oliverson, marketing director at Arts Alliance Tulsa (AAT), said his organization works in tandem with the OAC. “We have a good relationship with OAC, we believe in them, and we believe the arts need all forms of support. Arts Alliance Tulsa is meant to fill in the gaps where we’re falling short.” He went on to say that defunding the OAC would only be detrimental. “Defunding any source of revenue to arts organization simply hurts cities. It hurts education, health, quality of life, and the ability to attract new growth.” 

    Oliverson also cited the work the City of Tulsa and Tulsa City Council accomplished in putting $2.25 million for the Tulsa Arts Commission into the Vision 2025 package. “On the local level, government-wise, we took a step forward for Tulsa.”

The Oklahoma Arts Council has seen a 34 percent reduction in state appropriations since 2008. Those funds make up 85 percent of the money given to OAC grantees. “Our goal has been to cushion the impact of the cuts on our grantees by absorbing as much internally as possible,” OAC executive director Amber Sharples said. “We’ve managed to only reduce our grants budget by 26 percent. However, because grants are about 80 percent of our expenditures, finding other areas to trim is becoming increasingly difficult.” 

For Chamber Music Tulsa, funding from the OAC over the last five years has gone from over $45,000 a year to, as of this month, below $35,000. “We certainly have been seeing a slide downward,” CMT executive director Bruce Sorrell said. “The OAC has done a great job of trying to keep funding levels stable, but we have seen a reduction in our grant of a little over 23 percent.”

At the Philbrook Museum of Art, director of communications Tricia Milford-Hoyt said cuts to funding from the OAC directly impacts one of the museum’s most popular programs. “The ‘My Museum’ program provides free art supplies and access to arts for children ages 4-12 and their families,” she said. Kids receive an art kit, art supplies, and a card that the caregiver can use to talk to the child about the art they are seeing. “‘My Museum’ creates the opportunity for all children regardless of status to see and make art.”

Tulsa Ballet is also affected by cuts to the OAC. “Any time anticipated revenues decrease, it’s our responsibility to adjust our expenses, or go out and find that money elsewhere,” TB executive director Scott Black said. A sudden reduction in funding might effectively mean cancelling contracts with performers (the same goes for Chamber Music Tulsa) and their corresponding programs. 

Fundraising during an oil downturn in Oklahoma is no easy feat. Of course, the state budget is directly related to oil revenue, and everyone here feels the squeeze. But as the OAC budget makes up less than .05 percent of the state budget, cuts to the agency won’t close any hole. 

Public dollars spent funding the arts have shown a good return on investment. The OAC’s FY14 Impact Report, available on their website, shows that $1 in OAC grant funds seeds $13 in private funds and returns $8-plus in local and state tax revenue. The arts and culture industry also supports 10,000 full-time equivalent jobs. 

“As state leaders consider strategies for building a diversified economy, equipping students to be creative thinkers, addressing health and mental health issues, fostering a quality of life that draws businesses, young professionals, and families to Oklahoma, the arts must be part of the plan,” Sharples said. 

“It’s important for the state to realize the arts are an important part of the economy,” Black continued. “[The Tulsa Ballet] is an economic engine. Over 10,000 people come to see ‘The Nutcracker.’ They are paying for parking, hotels, and dinner. It’s important for the state to realize they are investing in their own economy by investing in the arts.”

For Oklahomans who wish our state to keep doing so, advocacy is crucial. “Sometimes we imagine there are many people talking to lawmakers about issues we care about, but that might not be,” Kirt said. “If [lawmakers] hear from five people in their district, they think it’s a whole movement.” In short, one phone call from one person can go a long way. 

In rural Oklahoma communities without strong financial support from the community or organizations like AAT, funding from the OAC is essential. In Sapulpa, just west of Tulsa, director of Sapulpa Arts Sheri Ishmael-Waldrop said the OAC is “vital” to their existence. “Without their support…we would be unable to provide free classes to senior citizens and Alzheimer's patients, one third of the students in summer arts programs wouldn’t be able to attend, and we couldn’t offer our summer concert series, which is open to everyone.”

Ishmael-Waldrop said that, in the past, Sapulpa has had to choose which programs to fund over others due to OAC cuts. “How do you choose to cut programs for senior citizens or children? It is very hard,” she said. “We were lucky to have supporters who were able to step up, but in a small town with many United Way organizations and non-profits, those purses dry up quickly.”

For now, smaller arts organizations will continue through FY16 with the money they’ve been promised. “Our approach to addressing the three percent mid-year cut, which will impact larger arts organizations, was to review where we have strategically cut our grants since fiscal year 2008 while being mindful that another budget cut is looming in fiscal year 2017,” Sharples said. 

“Arts education fuels creativity, collaboration, communication, and critical thinking skills in all citizens,” Milford-Hoyt said. “Whether you’re an engineer or a politician or a communicator, you need those skills.”

For more from Liz, read her article on Mardi Gras in Tulsa.

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