Wichita Artists Brace For Loss Of Federal, Regional Grant Funding

Aug 22, 2016

Kansas artists and arts organizations won’t have the access to grant money that they have had in previous years. That’s because the National Endowment for the Arts has said that state lawmakers did not allocate enough money to qualify for the grants, which are managed by the Kansas Creative Arts Industries Commission.

Kansas is now ineligible for close to $800,000 in matching funds from federal and regional arts supporters.

Wichita’s Riverfest is known for bringing interesting things and even more interesting people downtown every summer. But in 2015, Wichita Festivals took that concept to a completely new level.

The nonprofit introduced their artist-in-residence program, making Wayne White, an internationally recognized puppeteer, a major focus of the nine-day festival. With the help of local artists and members of the creative community, White assembled layered pieces of cardboard into depictions of Wichita history, including a jointed puppet of famed prohibitionist Carrie Nation and cartoonish blue masks that looked like cattle.

“The local artists here have been amazing," White said at the time. "They’re more enthusiastic. And I love that enthusiasm.”

White spent 10 days in the city carefully piecing together the crafts that served as a focal point in the annual Sundown Parade.

A third of the $15,000 that Wichita Festivals spent to bring Wayne White and his whimsical work here came from a grant from the Kansas Creative Arts Industries Commission, or KCAIC. And White was correct--the arts community in Wichita is enthusiastic. But now, they’re also really irritated.

The state is on the cusp of losing close to $400,000 in grants from the National Endowment for the Arts. And because of that, Kansas recently lost its partnership with the Mid-America Arts Alliance, a regional organization that provided about $370,000 in programs and services across the state in the last fiscal year. To get that money, states must affiliate with the NEA.

“These federal and state granting opportunities are designed to fill in the gaps where private money falls short," says Diana Gordon, the president and Chief Development Officer of Wichita’s Orpheum Performing Arts Centre. “My area of expertise is knowing where all the arts funding opportunities are and I’m always researching them online.”

Diana Gordon stands in the auditorium at the Orpheum Performing Arts Center. She says she was shocked to find out Kansas had been disqualified from receiving hundreds of thousands dollars in matching grant money for arts programs like hers.

Gordon says she planned to apply for a grant from the Mid-America Arts Alliance to help pay for lighting and underwriting for a dance performance. But now that Kansas is no longer a partner, that grant isn’t available to the Orpheum--or to anyone else in the state.

“I go to my computer ready to do this," Gordon remembers. "[I] go to the touring grants section of their grants and I’m entering my information and it keeps stopping me. It’s a cyber grant online portal. You put in your name and your address and your organization name and address. When I would get to the address, Wichita, Kansas, it was knocking me out of the system saying, ‘You’re not eligible.’”

So she tried again. Same thing happened.

“So I go back and I start reading through the grant opportunity really carefully. And I realized Kansas isn’t in the line of the states," she says. "You know, it’s got Nebraska, Missouri, Texas. My first thought was that it must be a typo. I was too horrified to even think, ‘Dear god, we’ve been kicked out.’”

But it wasn’t a typo. The Mid-America Arts Alliance had voted to suspend Kansas membership with their organization--all because the state money set aside for the arts did not meet a minimum set by the NEA. Gordon believes it results from the income tax cuts instituted by Gov. Sam Brownback in 2012, which she says have led to a smaller revenue stream for the state.

"We really are hurting financially as a direct result of those," she says.

Brownback blames low revenues in the state on dwindling success within agriculture and the oil and gas industry. Gordon says that either way, Kansans are missing out, and not only because arts organizations can’t get the grants, but also because NEA money comes from federal tax dollars.

“So now our money that we’ve been paying into is going to other states," she says. "Not our own communities.”

Lela Meadow-Conner, executive director of the Tallgrass Film Association.
Credit Courtesy

And representatives from other local groups, like Tallgrass Film Association executive director Lela Meadow-Conner, also hoped to get some of the grant money.

"It's unfortunate, because there are so many great art supporters in this city and in the region," Meadow-Conner says. "We look at all the things that are happening in the states that are represented by the Mid-America Arts Alliance. It's thriving. There's so much going on and it's really unfortunate that Kansas has to be affected in this way."

And while the loss of KCAIC grant money won’t affect their core operations or ability to exist, it could affect programs that are kind of a bonus for Tallgrass.

"This year it went specifically toward our emerging programmer apprenticeship, which is a program that allows area students to review films and get a real comprehensive look at the motion picture industry, be a part of that film festival, meet the filmmakers," she says. "And really it's kind of a film school 101 for them." Fisch Bowl, a local nonprofit, used a KCAIC grant to make their restroom ADA compliant at the Fisch Haus. Music Theater Wichita put similar grant money toward respirators for its paint shop so carpenters don’t have to inhale dangerous paint fumes when they build scenery.

Ann Keefer with Wichita Festivals says the missing grant money would also have an economic impact on the behind-the-scenes aspect of the art community.

"If the grants aren't there...there aren't set builders being hired. There aren't seamstresses being hired to make costumes. We're not hiring as many stagehands," she says. "We're having to look at other alternatives to make things work that are not contributing back to the local economy because we just have to cut it out. And that means that somebody is not getting paid."

But, there is still a possible lifeline. Peter Jasso, director of the Kansas Creative Arts Industries Commission, says Kansas has until Jan. 15 to meet the NEA funding requirement. Right now, the amount allocated by the legislature is about $250,000 short. Jasso says the agency is working to find more money in ways that wouldn’t require the legislature to increase their allocation.

“We’re located within the Department of Commerce, and there are a number of resources that [the department] gives to all of its programs that we’re allowed to sort of count as part of our match," he explains.

He says funding in past years has been pretty close to the $188,000 allocated to the agency this year. The big difference, though? When it was created in 2012, the commission was given $700,000 by lawmakers--Jasso says they’ve been able to essentially coast on that money in addition to yearly allocations.

"That’s sort of helped us meet our match for the last couple of years. But you know, now that’s sort of run out," he says.

Many organizations have had to set their budgets for the next year, and programming decisions have already been made around the grants not being there. That leaves Kansas artists to count on something they’ve had to fall back on many times before: themselves.

“Artists in particular are incredibly resourceful and always have to be," Keefer says. "I mean, even when they get grants, those grants are so small in comparison to what it really takes to pull off some of these art projects. We’re used to cutting budgets and working on a thin dime, pushing as much out of that dime as we possibly can. Artists find a way to survive because they have to get their expression out.”

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Follow Abigail Beckman on Twitter @AbigailKMUW.

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