Nancy Senn-Kerbs, program director of the Family Museum of Arts & Sciences in Bettendorf and past president of the group Iowans for the Arts, might sound wishy-washy on the status of state support for the arts. "It is discouraging in some ways but encouraging in others," she said.

Yet that's a fair assessment of where things stand in Iowa right now. While funding to the Iowa Arts Council was hacked last year in an effort to balance the state budget, there are movements afoot that suggest a rosy future for arts funding in Iowa.

Both political parties have expressed interest in a major economic-development package, and legislators seem open to the idea that the arts should play a role in it. "They actually want to use arts and culture as part of that plan to stimulate economic development," said Chris Cataldo, executive director of Iowans for the Arts, a not-for-profit group that both advocates for the arts and offers arts-development programming. "They're starting to realize its value."

Well, maybe and maybe not. The optimism about the state's interest in funding arts and culture programs seems at least partly a function of the pessimism about the current fiscal situation. With states exploring cuts as a way to balance next year's budget, there's little hope for more funding today, so advocates are looking to the future. And instead of pitching the intrinsic value of arts programs and organizations, supporters are emphasizing how arts and culture can spur economic development.

Senn-Kerbs calls it a "telescope," looking to a more distant place with a smaller lens. That's why she's both hopeful and worried. "We're working to convince the powers that be, rather than serve the proletariat," she said. Existing programs aren't getting enough attention, assistance, or money, and they're suffering.

"We've Waited Too Long"

There's a good chance you'll be hearing about arts funding a lot more over the next month. A federal arts-advocacy effort is slated for March 25 and 26 in Washington, D.C. Last week, advocates for arts funding lobbied legislators at the Illinois capitol, pushing to increase the state's annual per-capita arts spending from $1.50 to $2.

Iowa's Arts Advocacy Day is slated for March 6, the day after the Iowa Creative Economy Unconference, sponsored by the Iowa Department of Cultural Affairs. That gathering, featuring author Richard Florida, is based on the premise that our economy is moving from informational to creative, and that successful states and communities are going to find new ways to attract creative leaders, including emphasizing the arts and culture in economic-development strategies.

These lobbying efforts are almost surely losers in the short run, given the financial situations of both Illinois and Iowa.

"It's almost like we've waited too long," said Joy Thompson, who writes grants for the Genesius Guild, Ballet Quad Cities, the Davenport Museum of Art, and WVIK. "It's really hard to make the argument that the arts are more important than feeding a mother so she has a healthy-birth-weight baby."

The arts-funding situation nationwide seems pretty grim.

Across the country, state arts funding has plummeted recently. It grew from $300 million in 1989 to $450 million in 2000, and has since dropped to just over $350 million. (None of the figures has been adjusted for inflation.) Illinois Arts Council grants hit a peak of $20.7 million in 2000 and are estimated to be approximately $17.7 million this year.

In the current fiscal year, 42 of 56 state and jurisdictional arts agencies saw funding cuts, according to Kimber Craine, communications manager for the National Association of State Arts Agencies. Ten state arts councils, including Iowa's, suffered cuts of more than 15 percent.

Yet those numbers might be understating the severity of the cuts. "States are [still] making rescissions" in their current spending plans, Craine said. "This whole thing is a moving target."

Craine added that to this point, arts agencies haven't been singled out while other agencies get spared; cuts have been "fairly equitable."

However, now at least three states - Arizona, Missouri, and New Jersey - are seriously considering not funding their arts councils for Fiscal Year 2003-4. And Arizona has been a model for arts funding in recent years.

In Iowa, the situation looks no more cheery. In the current fiscal year, the Iowa Arts Council took a 21-percent cut, the fourth largest percentage decrease in the country, said Anita Walker, director of the Iowa Department of Cultural Affairs (the parent agency of the Iowa Arts Council). The state dropped from 42nd to 45th in per-capita state support for the arts.

Iowa spends 43 cents per person on the arts, compared to $2.53 in Minnesota. All neighboring states spend more money per-capita on arts than Iowa.

Illinois' prospects also look bad. Although the Illinois Arts Council suffered only a 5-percent cut in the current fiscal year - a cut of 50 percent was being considered at one point - the state is now facing a deficit of about $4 billion.

That means short-term goals for arts funding are modest in both states.

Although the Illinois Arts Alliance is asking for $2-per-person arts spending, it recognizes that's not going to happen this year. "We went down [to arts-advocacy day] stating what we want, knowing what the state faces," said Gabrielle Javier-Cerulli, director of communications for the organization. "We would be very happy if the state maintains what we have."

The leader of the analogous organization for Iowa mimicked that thought, almost word-for-word. "We want to maintain what we have," Cataldo said.

Also on the short-term agenda in Iowa is getting money for the Iowa Cultural Trust, which was enabled through legislation last year but didn't receive any funding. The plan is for the state to contribute $1 million each year for a decade, with the interest used to support the operating budgets of arts and culture organizations.

While there's no deadline to put money into the cultural trust fund, Walker said action on funding needs to happen soon, or it will fall out of the legislative consciousness. Even so, Walker sounds as if she's already given up on getting $1 million this year. "We have to get money in it, if not this year then next year," she said.

The dark forecast for short-term funding is the major reason that arts advocates are pushing to be a part of some of the long-term economic-development proposals currently under consideration. Iowa Governor Tom Vilsack has rolled out a $500-million economic-development plan called the Iowa Values Fund (see "Why Does Everybody Love Michael Blouin, River Cities' Reader Issue 412, February 12-18, 2003), and Republicans and Democrats in the legislature are working on a $2-billion version. Both plans claim that they will re-invent the Iowa economy. "There are some bold ideas," Walker said.

But it's important to note that the role of the arts in those plans has yet to be determined. Bluntly, right now there's a lot of wishful thinking happening. Will arts be a part of whatever plan emerges? "I think it's realistic, and I think it's essential," Walker said. "You have to have a growth strategy."

Senn-Kerbs thinks it might be counterproductive to position the arts solely as an economic-development tool. "Their direction is totally different," she said of the Iowa Arts Council. "Their mission has more to do with economics and of course education" than the inherent value the arts have.

More Agencies at the Table

This focus on the future, though, ignores the present. Senn-Kerbs thinks incorporating art and culture into the state's economic-development strategy is a "noble idea" and a "wonderful long-term goal," but she also thinks the Iowa Arts Council should be working with its traditional "broad menu of initiatives." Partnerships with grass-roots organizations "have all but disappeared" at the Iowa Arts Council because of cuts, she said.

The Iowa Arts Council absorbed its budget cut by eliminating staff instead of cutting its $1 million in grant programs. As a result, "they don't have the staff to fully assist the agencies," Cataldo said.

And there are more agencies to assist. It's not something that's apparent by looking at the money an arts council distributes, but a big problem is that there are "more people asking and less money to go around," Cataldo said.

"The pie, obviously, is the same size," Walker said, but there's "new cultural infrastructure" that's asking for money along with older organizations.

In Iowa, of course, that stems in part from the state's aggressive efforts to create a new tourist economy. The Vision Iowa and Community Attraction & Tourism programs have pumped hundreds of millions of state and private dollars into communities across the state. This has spawned new facilities and organizations - such as Davenport's River Music Experience and the Mississippi River Museum in Dubuque - hungry for additional programmatic funding.

And while it was meant primarily as a tool for building infrastructure, the Illinois First program has over the past few years helped build or renovate a number of the state's arts facilities, contributing to the expansion of Prospect Park Auditorium for the Quad City Music Guild and expansion and renovation for the ETA Creative Arts Foundation in Chicago, for example.

These new institutions are competing and will continue to compete for money with established arts and cultural organizations. With so much money invested in those facilities, states obviously don't want empty buildings for a lack of operating support.

And there's been a general growth in arts groups. The Illinois Arts Alliance estimates that the number of not-for-profits arts groups in the state has grown tenfold since 1970.

State money is typically a small component of an organization's budget - usually less than 20 percent - but those funds are a vital support for general operations. Private groups and individuals tend to prefer funding programs rather than overhead, Thompson said. And supporting operating budgets is goal behind the Iowa Cultural Trust.

The boom in cultural infrastructure has not only created more demand for state dollars but also impacts efforts to raise money locally. In the Quad Cities, for example, capital campaigns for the River Renaissance projects, the Putnam Museum & IMAX Theatre, and other bricks-and-mortar initiatives could negatively impact program-based organizations, Thompson said. "In our rush to build new, we might be overlooking some of our treasures, gems that have been building quietly and consistently," she said. Thompson said that while the Quad Cities community is exceedingly generous, it prefers to donate more to capital projects than to programs and operating expenses.

As a grant writer, Thompson always recommends that her clients create a balance of funding, including an endowment, so that they're not dependent on grants, a strong economy, or private donations. That's still possible, she said, but "we are working a lot harder to achieve that goal."

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