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Arts patrons try to head off consolidation move by lawmakers

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The Sugar Free Allstars putting on a show in the Capitol during Arts Day Wednesday.
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Senate leaders talk about merging arts council, tourism department

OKLAHOMA CITY – Arts patrons were out in force Wednesday after learning state lawmakers are trying again to merge the Oklahoma Arts Council with the tourism department as part of a budget cutting measure.

Legislators tried two years ago to consolidate the two agencies, but failed. This time, the idea started with Senate leaders, but no lawmakers were willing to talk about the proposal this time around. No legislation has been filed yet, a Senate leader said, but lawmakers are looking into every “nook and cranny” to lessen the impact of the $1.3 billion revenue failure Oklahoma is facing.

Still, fine arts fans and the artists themselves weren’t taking any chances. Hundreds of people made their way to the Capitol and spent several hours talking to lawmakers about the importance of keeping the Oklahoma Arts Council a separate entity.

Amber Sharples, executive director of the Oklahoma Arts Council, said the risks are too great to consider consolidation. Kansas made the decision to merge its tourism and arts council in 2012 and the arts budget dropped from $1.3 million to $190,000, a move that forced the cancellation of many community arts programs in that state.

Currently, the Oklahoma Arts Council has a $3.4 million budget, but that’s likely to be reduced with future financial cuts.

“We’ve absorbed all the operational efficiencies we can. Any more cuts will reduce direct services,” Sharples said.

The Oklahoma Arts Council helps provide rural communities with arts education programs in the schools and with local programs that emphasize art, music and drama. Without those programs, the rural cities and towns will have little, if any, arts programs, Sharples said.

Another potential risk of consolidation is the loss of national and regional grant funds.

“People don’t want to fund state government. They want to fund arts programs and that’s not the mission of the tourism department,” she said. “Rural arts education is not a driver for tourism. Schools would reduce arts programming and the professional development for arts teachers would go away.”

The Oklahoma Arts Council also provides programs for military communities and families and people with disabilities.

Norman artist Skip Hill said a merger of the two entities would dry up other sources of funding.

“By consolidating, it leaves arts organizations ineligible for these other national grants and lots of these other organizations aren’t going to give money to states. They’re trying to give money to arts councils and people who will do the most good with it,” he said.

Oklahoma arts programs would suffer irreparable harm if consolidation becomes law since tourism officials are not trained or educated in promoting the state’s art, music and theater programs, Hill said.

Meanwhile, Jill Castilla, president and chief executive officer of Citizens Bank in Edmond, said arts programs are an economic development driver that should not be changed.

“If the arts equals more economic development, then it could help recover from the budget shortfall,” she said.

Typically, people spend $24 extra dollars on non-admission items when attending an arts event such as play or concert. In Oklahoma, the average is $26, Castilla said.

“The real impact is to the businesses that surround the event. We had 80,000 people at the Edmond Arts Festival this past weekend. That’s $1.9 million from that one event,” she said. “The arts make Edmond a real community. Without it, we’re a bedroom community. The arts build the soul of a community.”

Adults weren’t the only people talking to lawmakers Wednesday. Teenagers who are enrolled at the Conservatory for Classic Arts program in Edmond were walking from door to door handing out information to legislators.

Katie Prior, a 15-year-old sophomore and founder of the Youth Trumpet and Taps Corps, said her focus Wednesday was to educate solons about the importance of using art as a means to help students with their other academic classes.

“All of the arts have rigorous practices and it helps a person develop a strong work ethic and that can translate over into math and science,” she said. “We want the state to keep funding the arts and keep it in the schools. Someone can take one art class and it can change the way they look at the world.”

Julia Kirt, executive director of Oklahomans for Arts, said the overall mission is to maintain support for all arts in the state’s 77 counties.

“This (consolidation) would cause us to lose funding rapidly,” she said. “We would lose money and we would lose autonomy. The level of transparency would also disappear and it would short cut the advocacy role we play for the arts and there would be a loss of expertise.”

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Tim Farley

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