Fallin Looks To Cut Funds, Consolidate Arts Council

Thursday, February 13th 2014, 7:44 pm
By: News 9

It's a controversial "consolidation plan" in an effort to cut costs. Gov. Mary Fallin hopes to merge five state agencies for next year's budget, and the Oklahoma Arts Council says it could take one of the biggest hits.

The Lyric Theatre says even if it sold out every single seat of every single show, that would still only cover about a third of its budget. The average summer show at the Lyric Theatre in Oklahoma City's Plaza District costs $300,000 to put on, so every cent they get from the Oklahoma Arts Council counts.

"When we get funding from the arts council, it helps supplement our budget, which does increase like the economy does every year. Things get more expensive," said Lyric Theatre artistic director Michael Baron.

"If we didn't have that funding, our programing would be dramatically reduced. We wouldn't be able to employ as many local actors as we do and bring in great talent from across the country."

The Lyric Theatre is just one of about 300 organizations that the Arts Council supports. Others include libraries, museums and music festivals, such as the Jazz in June in Norman and the Bluegrass festival in Guthrie.

To balance the 2015 budget, Fallin is proposing to consolidate the Arts Council with four other state agencies into the Tourism and Recreation Department. The other agencies are the Oklahoma Historical Society, J.M. Davis Memorial Commission, Will Rogers Memorial Commission, and Oklahoma Scenic Rivers Commission.

The governor says lumping these like-minded groups with similar visions will save the state money, but members of the arts disagree.

"We have to either find places to replace that money or we have to cut programs," said Eddie Walker, executive director of the Oklahoma City Philharmonic.

Walker, who's worked at the Philharmonic for 24 years, says it takes about $10,000 just to put on a dress rehearsal with its musicians. He balances a $4.7 million budget, where more than half come from donors.

The organization receives about $100,000 a year from the Arts Council. An amount, Walker says has decreased substantially each year, so cutting anything more is a cut too deep.

"There are estimates that if consolidation happens, the Oklahoma Arts Council will have $1.5 million less to deal with on an annual basis. The arts council is less than one-tenth of one percent of the state's budget, so cutting the arts council is not going to solve any of these other problems," Walker said.

"The arts are a driver for economies, the arts provide jobs, are a revenue generator, and we will only see the momentum slow if we eliminate funding for the arts."

Walker said arts communities in rural areas are going to take the biggest hit since many solely rely on the arts council for funding and don't have a big municipality backing. He says compiling all five groups under one umbrella would do a disservice.

"In terms of actual tourism, we're not that big of a player. We're here primarily to serve the people of Oklahoma," Walker said. 

"I'm afraid with consolidation, we'll lose all the specialized leadership. I don't think it's easy for one administrator to oversee these agencies without expert knowledge on a statewide level that archivists with the historical society and skilled artists in the arts council bring."

The Oklahoma Arts Council says, "while proposals to cut the state's investment in the arts industry are not new, the Governor and state Legislature have been supportive of our agency, understanding the impact of our more than 500 grants to more than 300 organizations throughout Oklahoma, and seeing firsthand the return-on-investment of our funding and programs in their communities."

Fallin has stated as required and achieved in prior consolidations, this budget projects a 15-percent cost savings in appropriated dollars in the first year of the consolidation.