OKLAHOMA CITY — A bill filed in the Oklahoma House of Representatives proposes all funding to the Oklahoma Arts Council (OAC) be eliminated.
The legislation, written by state Rep. Josh Cockroft, R-Tecumseh, would reduce state government funding to the OAC each fiscal year by 25 percent, eventually ending the appropriation in 2017.
The first reading takes place Feb. 4. If passed, the bill will become effective July 1. Cockroft said the bill may be assigned to a committee next week.
Cockroft said his intent in writing HB 1895 is to simplify state spending and focus on funneling state tax dollars to core government functions like education.
“My goal with this bill isn’t to destroy the arts in Oklahoma. It’s actually quite contrary. I personally have been involved in the arts over the last couple of years,” Cockroft said. “I think there is a need and an incredible desire for that here in Oklahoma. The question is: Is that the state government’s responsibility?”
The state appropriates $4 million to the OAC every year, Cockroft said.
According to the OAC website, $4 million is less than one-tenth of 1 percent of the state budget, with 80 percent of funding going directly to communities across the state. Those funds support Oklahoma’s $314.8 million nonprofit arts and cultural industry and more than 10,000 jobs. The industry generates $29 million in state and local tax revenue.
Joel Gavin, OAC director of marketing and communications, said about 85 percent of OAC’s budget comes from state appropriations, with the remainder coming from the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA). The NEA grant is contingent upon the state having an arts council, so the bill threatens NEA funding as well. Without state funding, it’s more than just the OAC suffering.
“If HB 1895 passes, funding for over 300 organizations in communities throughout the state would be gone. Development services for individuals, organizations and communities that strengthen the cultural infrastructure of our state would be gone,” Gavin said. “Funding for arts education programs serving nearly 195,000 students at 750 school sites would be eliminated.
“Overall, without a strong arts and cultural industry, Oklahoma’s ability to compete for jobs and a skilled work force would suffer.”
Erinn Gavaghan, executive director of the Norman Arts Council (NAC), said state funding allows arts to thrive but also economically supports local businesses and communities. Without those funds, “there are no arts.”
“It is very frustrating when legislators have tunnel vision and don’t see the broader impact of their cuts,” Gavaghan said. “Not just the impact on the arts, but the impact this cut would have on the entire economy of the state. That is $35 million not going back into the state economy. Is a one-tenth of 1 percent cut in the state budget worth that?”
If the bill passes, Cockroft said, nonprofit arts organizations statewide would have to rely on the private sector for donations.
Though Cockroft said relying on private donations could potentially help arts awareness as nonprofit organizations aggressively seek funding, Gavaghan said private donors already support the arts as much as they can.
In Norman, Gavaghan said arts organizations rely on the OAC, the transient guest room tax and Norman businesses and residents for donations.
Norman arts organizations receiving funding from the OAC include the NAC, Sooner Theatre, Cimarron Circuit Opera, Jazz in June, the Firehouse Art Center, Jacobson House, the Performing Arts Studio and the Norman Music Festival.
Gavaghan said the NAC uses funds received from the OAC to partner with Norman Public Schools, the Pioneer Library System and the Firehouse Art Center on arts education programs. The NAC also funds the 2nd Friday Circuit of Art.
“Those are programs that would cease to exist if funding from the Oklahoma Arts Council is eliminated. Can you imagine an impact here in Norman if we had to cease our arts education programs and eliminate 2nd Friday’s from our community?” Gavaghan said. “These are not luxuries or even ‘nice-to-have’ programs. These are programs that stimulate the Norman economy and supplement the education of Norman children. That is just in Norman. There is a whole state that will suffer and become a less desirable place to live and raise families and open small businesses.”
Eliminating funding from the OAC is just one of many ways many state representatives are proposing to streamline state spending, Cockroft said.
Though Cockroft said he doesn’t know what outcome this bill will have, he feels his job as a legislator is getting the conversation started about how state tax dollars are being spent.