M.T. Liggett, an extraordinary folk artist who created masterpieces out of a farm shop in Mullinville, works on a metal sculpture. The late artist’s roadside expressions made of old machinery parts is the basis of a visitor center being developed to display and preserve his work. (Submitted/Kansas Reflector)
TOPEKA — Complexities of building a visitor center to celebrate scrap metal sculptures, whirligigs and signs fabricated by Mullinville’s most curious resident help illustrate the pressure placed on the Kansas Creative Arts Industries Commission to create a statewide arts organization that equally values artistic and economic achievement.
Provocateur M.T. Liggett’s acerbic outdoor art displayed on his property along U.S. Highway 400 for nearly three decades served as a magnet for people passing through Kiowa County. His political and social commentary served to amuse and infuriate, a colorful range of emotion he clearly enjoyed. Following Liggett’s death in 2017, the Kohler Foundation was chosen to figure out how to catalog, restore and display nearly 1,000 totems assembled from old farm machinery, car parts and other junk.
It was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for Kansas. The result will be the M.T. Liggett Art Environment on his farmstead in Mullinville. In addition to a visitor center, there will be nature paths on the property. It has taken time, money and fortitude. Later this year, the Kohler Foundation is expected to donate the Liggett Art Environment to Greensburg’s arts center, which will be steward of the site.
Larry Meeker, who chairs the state arts commission, was among four trustees selected by Liggett to care for his folk art legacy. Meeker had been a fan of Liggett’s for a quarter century, installed some of the artist’s sculptures in his backyard and was overjoyed with the potential of people having access to these hand-built statements of fact and fiction.
But, Meeker said, dealing with an eccentric’s roadside attractions has proven far easier than answering Republican Gov. Sam Brownback’s call for a state arts commission anchored in capitalist ideology measured in terms of job creation. The concept was foreign to a Kansas commission that had concentrated on handing out government grants and celebrating the joy of artistic expression. Commissioners had traditionally paid little attention to what it meant to the overall economy.
Years into this Kansas experiment, evidence shows Brownback’s vision has been largely unfulfilled.
Brownback triggered a tidal wave of controversy in 2011 by vetoing funding for what was known simply as the Kansas Arts Commission. With stroke of a pen, Brownback made Kansas the first state without an agency devoted to the arts. The distinction meant loss of $1 million annually in federal and regional grants and forced local organizations to scramble for other revenue sources.
Brownback subsequently reconstituted the state arts commission — with a fraction of its former budget — as an organization dedicated to drawing primarily upon the private sector to grow the arts. No longer would the organization operate as a feel-good cheerleader of the arts disinterested in accountability from grant recipients. He said the revamped commission would be “more successful” and do more to “leverage and raise private dollars.”
Meeker remains a fierce advocate of the commission’s economic development objective. He is convinced the Kansas Legislature’s decision last year to raise its annual investment to $500,000 and make access to federal dollars more certain were reasons for optimism. The venture capitalist’s perspective developed by the commission is credited with helping draw conservatives into a coalition with liberals at the Capitol, he said.
“Sometimes bad things that occur spark some innovation that makes things better in the future,” Meeker said.
The COVID-19 pandemic, of course, has sharply undercut arts performance, commerce and education in Kansas. The arts commission has worked to distribute more than $400,000 in federal disaster aid to arts groups in Kansas. The lethal virus has done nothing to weaken the view of skeptics convinced it was folly for Brownback to reinvent the state organization as a tool of economic prowess.
A rough audit
Rep. Pam Curtis, a Democrat from Kansas City, Kansas, was among legislators who pressed for a legislative audit of the state arts industries commission. The report exposed fundamental shortcomings in the budget and showed the agency was incapable of demonstrating the type of economic impact promised by Brownback. The report revealed only 33 of 105 counties received a grant from the commission in the 2019 fiscal year.
“We need to get more money out in the communities,” Curtis said. “What would a world without art look like? For some kids, it’s arts that reaches them. We have to invest in that.”
The Legislature’s auditing division found “no measurable economic impact from the commission’s efforts,” and concluded that states similar to Kansas didn’t bother to report on economic impact of art agencies.
The commission’s state funding was the lowest in the nation, based on fiscal year 2019 totals showing the state devoted $200,000 to the arts. At that time, before an increase, Kansas’ state funding to the commission stood at 9 cents per capita. The national average was just over $1 per capital, while Rhode Island led the nation with $9.40 per capita.
The National Endowment for the Arts requires matching funds from states for every dollar provided in grants, which has proven problematic in Kansas. While the national matching average was $8 for every NEA dollar, Kansas was among three states that failed to meet the minimum. Kansas was allowed to retain NEA funding based on a special agreement.
In the just-completed 2020 fiscal year, state lawmakers added $300,000 to the commission’s budget to avoid losing federal assistance. The commission’s budget has risen to about $1.5 million, an amount close to 2011 levels when this experiment was hatched. With a projected state budget deficit of hundreds of millions of dollars in Kansas, it might be difficult to maintain consistent state financing going forward.
Federal data from the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis ranked Kansas 37th during 2016 in terms of value added to the state’s economy through arts and culture production. The state came in 47th in growth of those industries and was 45th in the nation for job growth in the arts.
On average, state auditors concluded the Kansas commission’s grants were too small to deliver measurable economic influence. The commission issued 123 grants totaling $624,000 in 2016 for an average grant amount of $5,200. Many of the commission’s reported economic impact results weren’t reasonable, auditors said.
“The commission reports its average grant helped create three new jobs, kept two jobs and affected a total of 30 jobs,” the audit report said. “It seems unlikely that a $5,200 grant, $16,100 with matched funds, could generate such results under any reasonable scenario, much less on average for the sample of 74 grants the commission provided us.”
The report also indicated the commission claimed one mural project with $11,000 in total expenses created seven new jobs, while another mural project with $9,600 in total expenses reported creating no jobs.
In terms of non-economic metrics reported to the National Endowment for the Arts, the audit said the self-reported estimates “appear overstated.”
The state commission asserted the average grant engaged 2,000 adults, 1,200 youth and 33 artists.
One grant recipient in Kansas reported $5,000 in state funding to conduct a survey would engage 42,000 individuals in the arts.
Peter Jasso, director of Kansas’ arts commission since 2012, said COVID-19 had for months prohibited Kansans from coming together in galleries, concert venues and theater stages to partake of what nourishes them. The commission, which is part of the Kansas Department of Commerce, has distributed $440,000 in federal CARES Act aid, with much of it used to sustain community facilities and retain staff.
He said the state commission hadn’t the opportunity to fully absorb findings of the state audit released in March nor engage in conversations with constituents and supporters of the arts to figure out how to go forward.
“We haven’t had a chance to regroup,” Jasso said. “We’re in a holding pattern.”
Toni Smith, a member of the state arts commission and former executive director of the Baker Arts Center in Liberal, said the state commission should make it a priority to expand support of the arts in rural areas.
“I think western Kansas deserves more attention,” Smith said. “I’m seeing the doors open more. We’ve had more of a voice in the last five or six years.”
Hays resident Henry Schwaller, who served on the state arts commission before and after it was overhauled by Brownback, said disruption of a consistent funding stream to the arts in Kansas left small programs hanging by a thread.
He labeled as “weird” Brownback’s notion of remaking the commission as a chess piece in the economic development game at the same time he destroyed the state’s financial blueprint for the arts.
Schwaller, who no longer is on the commission, proposed the state remove it from the Department of Commerce. The commission needs to reconnect with community arts agencies across the state and identify the most urgent repair needs, he said.
“There’s a lot at stake,” Schwaller said. “It’s quality of life.”
Our stories may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. We ask that you edit only for style or to shorten, provide proper attribution and link to our web site. Please see our republishing guidelines for use of photos and graphics.