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Photo illustration by Melissa Hebert

Smaller, poorer, rural parishes will likely suffer the most from state cuts to Decentralized Arts Funding. By Walter Pierce

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Five million dollars is chump change in a $20 billion-plus state budget. It’ll buy a few miles of highway, a new wing on an old school, an upgrade to a water-treatment facility.

But for the arts community, which is accustomed to gessoing over old canvases and recycling stage properties, it’s a handsome sum. And unfortunately $5 million was a zenith in state support for Decentralized Arts Funding and Statewide Arts Grants back in 2009. But Gov. Bobby Voucher’s vision for state support for the arts has always been to enroll it in an obscure evangelical school in a St. Helena Parish mobile home where it can learn how the Intelligent Designer made loaves of jalapeño cheese bread from a pineapple, and he’s been chipping away at DAF and SAG every year since.

In the coming fiscal year, state funding for DAF and SAG has been whittled down to about $2 million combined (out of a $25 billion budget). That’s about $500,000 less than the current budget allocation and just 40 percent of what the arts were receiving three years ago.

Arts administrators and the creatives who rely on the grants they distribute knew this was coming, but they were unable to sway legislators who possess a staggering ignorance of the concept that culture is what we do best in Louisiana and that underwriting the arts with public dollars has a huge return on investment — $7 in tax revenue for every $1 in support, according to one study. Other analyses, notably an exhaustive study by the National Governors Association’s Center for Best Practices, backs up this ratio.

Quick, name a world-famous cultural commodity in Iowa or North Dakota. There is none as far as I know, and that’s why we drive through them instead of to them on vacation. Louisiana is different, of course. The world knows about gumbo, zydeco, étouffée, jazz and boudin. And the world comes to Louisiana for them.

The cut to DAF is especially troublesome because it’s the most egalitarian means of supporting the arts through government. The name says it all: it’s decentralized. Bureaucrats in Baton Rouge don’t make the decisions about which arts/culture providers get grants. People in those communities do. People who understand the local population, are a part of it. People best equipped to fairly and effectively distribute the funding. There are nine DAF distribution hubs in the state, of which the Acadiana Center for the Arts is one. The AcA serves eight parishes.

If the state zeroed the funding for DAF and SAG, art/culture would most certainly survive in Louisiana. In urban pockets like Lafayette, New Orleans and Shreveport it would continue to thrive. But parishes like Tensas, Vernon, Washington or Winn — poorer, rural parishes where there are few or no benevolent corporate sponsors or affluent patrons — would disproportionately suffer.

And we’re not talking about diminishing their opportunities to see Mapplethorpe or Serrano exhibitions. The summer camps, the fairs/festivals, the folklife museums where local culture is preserved, celebrated and passed along will have to make the tough choices. It’s the community theater group for whom a $500 grant means keeping the air conditioning and lights running. And when that community theater folds its tent, it stops buying paint and light bulbs from the hardware store down the street. The effect ripples out beyond the loss of a two-weekend run of The Trouble with Cats.

But for some in our communities — particularly the people who are not arts consumers and evidently a majority in our Legislature — arts/culture is mistaken for a luxury of effete intellectuals unaccustomed to the simple pleasures of light beer and sitcoms.

They’re wrong, of course, and we all suffer through their ignorance.

If government allowed us to earmark our individual tax burdens, I would probably direct more of my taxes to arts/culture and less to things like rural roads and bridges, which I never use and which help subsidize the lifestyle choice — living in “the country” — of people who by necessity must drive a lot more and thereby make a disproportional contribution to air pollution.

But that’s not how taxes work, and fortunately this city, state and nation have long understood the value in supporting and nurturing arts/culture and, I’d like to think, not just because it makes sound economic sense. Arts/culture is at the heart of what’s best about our sultry rim of the Gulf of Mexico. It’s why vacationers drive to, not through, Lafayette and Louisiana.

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