MANGUM — The arts scene in Mangum took a big hit two years ago, when the longtime art teacher finally retired from the public school district.
Struggling to find a replacement at the same time state budget allocations were dropping, school administrators came to the same inevitable decision: Year-round art education at Mangum Schools, like the teacher, were relics of the past.
Now a $2,500 grant that funds a teacher at the rural Greer County district — a 10-day “artist in residence” program — is threatened.
The residency program, though not nearly as effective as in-house instruction, is the district's last shot at providing to its students what used to be a mainstay of public education, said Barbie Stover, the district's library and media specialist.
“We learn through applying art,” Stover said. “We can apply science, math and of course language arts into any kind of visual art of into the performing arts.”
Oklahoma Arts Council is the latest target of a long-running trend by Republican lawmakers to trim the state budget.
House Bill 1895, filed this month by Rep. Josh Cockroft, R-Tecumseh, would reduce that agency's $4 million dollar budget by a million dollars a year over the next four years. Other perennial targets by other lawmakers include Oklahoma Educational Television Authority and many of the state's publicly funded parks, golf courses and museums.
Cockroft said the bills are meant to question the “core function” of government and refocus state resources on the more essential needs, like education, public safety and transportation.
“Do we at this time need to be supplementing the arts with taxpayer dollars or can they survive on public donations?” he said. “If the arts truly are important, and I absolutely agree that they are, then people are going to be willing to step up and give those private donations to continue supporting it.”
But arts funding is about more than aesthetic projects, and private dollars often float in on the promise of public matching funds, said Kim Baker, the council's executive director.
Baker said through supporting art education, infrastructure, statewide programming and professional development, the council has been able to turn $4 million in state funding into $29 million in positive economic impact.
Some of that comes through sales tax dollars, but most of it is through development of a “creative workforce,” Baker said, which in turn attracts new business and industry.
The artist-in-residence program at Mangum Schools is one of about 500 grants that would be threatened if Cockroft's legislation were signed into law, she said.
About $10,000 in grant funding to the Norman Music Festival over the past five years has had an economic impact of about $13.6 million, including more than $400,000 in sales tax dollars, said Quentin Bomgardner, board member for the Norman Music Alliance.
About 80 percent of the council's budget is apportioned to Oklahoma communities through the grant program, she said. Other programs supported by the grants include “free days” at the Philbrook Museum of Art in Tulsa, the Woody Guthrie Folk Festival in Okemah and wood-turning classes for at-risk youth statewide.
And because those grants are spread 50-50 between the state's urban and rural areas, Baker said, reliance on private fundraising would likely have a significant impact on the ability to raise money for arts and cultural development in rural areas like Mangum.
“We use those (public) funds to go out and raise those private dollars, and we act as that ‘Good Housekeeping' seal of approval, if you will. It goes through a very rigorous process, and it goes across the state,” Baker said.
Mangum usually receives an additional $5,000 or so in council grants to support its Wild West Days, a juried art show that brings in visitors in the fall.
Denise Alexander, president of the town's Art on the Square Association, said that event has had a tremendous impact on the local economy, bringing in new businesses and boosting sales tax, Mangum's lone source of operating revenue.
“Now we have art galleries in Mangum where there were none before,” Alexander said. “It's made all the difference in what we've been able to do as a community.”
‘Shooting a gnat'
Rep. David Dank, R-Oklahoma City, described Cockroft's bill as “shooting a gnat with a cannon.”
Dank said trimming the budget is important, but removing $4 million in arts funding from a $6.6 billion state budget is not the first place he would start.
Reforming tax credit loopholes and reducing redundancies in Oklahoma's county districts, district attorney's offices and school districts would have a far more significant impact on the budget than eliminating the Oklahoma Arts Council, he said.
“Cutting the arts should not be a priority,” Dank said. “Businesses don't move businesses to a state, people do, and the people that are moving these companies like art. They want OETA. They're not going to move to a place that's backward in these areas.
Cockroft said small cut or not, freeing up $4 million here and there in an already bloated budget would allow the state to refocus on its primary goals. He said he's received over 1,000 emails since his bill went public last week, but only about four of them critical and from his district constituents.
“You have to start somewhere,” he said. “If I am in a tight spot in my budget at home, I'm going to start eliminating the movie rentals, the fast food as I go home — I'm going to start eliminating some of those smaller things so that I can pay my utilities, so I can keep the lights on,” he said. “You can hire a lot of teachers with $4 million.”