This week, tens of thousands of people from around the world will arrive in Louisiana for the 40th annual New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival and Lafayette's Festival International de Louisiane, where they'll experience all that our state has to offer in music, art, dance and culture. Meanwhile, in Baton Rouge, legislators will gather April 27 to grapple with an enormous state shortfall — a task that House Speaker Jim Tucker has called the "Bataan Death March of budgeting processes."
One group already has its marching orders: the arts. Under Gov. Bobby Jindal's proposed budget, state arts programs will be cut 56 percent in the next fiscal year, from $7.3 million to $3.2 million. The bottom line is that numbers and balance sheets don't even begin to tell this story.
The arts cuts are twofold. Statewide Arts Grants, which support local theaters, symphonies and other arts organizations in the state, will be cut 31 percent to about $1.6 million. The more serious cuts affect Louisiana's Decentralized Arts Fund (DAF), which has traditionally provided small but necessary grants — between $500 and $10,000 — to start-up arts groups and programs such as public library summer reading drives.
Jindal's budget lops DAF by a catastrophic 83 percent, from $3 million to just over $500,000 a year for the entire state. That $500,000 will have to be spread across state libraries, after-school arts programs, parks and recreation activities in rural parishes, cultural programs for seniors and children and more. Some are bound to be lost. Derek Gordon, head of the Arts Council of Baton Rouge, called the proposed cuts "Draconian," and produced numbers showing that for every dollar the state invests in arts programs, it receives $6 back, primarily in tourism.
At a time when the state anticipates a $200 million cut in public education, lawmakers may see the DAF reduction as a small-potatoes line item. In truth, the miserly amount allotted to the DAF nonetheless pays big dividends. For example, the Lafourche Parish Public Library applied for a 2006 DAF grant for $8,000 to fund a yearlong reading program titled "Be a Star — Read." Under Jindal's proposed budget, Lafourche and other rural libraries would compete for crumbs. The State Library of Louisiana's own five-year plan, written just last year, found that 80 percent of the state's fourth- and eighth-graders do not read at a proficient level and that state library services "rank close to the bottom in most measures." Funding summer reading programs in a state struggling with literacy rates isn't pork; it's good sense.
The New Orleans nonprofit KID smART received the 2008 Governor's Arts Award in the Arts Education category. KID smART's executive director, Echo Olander, once worked as a grants officer for the DAF; she says Jindal's proposed funding cuts are "really critical. When you have a smaller organization and you lose that $5,000, it's the difference between letting it happen and not happen. Arts are pivotal to success in other areas like math, English and science."
For those who still find the arts a luxury, consider this: A 2005 study on Louisiana's cultural economy, commissioned by Lt. Gov. Mitch Landrieu's office, estimated that the arts sustain 144,000 jobs in Louisiana — more than the oil patch and second only to health care. At a time when Jindal is proposing a $50 million state bailout to keep open a Farmerville chicken-processing plant that employs 1,300 workers, it only makes sense to invest a fraction of that money in a field that employs 100 times more workers.
Unlike the political flap over the National Endowment for the Arts in the 1980s, when a tiny portion of federal funds were being spent on a small number of artists who produced work that offended some, the DAF grants are both popular and productive. The House Appropriations Committee will meet April 23 to take testimony on Jindal's proposed budget for culture, recreation and tourism. While the state budget shortfall must be addressed, cutting DAF grants to some of the state's fiscally and culturally poorest parishes and depriving some children of their first exposure to the arts seems a mean — and meaningless — way to balance the budget. We urge lawmakers to restore the funding to the arts.