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Lack Of Arts Funding Threatens Important Voices And Economic Growth In Arizona

The state budget that passed and was signed by Gov. Doug Ducey zeroed out $2 million in funding for the Arizona Commission on the Arts.

The arts community in the state continues to question the fiscal sense of the decision — even in the age of the coronavirus.

The so-called “skinny budget” made cuts to many state agencies, but in the case of the commission, allocation of funds has never been consistent in post-recession years.  

Executive Director Jaime Dempsey said, “It’s in a crisis like this, that year-by-year strategy becomes incredibly problematic because we don’t have any baseline funding. And so, for our agency it’s sort of an all-or-nothing approach.” 

The commission supports 90,000 jobs in a $9-plus billion industry each year. She said the agency will also lose federal grants that require matching state funds.

At a time when Arizona needs revenue, it’s questionable why legislators and the governor wouldn’t support that kind of ROI, especially since Ducey submitted a funding request for the commission in his budget proposal before it was debated and voted on.

Ultimately, he sided with the Legislature when he signed the budget they passed.

Jackie Young, a Phoenix-based artist and Arizona State University information specialist at the downtown Phoenix campus library, said based on her recent electronic communication with Ducey, she thinks he understands art not only beautifies but heals, especially minority communities, and he wants to revisit the lack of funding.

“I would argue, and I did on Linkedin [with the Governor's Office], now is not the time to be cutting these communities of color, the artistic community, which can rally and heal. Phoenix is known for its vibrant arts community. It’s what makes Phoenix unique. You do not want to penalize and cripple that part of the community,” said Young.

So what other programs and people will be affected by the lack of arts funding in the state?

“Young people who are watching the protests and participating in the protests are going to need some kind of program after all of this that perhaps helps them reach some kind of clarity or peace or healing,” according to Phoenix poet laureate Rosemarie Dombrowski.

She believes writing is an important tool for artistic expression. “It’s really easy for me to go into a school and reach 50 people in one day, get them to craft something creative, turn it into a zine. I’ve done longer projects that have allowed me to stay at school for extended periods of time and transform writing into murals.”  

But without funding, these types of programs can’t be sustained.

Dombrowski circulated a letter to legislators and Ducey prior to the skinny budget passing and plans to continue expressing the importance of arts funding.  

PBS’ Arizona Horizon Town Hall was to take up the issue Friday, June 5, but bumped the episode to focus on recent events connected to the death of George Floyd and the rippling effects evidenced across the state.

Zeroing out allocations for the Arizona Commission on the Arts also threatens expression by Navajo youth like Sylvia Dale, who  won the state’s poetry recitation contest in March, which is hosted by the commission.

Dale recited a work by well-known poet Natalie Diaz. “Angels don’t come to the reservation. Bats, maybe”  were opening words in the poem titled "Abecedarian Requiring Further Examination of Anglikan Seraphym Subjugation of a Wild Indian Rezervation."

Following her win, Dale talked about the importance of the poem she read at the event. “I really connected with her poem about the idea that Native Americans are always being moved and looked down upon. I really love her poem and how it demonstrates we are here and we are still going to move forward," Dale said. 

Despite the positive economic multipliers funding for arts produces, the current budget hole means already underrepresented people will have increased difficulty making their voices heard perhaps at a time when they are most needed. 

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Tom Maxedon is the host of KJZZ’s Weekend Edition on Saturday and Sunday from 6-10 a.m. and All Things Considered on Monday from 3-6 p.m.