After weeks of uncertainty, the Kansas City Council on March 26 approved a budget that maintains the city’s commitment to fund arts programs.
At the same time, however, the Fiscal Year 2020-21 budget does not provide funding for the city’s Office of Culture and Creative Services (OCCS), which is being eliminated.
Concerns over the city’s arts funding erupted in February when Mayor Quinton Lucas proposed a budget that included a $175,000 cut from the Kansas City Film Office incentive program and a $90,000 cut from the ArtsTech Teens in Transition program.
Based on subsequently revised proposals from Mayor Lucas, the new budget includes $200,000 for the Film Office incentive program and $75,000 for the ArtsTech Teens in Transition program.
Cynthia Levin, producing artistic director for the Unicorn Theatre, told KC Studio that it was crucial for the city to maintain funding that supports Kansas City arts. “To not think that the arts are important to this city is ludicrous,” Levin said. “Per capita, we probably bring in more arts dollars and arts organizations than any other city our size. That has a lot to do with economics and the value of life here. People choose to move here and live here because of the care we have taken to nurture our artists and institutions of art.”
Sonie Joi Thompson-Ruffin, a contemporary fabric artist and founder of the African American Artists Collective, told KC Studio that people cannot expect arts funding from the city to be immune from reductions.
“The streets need to be tended to, the bridges need to be tended to, and there are communities that need to be tended to,” Thompson-Ruffin said. “Kansas City artists have every right to be celebrated, and we have every right to celebrate our talents and gifts. But if we have an infrastructure that is falling apart, how are we going to be able to do that? These are taxpayers’ dollars.”
The OCCS was established in 2015 to lead the city’s cultural development efforts. According to its mission statement, it was created to “serve Kansas City residents by bolstering and catalyzing arts, culture and creativity and by leveraging the arts as a strategy for economic development, neighborhood revitalization, and cultural vitality for its citizens.”
The OCCS was directed to partner with for-profit and non-profit organizations to increase jobs in the creative sector; strengthen Kansas City’s communities and cultural identity; increase access to education and lifelong learning in the arts; and promote Kansas City as the heart of America’s “creative crossroads” and a destination for national and international visitors.
Levin said she thought the OCCS had been blamed for problems that arose from Open Spaces 2018, a visual and performing arts exhibition that occurred in Kansas City during the summer and fall of that year. The city contributed nearly $1 million to the exhibition, which lost money.
“I think it’s really unfortunate OCCS won’t survive,” Levin said. “They are bearing the brunt of the unsuccessful Open Spaces. I’m not sure that’s fair. I think OCCS has been a great service.”
But Thompson-Ruffin said the OCCS had failed to support the arts in all of Kansas City’s diverse communities.
“They did not fulfill their mission,” Thompson-Ruffin said. “You have different areas of the city and different ethnicities. Culturally, Kansas City is one of the most diverse communities in Missouri. Your strength in any city is your diversity. And if you do not understand the character of the community you are serving, then you’re set up to fail.”
Similar criticism surfaced in a lawsuit filed in February by Denise Dillard, a black woman who was fired from the OCCS last year. In her lawsuit, which was filed in Jackson County Circuit Court, Dillard claimed that her OCCS supervisor had engaged in “discriminatory management” and “discriminatory and inappropriate disbursement” of a fund meant to support neighborhood and community events and retaliated against her for reporting those “ethical violations.”
Above: The Royals bat, the Negro Leagues Picture, the mayor facing out towards the sun. A thoughtful and introspective man looks through the bittersweet glories of the distant past, the victories of the current past, and into a bright future, cognizant of his own forming legacy. — Harold Smith (photo by Harold Smith)