State Arts Agencies

Thanks to, a study of state arts agencies done by the Rand Corporation came to my attention today. State Arts Agencies 1965-2003: Whose Interests to Serve by Julia F. Lowell took a look at how 13 state arts agencies were fulfilling the purpose for which they were created. The report feels that the recent cuts to state arts agencies (SAAs) by state governments may turn out to be more than just a passing thing.

The report is prefaced by a summary of the history of SAAs from 1965 when they were first beginning to be formed. They first came as a way to decentralize the power of the NEA and prevent it from becoming “European-style ‘Ministry of Culture’.” Many were formed for the sole purpose of getting federal funds rather than from an interest by states to join in the arts funding trend. Among the assumptions of early agencies was that only high arts like ballet, opera, orchestras, etc. should be funded rather than individuals and community groups. As a result, the interests of a small group of arts buffs rather than the public as a whole was served.

There was a revolt against this view as many people felt the views and cultures being presented represented too narrow a portion of what was available and that the interests of too small a group was being recognized. Many states decentralized themselves and local arts agencies were set up to direct money to community interests. A consequence was that:

“The political impact of the changes they introduced was disappointing: Local arts councils received much of the credit for regrants run through the budgets of decentralized agencies, and community-based artists and arts organizations did not turn out to be an effective lobbying force. At the
same time, many of those who believed firmly that preserving and nurturing the high arts should be an arts agency’s first priority began losing their faith in SAAs.”

In the 1980s, the decentralization of the 1970s lead to a drop in support of SAAs by the major arts organizations. Many lobbied on their own behalf for funding rather than for support of the SAAs.

The 1990s of course brought close inspection of how public funds were being used to support the arts. SAAs were in the position of trying to convince the public and legislators that the arts were important to people’s lives and that SAAs were important to the arts.

Today, supported by grants from the Wallace Foundation, some SAAs are working to refocus themselves to represent the entire population of the state rather than just arts attendees, organizations and individuals artists. The report promises to monitor the strategies and tactics each participating SAA uses to generate monographs in the future.

About Joe Patti

I have been writing Butts in the Seats (BitS) on topics of arts and cultural administration since 2004 (yikes!). Given the ever evolving concerns facing the sector, I have yet to exhaust the available subject matter. In addition to BitS, I am a founding contributor to the ArtsHacker ( website where I focus on topics related to boards, law, governance, policy and practice.

I am also an evangelist for the effort to Build Public Will For Arts and Culture being helmed by Arts Midwest and the Metropolitan Group. (

My most recent role was as Executive Director of the Grand Opera House in Macon, GA.

Among the things I am most proud are having produced an opera in the Hawaiian language and a dance drama about Hawaii's snow goddess Poli'ahu while working as a Theater Manager in Hawaii. Though there are many more highlights than there is space here to list.


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