Yesterday, the Oklahoma House Conference Committee on Economic Development and Financial Services heard testimony analyzing the future of the Oklahoma Arts Council for an Interim Study.

I’ll summarize some themes of the presentations and discussion to give arts advocates some quick information. A full recording of the meeting will be available on the House’s website soon and we will watch for the report on its completion.

Committee Chairman Rep. Randy McDaniel (District 83) led the lightly attended committee hearing. Those present were engaged and all asked questions.

Rep. Lee Denney (33) said she requested the study to examine proposals from the past few legislative sessions to consolidate or eliminate the Oklahoma Arts Council. She indicated her hope that the study could give a reasoned examination of the important role and future structure of the agency and avoid rehashing assumptions.

Oklahoma Arts Council Executive Director Amber Sharples introduced the agency, emphasizing the distinctive mission and efficient operations of the state agency.

She called local and national witnesses including Ken Busby, Executive Director and Chief Executive Officer of the Arts and Humanities Council of Tulsa; Gleny Beach, PhD, Director of Art at Southeastern Oklahoma State University; Leona Mitchell, internationally-renowned opera singer from Enid; Holbrook Lawson, PhD, Chair of the Oklahoma Arts Council; and Jonathan Katz, PhD, Chief Executive Officer of the National Assembly of State Arts Agencies.

Amber Sharples, Oklahoma Arts Council and Jonathan Katz, National Assembly of State Arts Agencies

Amber Sharples, Oklahoma Arts Council and Jonathan Katz, National Assembly of State Arts Agencies


Outreach, Objectivity, Oversight, Efficiency:

Each witness focused on different aspects of the Oklahoma Arts Council’s programs, services and governance, emphasizing local impact. Several themes repeated, including:

  • Broad community reach of Oklahoma Arts Council’s grants and services, especially to rural areas and underserved Oklahomans.
  • Significance of the fair, transparent grant-making process.
  • Importance of partnerships for the Oklahoma Arts Council’s mission, within state government and with outside communities, organizations and businesses.
  • Leadership of the Oklahoma Arts Council in multiple cross-sector areas: arts education, community revitalization through arts and culture, leadership development and arts industry infrastructure.
  • Value of the oversight and due diligence by the citizen-led 15-member Council.
  • Efficiency of the agency with only 7% administrative costs.
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National Data on State Arts Agencies:

Representing national knowledge about arts agencies in all 50 states, Katz presented data about resources and the organizational structure of state arts agencies.

Across the country, 23 arts agencies are independent or located within the Governor’s Office. Cultural affairs departments house eight of the arts agencies and eight more are embedded in economic development agencies.  Tourism houses five arts agencies and the other six states have unique structures.

Katz pointed out that since the 1970’s, state arts agencies seldom move within the governmental structure, except in cases of dire economic circumstances. However, those agencies who are moved see significant reductions in appropriations. Nationally, art agencies have seen revenue reductions over the past 12 years.

Those state arts agencies that have moved in the past 12 years have seen budget reductions of 60.8% while agencies staying independent or in their same placement were only reduced by 24.5% over the same period.

Katz emphasized that the agency must retain resources, both revenues and personnel, for stability in the arts and culture industry and to have a strong arts agency.  He also stressed that a strong arts agency is necessary to fulfill Oklahoma’s state priorities with and through arts and culture.

Legislator Questions:    

After testimony, the legislators asked questions and made statements. This does not attempt to capture the entire discussion, but some of the key points made.

Several legislators requested more information about the potential lost revenues from federal and regional matching resources, which total $1.5 million. Chairman Rep. McDaniel reiterated that the savings from consolidation of the Oklahoma Arts Council seemed clearly marginal and the cost-benefit-analysis with potential lost revenues made the move seem unreasoned.

Rep. Bobby Cleveland (20) asked Sharples to spell out how she could know that consolidation would be bad for the agency since few details were spelled out in past proposals. Sharples emphasized that the Oklahoma Arts Council would welcome more dialog about consolidation details and legislative directives, but looked at national data and current operational strengths to determine consolidation would not allow the agency to meet its mission.

Rep. Marty Quinn (9) followed up to ask whether Sharples or the agency had been consulted about budget numbers and potential savings with consolidation. Sharples confirmed that budget numbers or projections were not produced with data from the Oklahoma Arts Council itself.

Similar to his talk at Oklahoma Arts Day, Rep. Earl Sears (11) made an impassioned speech underscoring his conviction that the Oklahoma Arts Council should be a “stand alone” agency and that arts should be “shining out front for our state.”

Wrapping Up:

Arts advocates should watch closely for the results of this study, which could help clarify the focus of the House leadership with regards to the Oklahoma Arts Council. Join our email list or become a member to get notification when the study is released.

Certainly this hearing was valuable for highlighting data about the potential pitfalls of consolidation and the distinctive value of the Arts Council.

–Julia Kirt, Oklahomans for the Arts Executive Director