Artists are traditionally thought of as creative dynamos whirling away by themselves in their studio garrets. But the past couple of weeks proved they're not as disconnected as we might think. When the livelihoods of South Carolina artists were threatened, they did something about it — or, at the very least, put down their paintbrushes and picked up their phones.
On June 9, Gov. Mark Sanford announced a veto of 107 line items and provisos in the state budget. Many affected the artistic community, like the elimination of all state funds for S.C. Arts Commission grants, programs, and services.
Less than 24 hours later, the commission sent out a rallying cry to its supporters. On a hastily created Facebook page, Executive Director Ken May explained that the governor's actions would cripple the agency "if the legislature does not override the veto." He added, "This cut eliminates ... more than 70 percent of our personnel ... [and] federal stimulus funds earmarked for grants to local arts organizations. The vetoed funds support arts curriculum and artist residencies in our schools; plays, concerts, dance performances, and exhibitions in our communities; and thousands of jobs statewide."
Facebook groups like the Arts Commission's and Save South Carolina ETV quickly gained thousands of supporters, a great indicator of the growing power of social networking. Bulletins and e-mails spread legislators' info, allowing recipients to contact their representatives and make their voices heard. There's no telling how the legislators would have voted without this pressure; plenty of Sanford's vetoes have been overturned in the past, including two attempts to block the 50-cent cigarette tax hike. But for once, the politicians actually seemed to be listening to their constituents. "If you're like me," said Rep. Jim Harrison, "you've got 150 e-mails from your arts groups back home. This is the money for their grants." Likewise, Rep. Anne Peterson Hutto acknowledged a great deal of e-mail and phone support for overriding the veto.
I can see Sanford's point of view — he has to be seen making cuts. "From a budget standpoint, next year will be cataclysmic," he said. "With the Obama administration's stimulus funds running dry next summer, South Carolina will be forced off a $1 billion dollar budget cliff." His top priority: to stop spending money we don't have. Instead of cutting essential services, he concentrated on arty stuff. He doesn't see the point of taxpayers forking out cash for art projects when they're teetering on the brink of that cliff.
The answer is that those projects aren't as frivolous as they seem. State funding helps schools run arts curricula and artist residencies, both important ways to keep kids engaged in school life. It enables libraries to educate and prepare students and the unemployed for the workforce. No wonder bookworms turned against the vetoes. "Cutting funds to public libraries will kill the economy," argued the Friends of the Library. "Public libraries provide crucial educational and employment assistance."
To the relief of many, the House and Senate overrode most of the arts vetoes. Casualties included S.C. State teacher training, which lost $478,876, and the prison system, which had its vocational instruction program trimmed. The campaigners, well-wishers, and protesters are preparing to go on the offensive again on June 29 when the Senate reconvenes to look at veto #105 ($250,000 in arts-related stimulus funds).
Art is all around us. It's so prevalent that we tend to take it for granted unless it's threatened. By targeting the arts, Sanford drew the attention of affluent voters — the kind of folks who can afford to worry about "frivolities" and do so vociferously. He also tried to hamstring libraries. Cutting access to technology and education is a great way to control the populace; ignorant voters don't make informed choices. Fortunately, we have word of mouth —whether in person, by phone, or via the internet — to tell our friends what legislators are up to. No matter what cultural resources are ultimately eroded, we'll always have that.