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Nikki Haley's Short-Sighted Gutting of the Arts

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I grew up in Clemson, South Carolina. It was a terrific way to grow up -- we shopped at Judge Keller's General Store, we watched movies at the Astro Theatre on Main Street, the sheriff's car wasn't above being used as the town taxi cab. And, while a bagel was as foreign as an alien spaceship, life was good.

When I was twelve, I was lucky enough to find the Oconee Community Theatre. For all of us who were part of that community, it was a link to a broader cultural world. Today, both my brother and I make our living in the arts. And it all started for us with that small community theater, which stays afloat with local support, the herculean efforts of volunteers and periodic small grants from the South Carolina Arts Commission.

Unfortunately, kids growing up in South Carolina today may not have the same opportunities that I had to learn life skills from a small but powerful non-profit theater or arts group.

Last weekend, Nikki Haley, the Governor of South Carolina, took out her veto pen and eliminated every cent of funding for the South Carolina Arts Commission. For 45 years, the South Carolina Arts Commission has provided critical funding to non-profit arts groups across the state, giving grants to support community arts programs, artist development efforts and arts education initiatives. Unless the state legislature overrides Governor Haley's veto next week, that legacy will end, taking with it an essential pillar of art and culture in South Carolina.

Governor Haley's spokesperson claims that the Governor "loves the arts," but that she just doesn't believe that supporting the arts is a "core function of government." Pardon? Consider a few facts:

According to a study by the Moore School of Business at the University of South Carolina, creative industries contribute more than $9.2 billion dollars to the state's economy and support almost 80,000 jobs. That's about 3% of the state's economy.

The evidence is clear that kids who are involved in the arts do better in school, are more likely to graduate and show increased rates of civic participation.

State supported arts initiatives drive tourism and revitalize communities. Whether you look at the Spoleto Festival in Charleston or at the impact that one theater has had in revitalizing the small town of Newberry, South Carolina, the arts add economic vitality to local economies.

Economic development. Improving education. Community revitalization. Aren't those core functions of government? It's not about "loving the arts." It's about recognizing that the arts are fundamental to our society and require at least some basic level of support. As State Senator Hugh Leatherman, the Republican Chairman of the South Carolina Senate Finance Committee has said, "The Arts Commission serves a very useful purpose. It is there in the schools, out there for the our citizens. The arts (are) an important part of our society and an important part of us."

No one is suggesting that the state should be the sole, or even the primary, supporter of the arts. The couple of million dollars in grants that South Carolina's Arts Commission supports is leveraged more than 40 times over by private support for the arts. But the state support is essential to seed new projects, attract private support and is most essential in lower-income communities where private support, which tends to come from local supporters, is a lot harder to come by.

Next week, the South Carolina legislature will return to session to consider overriding the Governor's elimination of the Arts Commission. We're hopeful that Republicans and Democrats will join together to reaffirm their support for the arts. But arts supporters need to speak out.

If you live in South Carolina, take a moment to let your state representative and state senator know that you oppose this short-sighted cut to South Carolina's arts community. If you have family, friends or colleagues in the state, please let them know what's happening and urge them to stand up for the state's artistic and cultural institutions. And on Monday, July 16, arts supporters will gather on the State House grounds in Columbia to rally for the arts.

Is a politician's effort to show Tea Party purity really worth cutting kids access to arts class, a local orchestra or community theater? Art works! It sure did for me.