Hawaii State’s arts programs may be on the chopping block in the Legislature this year – cialisdfr
Hawaii State’s arts programs may be on the chopping block in the Legislature this year
Hawaii State’s arts programs may be on the chopping block in the Legislature this year

Legislation to cut arts spending could even end Kamehameha Day parades.

A 59-year-old program that pays for art in public spaces faces significant changes and budget cuts under a bill being considered Tuesday in the Senate.

House Bill 1807 would change the program in which 1 percent of the cost of public construction projects is used for art in public spaces. The measure would limit the program to new construction only and eliminate its use for renovation projects. Most government projects involve renovating existing buildings rather than building new ones, so this would significantly reduce arts funding.

The bill also suggests that no other works of art need to be purchased by the state, noting that the state “holds surplus works of art in storage for present and future uses.”

The bill passed the House in March and moved to the Senate. Its sponsor is Rep. Kyle Yamashita, chairman of the House Finance Committee, who represents Maui’s District 12.

The Senate Committee on Transportation and Culture and the Arts is scheduled to hold a public hearing on the bill Tuesday at 3 p.m.

Capitol Modern, formerly the Hawaii State Museum of Art, could face significant budget cuts under legislation that seeks to limit money for the arts. (David Croxford/Civil Beat/2023)

The popular annual Kamehameha Day celebration and parades held across the country may also be on the agenda amid cost-cutting pressures caused by the Maui fire.

The State Endowment for Culture and the Arts, the main state arts funding agency that oversees the celebration, was also targeted for major cuts in both the House and Senate.

Under one proposal that appears to be stalled, House Bill 2565 by Rep. Daniel Holt, the commission that oversees the foundation would be abolished and the governor would appoint an executive director who would have to be approved by the Senate.

Karen Ewald, executive director of the State Foundation for Culture and the Arts, says the proposed cuts are potentially devastating, with the foundation potentially losing up to 70 percent of its revenue, including about $50,000 to $60,000 each year that is used to support the Kamehameha Festival.

“This is a critical bill that would drastically reduce arts funding and reverberate negatively across the state for years and years,” Ewald said. “It will have a huge impact if it happens.”

She said state support for arts education in public schools, artist grants and purchases of public art would be limited. She said she expects the state art museum to be closed.

As for the Kamehameha parades, “that’s not going to happen anymore,” she said. “We wouldn’t be able to fund them.”

The commission’s annual budget for fiscal year 2024 includes about $800,000 in state funds, $907,500 from the federal National Endowment for the Arts and about $5.7 million from the special fund, which represents 1 percent of the money, for a total of about $7.4 million dollars, according to Ewald.

Hundreds of artists, actors, dancers, musicians and museum enthusiasts rallied to defend the foundation and the 1 percent cut to the arts fund, testifying against the proposed legislation and saying the extreme cuts could alter Hawai’i’s cultural fabric. These include the Kauai Museum, the Maui Dance Council, Hawaiian Artisans, the Kahilu Theater Foundation, and the Maui Center for Arts and Culture.

“The primary purpose of this fund is to chronicle Hawaii’s history, its present and its future through the arts — all the arts,” wrote Beth-Ann Kozlovich, executive director of the Hawaii Arts Alliance. “It also means supporting arts education to nurture our current and future artists, now children or yet unborn. The purpose of the fund is much more than even the important function of collecting Hawaiian art that can be seen in state buildings, but to support all forms of art that can reflect and record current changes in thinking, approach to problems and actions, which reflect these changes over time.”

Karen Ewald, executive director of the Hawaii State Foundation for Culture and the Arts, poses at Capitol Modern, a showcase for local art. (David Croxford/Civil Beat/2023)

Artist and art instructor Eric Sullivan testified with outrage that lawmakers felt there was already too much art in Hawaii.

“The assertion that the State Foundation for Culture and the Arts (SFCA) has ‘enough artwork’ and that there is ‘no need to acquire more art for the state collection’ is short-sighted,” Sullivan wrote. “Art is not a commodity to be hoarded until a certain quota is met; it is a living, evolving expression of our society and its values.”

“Please don’t cut funding for arts and culture,” wrote artist Doug Young. “They are the backbone of Hawaii Nei.”

It’s unclear who is pushing for the changes to the state arts funding budget, but some of the pressure is likely coming from the huge cost of rebuilding Maui after a catastrophic fire in August that killed 101 people and damaged or destroyed more than 2,000 homes and a large part of West Maui’s critical infrastructure. With that in mind, Senate President Donovan Dela Cruz, who represents Wahiawa on Oahu, has instructed state departments to prepare for painful cuts of 10 percent to 15 percent.

But lawmakers recently said the financial hit may not be as devastating as first feared. Last week, Yamashita said the state projected a $1.34 billion surplus that would cover the roughly $1 billion needed to help fund recovery efforts on Maui. Meanwhile, the state has a record $1.5 billion in its emergency and budget reserve fund, known as the rainy day fund, the Honolulu Star-Advertiser reported Sunday.

There has been some upheaval in the foundation’s leadership over the past two years. Longtime executive director Jonathan Johnson stepped down in the summer of 2022 and was replaced by Alison Wong, former executive director of The Contemporary Museum. But the board placed Wong on administrative leave a few months later and appointed Ewald as interim director. She became executive director in October.

Around that time, the agency made an unusual announcement when it changed the name of the venerable Hawaii State Museum of Art to “Capitol Modern,” in a rebranding effort that Ewald said would help the facility shake off the common misconception that museums are stuffy or casually tense.

But the rebranding, which cost about $150,000 and removed the word “Hawaii” from the museum’s name, proved controversial, with critics including former Gov. Ben Cayetano publicly slamming the move.

In the past, the foundation was a source of pride for the state. Hawaii was the first state in the country to pass an art percentage law, a concept that subsequently spread to many other parts of the United States, where it is applied in some places to both public and private buildings.

The money is used to fund many community arts based initiatives and festivals.

About 10,000 children in the state participate in arts programs funded by the commission through the percentage program, tens of thousands attend public art exhibitions and thousands of people attend Kamehameha commemorations each year.

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