Legislators pushing to reduce state spending on art didn’t win many friends in the state Capitol on Thursday.
“I’m feeling like the big bad wolf today,” Rep. Cathy McMorris, R-Colville, said at a public hearing before the House Capital Budget Committee. She’s sponsoring a bill that would ax state money for art at prisons, schools and juvenile rehabilitation centers.
Another bill, sponsored by Rep. Larry Crouse, R-Spokane, would go even further, eliminating the arts requirement for all state construction.
But lawmakers appear to favor McMorris’ more targeted approach, and Crouse did not even show up to support his bill Thursday.
Arts supporters dominated the hearing, protesting the Republican efforts and pointing out the value of fine arts to the state.
“Art is the yardstick by which future generations will measure the level of our society,” said Richard Andrews, director of the University of Washington’s Henry Art gallery.
Created by the state Legislature in 1974, the Art in Public Places program sets aside 0.5 percent of each major construction project’s budget to pay for original pieces of art. The state owns more than 3,000 pieces of art bought for a total of $8 million through the program, which is administered by the state Arts Commission.
Eliminating the program would save an estimated $1.5 million over the next two years. Cutting out art at prisons and schools would save $960,000.
McMorris said she is not against art, but in a tight budget year, she questions whether the state should pay for it - especially in prisons.
One sculpture at the Airway Heights prison cost $61,000, according to the Arts Commission. That, combined with oil paintings and other artwork, brings the prison’s total art bill to $218,000.
Andrea Bynum of the Department of Corrections said art in prisons helps provide an atmosphere of rehabilitation, although she admitted the effects are “intangible.”
Art also brightens the working environment for staff, said Kit Bail, a former corrections worker and chair of a board that reviews prison sentences.
Some resented McMorris lumping together prisons and schools.
“I cannot believe that you feel these two groups are the same types of people,” said Georgia Cutberth, principal of the newly built River Ridge High School in Lacey.
Cutberth said buying art for schools is especially valuable to smaller communities that don’t have museums and art galleries.
“A lot of students are never going to get to see a piece of art up close like this without this program,” she said.
McMorris said she has received letters from some school district superintendents who support her efforts. Supporters of her bill say the money for art would be better spent on school construction.