An arts and heritage super-agency?

A bill in Olympia would create a Department of Heritage, Arts and Culture, embracing programs from historic preservation to film, archives, and tourism. Is it an idea whose time has come, or will it trigger an ill-timed turf war?

Sometimes the interests of art, culture, tourism, preservation, and history do intersect, as with the 619 Western building in Pioneer Square.

Sometimes the interests of art, culture, tourism, preservation, and history do intersect, as with the 619 Western building in Pioneer Square. Joe Mabel, Wikimedia Commons

A sweeping new proposal in Olympia has left some arts and heritage advocates stunned. A bill (SB 5768) sponsored by Sens. Mary Margaret Haugen (D-Camano Island), Dan Swecker (R-Rochester), and Rosemary McAuliffe (D-Bothell) would consolidate virtually all state heritage functions into a single uber-agency called the Department of Heritage, Arts and Culture, a cabinet-level entity whose head would be appointed by the governor.

The proposal is both bold and, as might be expected, "ox-goring," as it makes major changes in the state's bureaucracy. Heritage, arts and culture programs are currently handled by many state entities. The bill is either or bold attack on Balkanization, or a major setback for heritage advocates who are less worried about Olympia's organization chart than immediate deep budget cuts — even survival.

The Senate bill creates an umbrella out of the statute structure of the state Department of Archaeology and Historic Preservation, an independent agency that Gov. Chris Gregoire has recently proposed be merged with the Department of Natural Resources (DNR).

The new group would encompass a range of functions including overseeing the state library and archives, the state's historical societies and museums (excluding the Burke Museum), the arts commission, the tourism bureau, the film and video office, historic and cultural resources preservation (including capital grants), even the state's poet laureate program.

Currently, these are scattered across the org-chart, from the Secretary of State's Office to the Department of Commerce. Some have been set for elimination or reduction in Gregoire's proposed biennial budget.

"This puts a lot of similar interests with intersecting values under a single roof," said Haugen, the chief sponsor. "They all interact with each other, and all of them have overlap in their constituencies."

Haugen said the move is motivated by the desire to protect arts and heritage programs and, hopefully, to gain some efficiencies and savings. Currently, arts and heritage programs are far-flung, comparatively small, and vulnerable to the budget's broad axe.

Gregoire's severe budget earlier this year alarmed arts advocates and heritage defenders, and some of her reorganization ideas (like moving the Main Street program to DNR) were eyebrow-raisers. Arts and heritage advocates have been scrambling to make their cases, emphasizing their economic impact. But in the Great Recession, they also know that business-as-usual is not much of an option.

One plus of the bill is that it could make arts and heritage into a bigger player. As one heritage advocate says, the new department would give arts and heritage a seat "at the adult's table" in Olympia, along with major agencies and agglomerations like the Department of Social and Health Services and DNR, which are consolidations from years past. But some stewards of existing programs are not at all happy about the proposal, and some key players say they didn't see it coming.

Assistant Secretary of State Steve Excell says the Secretary of State's Office knew nothing about it until it was filed Feb. 10, and "it blew our socks off." Excell believes the reorganization, which would shift a number of staff and major responsibilities to the new agency, would wind up being more expensive and less efficient (both, for example, would need their own webmasters).

The Secretary of State already oversees the state archives, library (which Gov. Gary Locke tried to eliminate), and an oral history and publishing Legacy Project that produces biographies of major players (including Booth Gardner, and an upcoming volume on tribal leader Billy Frank). The Secretary of State is also raising funds to build a new multi-million-dollar State Heritage Center on the Capitol Campus, though state capital funding for the project is currently on hold. 

Excell compared the bill to "rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic." The Secretary of State's office, he says, fought to save the library and assume oversight of the archives because it believed in their purpose, and he worries that future commitment might waver as part of a larger agency.


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Comments:

Posted Mon, Feb 14, 10:14 a.m. Inappropriate

Knute, is there any other state that has something like this set up to use as an example?

isaacada1

Posted Mon, Feb 14, 10:18 a.m. Inappropriate

"If the heritage community has to live with drastic cuts...A downside is if the re-org turns the arts and heritage community against itself..."

So there is a "heritage" community" and an "arts and heritage" community?
Wow. So many communities; so little money.

Posted Mon, Feb 14, 3:41 p.m. Inappropriate

This sounds like a really GREAT creative idea, that could save the State History Museum and provide a home for arts and heritage together.

Far better than putting them all in lifeboats to sink or swim in obscurity. So many wonderful stories and places need to be saved in so many interesting parts of this state. They make up a potential economic patchwork quilt that can bring tourism dollars to even the smallest communities and preserve that "sense of place" that is so hard to make up from scratch.

Kudos to those who brought this idea forward!

Posted Tue, Feb 15, 6:45 a.m. Inappropriate

I have had the benefit of living through something similar. I went to Michigan to work at the Council for Arts and Cultural Affairs at a time they had some of the largest funding in the country for state arts agencies. After a couple years the Governor formed a department of History, Arts, and Libraries and hired a well meaning Director who had no real arts perspective.

The new department did not function as a cohesive unit and other than sharing top adminstrative reports and shared marketing, HR, and other support personnel; there was no collaboration or expansion or really any benefit.

Our budget was cut department wide and of course as the economy worsened (in MI particularly) everyone was cut and the agency has all but been eliminated. We could have saved more money forcing long time state employees with high salary and low value to retire than with all the reorganization.

That being said, state governments are broke and if the arts always struggle even in good times, this next period may prove to be the great depression of arts and cultural development as we are diminished to quality of life and nonessential aspects of our humanity.

artsguy

Posted Sun, Feb 20, 7:39 p.m. Inappropriate

Sense of place? Most of it is architecturally "made up" sense of places, look at downtown Seattle, downtown Tacoma or downtown Bellevue as examples. However, I don't mind. I like cities, so long as they are not the Stepford wives style cities (which Bellevue pretty much is).

As to arts etc. There are far too many nonprofit organizations. I have watched during the last 3 years as everyone tha I know who had a job where they were self-employed (for profit), or worked at a company that sold or made products people would buy - they are now all under or un-employed ... yet the nonprofit pals we have - they are working with nary a layoff in sight. When does *their* financial backing and support run out, like the rest of ours did?

It's not a question of "not fair". It's a question of who is footing that bill -- and most of the time, it's the taxpayer. We just can't do that anymore.

Posted Wed, Mar 9, 2:31 p.m. Inappropriate

"Knute, is there any other state that has something like this set up to use as an example?

— isaacada1"

Nevada's a pretty good example where it appears to work well. But that's the only one I can think of at the moment.

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