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An arts and heritage super-agency?

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

As an example, he expressed concern for things like the continuity of major volunteer efforts. The state archives has an army of free helpers, some living as far away as Australia, who transcribe historic documents so they can be digitized.

He also worries that projects partially funded by private donors (like the state historical societies and oral history project) might be harmed if donors perceive they are giving their money to a large state agency. He said his office is still assessing the impact: “We’re a deer in in the headlights and the car’s going 60 mph.”

Dave Nicandri, head of the Washington State Historical Society, said the proposal is the boldest he’s seen in his 39 years in state government. And he credited its big vision. But he called it “dubious” and thinks it misses the mark in many respects. 

First, he said, the proposal is an outlier in terms of how other states handle such consolidations. He cited Idaho, Montana, Minnesota, and others as examples of states that consolidate culture and heritage programs under state historical societies, not archaeology and preservation programs. That, he said, would make more sense.

Worse, he said, the proposal does not address the central issue of the session. “I’m concentrating on a legislative solution to backtracking the governor’s proposal to close the [State History] museum,” he said. The bill, Nicandri said, “loads further responsibility onto state government when we’re getting the message [from Olympia] that we can’t afford it as it is.”

Why create an uber-agency when the state’s commitment to heritage is waning? The bill offers no solution to the funding crisis.

Nicandri said what he’s hearing from the legislature is, “Dave: We’re not going to able to protect, not going to be able to undo, all that the governor has proposed, so you’re going to have to raise more.” That, he says, means groups like his will have to become even more reliant on the private sector to keep the doors open. Merging the society into a new state agency, he said, “undercuts the whole ethos” of independent boards and entities that seek to mobilize support for programs only partially funded by the state (currently, the historical society is 65 to 75 percent state-funded). In other words, he sees the proposal as making his job much harder.

On the other hand, consolidation has many theoretical benefits. One is that arts, culture, and heritage agencies are sometimes at odds over funding, competing for revenue streams. Battles like the fight to keep Pioneer Square’s 619 Western building from being demolished are examples of arts and heritage being not only allied, but intertwined: part of the heritage of the Square, not to mention its economic vitality, is as an incubator of the arts.

It’s about art, culture, tourism, preservation, and history. Historic preservation and cultural life are virtually inseparable. But, when it comes to funding and mission they often operate from different silos.

A broader agency might help bridge that divide and make each part stronger by combining into an entity with more clout. The fact that so many arts and heritage programs are scattered through state government is testimony to how deeply these initiatives are woven into the fabric of life. Bringing them together could mean better coordination and strength in numbers.

Or it could mean simply a bigger target for those looking for something to go after. A higher profile might bring additional scrutiny or make it a poster child for programs that look, as The Seattle Times recently framed it, “nice but not necessary.”

Another hurdle is that the idea, not vetted much in advance with stakeholders, could lead to a gritty turf war that would weaken heritage, in some cases fatally, before saving it, if it does. Lean times have some groups eyeing others with resentment. The Secretary of State’s office has a fund of some $10 million for a new Heritage Center that might never be built, while at the same time, existing museums are faced with shutting their doors. The Secretary of State defends keeping the fund intact because more archive storage space will eventually be needed, but other heritage folks wonder why those funds aren’t being tapped in a funding emergency.

But there’s little downside for those programs that have already been targeted for execution or Siberia. The governor has zeroed out the tourism budget. Other reorganization maneuvers have been piecemeal or impermanent, shifting programs hither and yon like heritage hobos (the effective, low-budget Main Street is slated for its third agency in two years). Giving some of these a home and a powerful alliance within state government might be a pretty good outcome for programs that have perpetually lived on the bubble.

A fiscal impact analysis of the bill has not yet been done. For it to have a chance this session, surely it would have to have at minimum a neutral impact and, even better, cost savings. Some of those savings could be applied to restoring endangered programs. Or not.

If the heritage community has to live with drastic cuts, one compensation would be emerging from the process with the potential for more clout in the future. A downside is if the re-org turns the arts and heritage community against itself in a bureaucratic scramble for the Titanic’s lifeboats.

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