Members of the Edge music and dance troup performed at the 2007 Artown in Reno. Arts and culture funding faces major obstacles at the 2011 Nevada Legislature.

Ten years ago, to preserve the history of one of Nevada’s most popular attractions, Hoover Dam, the Boulder City/Hoover Dam Museum—a private group that receives some local and federal money—began gathering an archive on the dam project and other related history. Artifacts, biography files, maps, manuscript collections, photos, books and publications were gathered in subsequent years.

Early this month, the archive shut down. Figures from author Sally Denton to the archive’s former director, Dennis McBride, expressed concern.

“The possibility the archive might be looted—if it has not already been—is very real if it winds up abandoned in the hotel basement,” wrote McBride in an email message to historic preservation supporters. The mention of “the hotel” refers to the old Boulder City Hotel, headquarters for the Boulder City Museum and Historical Association.

In normal years, a legislative solution might be proposed—acquisition of the archive by the Nevada Historical Society or Nevada State Museum, perhaps.

But in a recession year, the 2011 Nevada Legislature is expected to be a death trap for many arts and culture proposals. With the state in the midst of a recession and the governor-elect expected to veto any tax hikes, the new budget will likely be a maintenance budget with little if any funding for new initiatives or programs. Few legislators predict good news coming out of the legislature for arts and culture next year, and many of them expect to have to shut down existing programs. Most of the chain of seven state museums, for instance, are likely to close (“Shutdown,” RN&R, Sept. 16). Those institutions are probably the most direct link most Nevadans have to arts and culture. The likeliest candidates for closure are the Lost City Museum in Overton, the East Ely Railroad Depot Museum, the Nevada Historical Society Museum in Reno or the Nevada Railroad Museum in Carson City. All of those institutions are already operating under limited hours and days.

And if the state’s economy continues in recession, it could be worse, with every state museum closed. “That certainly could happen,” said Washoe County Sen. Sheila Leslie, a Democratic member of both the Senate budget and taxation committees. “That’s not unthinkable.”

The threshold for what is unthinkable in Nevada budgeting has fallen to historic lows. Legislators are having to consider things they never considered before.

Arts and culture is one area where the normal patterns of Nevada legislative conduct have not generally applied. While Nevada is often at the wrong end of many national rankings, in this case the state does not bring up the rear.

Indeed, arts funding in many states does not follow the usual pattern. At the bottom of the list (55 cents per capita and less for arts funding) are large states like California, Illinois and Texas, while the most generous states (more than $1.70 per capita) include less populous places like Alaska, Utah and Wyoming. Nevada falls in a middle group of states (56 cents to $1.20 per capita), though that has not been sustained during the budget cutting that accompanied the recession.

Many Nevada non-governmental entities, north, south and rural, have done their part over the years. In the mid-1960s, a national group described Reno as a “cultural wilderness.” Many community leaders were dismayed by the term. In subsequent decades, a philharmonic orchestra was formed. So was an opera company. A small Ralston Street art museum became a major Liberty Street art museum. The city has a month-long arts festival called Artown.

Because many of those who have helped finance arts and culture here are also campaign contributors, the arts have sometimes fared surprisingly well in Nevada. Early in her legislative service, Sen. Leslie found her bill to create a small grant program for the arts—expected by many legislators to die—was surprisingly easy to pass.

Earlier this year, at a legislative “town hall” meeting held so lawmakers could listen to the public about where they should cut spending in a special session of the legislature, Nevada Arts Council chair Tim Jones said his agency should not have to endure additional cuts, arguing that “reducing the budget of the Nevada Arts Council any more—now a mere 3 cents for every hundred dollars spent—won’t help fill the holes we all are desperate to fill, but it will destroy the work of thousands since the agency’s inception in 1967, and deny Nevada a chance to use creativity as a road to recovery.”

The notion of the arts and culture as part of the state’s arsenal of tools to help with economic recovery is not taken seriously by many legislators. But some artists are willing to make that case.

One legislator said that in a choice between, say, prescription drug coverage for children and the arts, they will have no real alternative but to cut the arts.

Split loyalties

Many of those who support the arts also happen to be those who will be fighting to protect social programs, and they are being torn over the choices.

Sen. Leslie, who has consistently supported arts and culture proposals, said that she is dismayed at some of the proposals for cuts she has seen, but that in 2011 she is going to have to fight for human needs first. For one thing, she said, although she considers the arts an essential service, they are not legally essential, while there are legal mandates that the state provide certain social services. In fact, the state Department of Cultural Affairs is expected to suffer more than most state departments, which have been directed to plan for 10 percent cuts in their budgets.

“And then everyone, I think, expects Cultural Affairs to get more than 10 percent in terms of cuts, because I think the approach is we have to cover essential services first, mandated services,” said Sen. Leslie

Nevada sculptor Denise Duarte has worked for a number of years with the Nevada Women’s Lobby, which supports family issues at the Nevada Legislature.

“I’ve always been a strong advocate for children’s needs, but I’m also an advocate for human needs,” she said. “I don’t want to look at it as one or the other. It’s pitting one group of people against the other. I care about all those people.”

Reminded that the state for the next four years will have a governor who has promised to veto tax increases, her voice became more stern. She argued that social problems can be solved without starving arts and culture. Even in good times, she said, political leaders do not actually try to solve social problems.

“People in positions of power are unwilling to really solve our problems. Instead they put Band-Aids on them, and they limp along and never actually get solved. I’d rather see people being courageous. … We should put these questions to the people with the power. When is someone going to be a true leader, step up to the plate, and solve these problems?”

Duarte argues as a businesswoman that the arts fuel the economy like any other pursuit.

“When I create art, I use fabricators, suppliers, contractors, engineers,” she said. “There’s a multitude of jobs involved in creating the arts. The arts are quite a benefit to the economy.”

There is a theory that golden eras of art have also tended to be eras of advancement in medicine, manufacturing, education, even agriculture. In 1960, Sen. John Kennedy of Massachusetts wrote in a letter to Musical America magazine publisher Theodate Johnson, “There is a connection, hard to explain logically but easy to feel, between achievement in public life and progress in the arts. The age of Pericles was also the age of Phidias. The age of Lorenzo de Medici was also the age of Leonardo da Vinci. The age of Elizabeth was also the age of Shakespeare.”

But making that case to the public is not easy.

Dennis Myers was the news editor of the Reno News & Review. He was a journalist for more than four decades. In 1987-88 he was chief deputy secretary of state of Nevada. He was coauthor of Uniquely...