Kansas State Art Funding Distorted as ‘Drag Shows for Children’ in Governor’s Race

The Kansas state government awarded grants to two nonprofit arts organizations to fund a visiting artist and operating expenses, according to state contracts and one of the groups. Republican efforts to link the funding to all-ages drag shows don’t hold up to scrutiny.

The dustup over drag shows was sparked by a British tabloid story and pushed by state Attorney General Derek Schmidt, a Republican who is challenging Gov. Laura Kelly, a Democrat, in the Nov. 8 election.

In an Oct. 24 story, DailyMail.com said that the Kansas Creative Arts Industries Commission, part of the state Commerce Department, was “behind a grant that helped fund” an event called the Dada Ball, advertised as “a free, all-ages evening of music, fashion, drag & dancing” at an outdoor art space in Wichita. But the Commerce Department told the tabloid that the claim it had funded the event was “blatantly wrong.”

After the DailyMail.com story was posted, Schmidt held a press conference in which he said the Kelly administration was “sanctioning and condoning activities that may expose children to sexually suggestive or explicit programming.” He said that “supporting and funding drag shows for children” is “extreme,” “wrong” and “not Kansas” and called on the Kelly administration to “apologize.”

To be clear, the Dada Ball wasn’t promoted as an event for “children,” but was an “all-ages” event, and there’s no evidence it was funded by the state.

A Commerce Department spokesperson showed us a grant contract that says the Kansas Creative Arts Industries Commission helped fund a visiting artist for the group involved with the Dada Ball — not the Dada Ball event. Nor did KCAIC fund another drag-show event, highlighted by Republicans, that had included the department’s logo on a promotional item. In that instance, too, it was a case of the KCAIC providing a grant to the host organization for a different purpose, according to both the group and the Commerce Department.

Republican Sen. Roger Marshall of Kansas also tweeted the DailyMail.com story, adding a comment that “Kelly is spending YOUR tax $$ on KIDS’ drag shows in Kansas. The hyper-sexualization & grooming of young children continues to be a perverted obsession of the far left.”

There’s no evidence of that here.

Dada Ball

The Dada Ball was held on Oct. 22 at Chainlink Gallery Place, an outdoor “experiential space meant to serve as an oasis for creative activity located in the heart of downtown Wichita,” the project says on its website. Advertisements for the event on the project’s Facebook page, which say the ball would feature fashion designers, food trucks and, yes, drag artists, don’t say anything about KCAIC or state funding. In fact, those posts give a “Huge thank you to Dada sponsors,” listing several organizations, but not the state government.

The DailyMail.com linked KCAIC to the event by citing a line in an advertisement for Dada Ball from KMUW, the Wichita NPR station and a sponsor of the event. That line said: “Chainlink Gallery Place is facilitated by Harvester Arts, in partnership with Bokeh Development, the Wichita Community Foundation and Lifeboat Creative and with support from the Kansas Creative Arts & Industries Commission and Knight Foundation.”

But that doesn’t establish that KCAIC helped fund the Dada Ball, only that it had supported either Harvester Arts, Chainlink Gallery Place or both.

Artist Aaron Asis, pictured working on an installation in 2016 at Green-Wood Cemetery’s main chapel in Brooklyn, New York. The Kansas Creative Arts Industries Commission awarded a grant to Harvester Arts to host Asis as a visiting artist. Photo by Andy Katz/Pacific Press/LightRocket via Getty Images.

“Commerce gave a $7,500 Visiting Artist Grant to Harvester Arts to support the artist Aaron Asis’ work at Chainlink Gallery Place,” Kansas Commerce Department spokesperson Patrick Lowry told us. “His residency began July 1, 2022, and goes through June 30, 2023. Harvester Arts sponsored the DADA Ball but their support was completely unrelated to our grant.”

Asis is a Brooklyn-based installation artist and photographer.

Lowry showed us a copy of the contract between KCAIC and Harvester Arts, dated July 1, that says the money — which came from the federal National Endowment for the Arts and was distributed by KCAIC — was to be used “to support costs associated with the Visiting Artist Aaron Asis for the A City Where I Belong project.” Harvester Arts also had to provide matching funds for the $7,500.

We reached out to Harvester Arts, but we didn’t get a response. Kansas news organizations, however, quoted organizers of the Dada Ball who said KCAIC didn’t fund it.

Mall Monster Mash

Other art groups are behind a second event that attracted Republican ire: the Mall Monster Mash, which is a Halloween party, art market and drag show, also advertised as “all ages” and held in artist studio space in Towne West Mall. A promotional image for the event said it was “sponsored by Wichita Pride,” but also included the Department of Commerce logo at the bottom, suggesting the department had funded or supported the event. But the groups involved in the event, and the department, say that’s not the case.

The evidence shows KCAIC provided a grant to assist OpenStudios, a project that connects vacant storefronts or spaces with artists who temporarily work in them.

Elizabeth Stevenson, the executive director of the OpenStudios program, a project of the nonprofit Fisch Bowl Inc., told us: “Fisch Bowl Inc. received a grant from the KCAIC to cover administrative, insurance, and utility expenses for the studios at Towne West. The reason the KCAIC logo was on the posters is because the KCAIC asked that we put their logo on all the promotional materials generated by the OpenStudios program at Towne West. This is very common in almost all granting situations, when the granter asks that the grantee credit them as a way of saying thank you for the funding. We have done this every time we’ve received money from the KCAIC, at their request, regardless of whether or not a specific event or activity was directly funded by the grant itself.”

The KCAIC money didn’t fund the event, nor does it fund any of the art events in the Towne West space. Even OpenStudios doesn’t fund the artists’ work; the artists have to do that themselves.

“OpenStudios artists do not receive funding from Fisch Bowl Inc., therefore no monies from the KCAIC: all their work within the program is at their own expense, an item that is included in the contract Fisch Bowl Inc. shares with all our OpenStudios artists,” Stevenson said in a statement.

She shared a copy of that contract with us. It says that the “curator,” referring to Fisch Bowl, “shall be responsible for all costs and expenses related to the Premises, based on mutual agreement between the Building Owner and the Curator. Artist shall bear all other costs and expenses incurred in connection with exhibition and artwork production.”

Stevenson noted that there was no forced participation in the event. “Attendance is not mandatory, so if someone does not wish to experience this event, they may certainly choose not to attend and/or require the same of their children.”

Lowry, with the Commerce Department, also told us in an email that “[n]either the KCAIC nor the Kansas Department of Commerce sponsored” the Mall Monster Mash. Instead, the OpenStudios project received a $10,000 “Reimagined Spaces” grant, which “supports projects that convert vacant spaces into spaces that can be used as artist studios and that spur economic development.”

The funds “were approved to be used for utility fees and program director costs,” Lowry said. He showed us a grant award agreement, dated July 1, between KCAIC and Fisch Bowl “to support costs associated with the OpenStudios at Towne West project.” Like the Chainlink Gallery grant, this was NEA money and required matching funds from the recipient.

The artists behind the event also said in an Oct. 25 social media post: “No state funds were used in support of this event.” They noted this was a “No-Hate” event and that there would be security “to ensure the safety of all attendees.”

On Oct. 27, the artists said they were moving the event to Chainlink Gallery Place.

The DailyMail.com story briefly mentioned another event in Lawrence, Kansas, in June that included several art exhibits, including a photographer’s work on the area’s drag scene along with a drag performance. There’s no indication that the drag performance was advertised for kids, nor is there evidence that the Kelly administration specifically “promoted” it, as a press release on Schmidt’s campaign website said.

The Lawrence Times reported that the photography exhibit coincides “nicely with the two days of PRIDE celebrations slated for the last weekend of this month.”

The city’s visitor’s bureau said the overall “collaborative art project” including several artists was “made possible by a Reimagined Spaces grant” from the KCAIC. The grant of $10,000 went to the City of Lawrence Public Arts Commission, Lowry said, “to turn five different storefronts into venues for public arts projects.” What those specific projects would be wasn’t part of the grant agreement, which Lowry also provided to us. It doesn’t say anything about funding a drag performance. “[A]fter receiving the grant, the Lawrence Commission decided how to direct it.”

This isn’t the first time we’ve written about misleading conservative claims that Democrats support exposing children to inappropriate behavior by drag queens. In this case, there’s simply no evidence that the state government funded “drag shows for children,” as Schmidt put it.

We reached out to Schmidt’s campaign, but we haven’t received a response.

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