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Is there a Better Case for the Arts?
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March 10, 2005

Retail Advocacy

Several years ago one of our local county council members, a conservative from a conservative district, decided to hold a meeting in his district to learn more about the arts and heritage organizations in his community, all of which receive support, although not nearly enough, from the county’s cultural funding programs managed by my agency. His district is rural and relatively poor in comparison to other areas of the county, but it has an interesting mix of cultural groups: a professional symphony (Auburn Symphony), a classical dance school and company, founded by a former Pacific Northwest Ballet dancer (Evergreen City Ballet), a community chorus, community theatre, several excellent small history museums, a much-used high school performing arts center, and an after school poetry program for teens.

The councilmember opened the meeting with a preface about the county having no money, so “don’t be asking for money, but let me at least get a better understanding of who you are.” He asked everyone to introduce themselves and talk a little about what they did. He learned that most of the people in the room were volunteers, that only a few of these organizations generated enough income to have more than one or two paid staff positions, if that, but they all struggled to do what they did because they enjoyed it, were passionate about it and believe that they are helping to build a better, more connected community. These people are the “doers,” those in any community who get involved with Rotary and the Chamber of Commerce, and the local schools. And they are voters, not just eligible to vote, but likely to vote and volunteer to help get the vote out. This was not lost on our councilmember.

After about an hour and despite the earlier disclaimer, the conversation inevitably turned to money and the challenge to provide public benefit with extremely limited resources. Bake sales and car washes don’t pay the bills.

The director of a local history museum told the councilmember, “For $5,000 I can give every fourth grader in the Auburn school district a meaningful history experience.” The councilmember looked at his aide, turned back to the director, and said, “you’ve got it.”

The poet who started the after school teen poetry program talked about the kids he worked with, alienated, troubled, some from dysfunctional families, kids that could easily fall through the cracks. They took all their frustrations and vented them through poetry. One kid remarked, “An open mic is my drug of choice.” The program director told to the councilmember, “Everyone is always asking me to quantify the impact of my program in order to get grant money. How do I quantify the number of Columbines I’ve prevented? How do I prove what didn’t happen?” The councilmember’s response? “What do you need?”

Why am I telling you this story? Because I think it illustrates how we can most effectively make the case for the arts at the local level. Advocacy is retail. It’s one-on-one. It isn’t making a good case, it’s making a personal connection. Our councilmember didn’t gain a passion for Art at this meeting, but he saw how ”the arts” serve his passion for building community. The phrase “economic impact” was never mentioned; the teen poet who claimed that his life was turned around because he found an outlet for his anger (intrinsic) made a huge impression on this legislator. He saw instrumental benefits that derived from the intrinsic benefits, without realizing it.

I know those of you who love Art hate selling “the arts” on the basis of their social, economic or educational contributions, but for those of us on the ground, in the political arena, it’s the only game in town. If you want to appeal to the public sector, it has to be on the public sector’s terms.

Posted by jkelly at March 10, 2005 01:33 PM


I think Jim Kelly made an important point about personal connections. Regardless of what you are pitching to prospective supporters, making personal connections with those potential backers can only benefit the dialogue. As Midori also pointed out, we need to be open to what others have to offer as well and not only focus on what we have to give.

Regarding a reader's comment about artists becoming politically involved, that has happened and continues to occur. The pianist and composer Ignace Paderewski was considered one of Poland's greatest statesman. Currently, composer Phillip Kent Bimstein serves as an environmentalist mayor for Sprindale, Utah and the English soprano Suzannah Clark is ending her music career to run for Parliament.

Posted by: Beata Moon at March 11, 2005 04:51 AM

I work in an arts organization that arranges school performances, supplying related curriculum materials for the teachers to use. The amount of positive feedback that we receive in the form of artwork and letters from students of all ages, and letters, phone calls and repeat business from teachers and parents is incredible. I always say that potential funders and government representatives need to be out there seeing the shows and talking to the audience, or at least reading the letters.

How can a grant application capture the affects of the arts on young minds?

In a fundraising course I learned that building fundraising and sponsorship relationships is like a courtship. The fact that face-to-face communication is key has since been reinforced. If you truely believe in your cause then it should be an easy sell. Foundations and arts councils receive a huge number of funding requests. You have to make them share your vision in order to stand out in the crowd.

Posted by: Andrea T. at March 11, 2005 10:39 AM

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