Margy Waller on What’s In a Frame

I’ve been reading The Victory Lab lately, an absolutely fascinating look at how elections are won and lost.  And more than it’s about anything–even more than it’s about technological advancement–it’s about messaging, and framing, and rhetoric.  Amidst many exciting, soaring scenarios about changing the landscape of public good will towards the arts that have flitted through my head while I read about the rise of modern politics, I’ve had this constant buzzing of “never gonna happen unless we change the song.”  And to do that, we need to be singing from the same songbook. 

Turns out, I’m not the most well-placed to get into the particulars on what that might mean, so I asked a good friend of mine, Margy Waller, to write about it for me.  Margy, a senior fellow at the Topos Partnership and the brains behind The Arts Ripple Effect, which you need to jump away from this blog to read if you haven’t  yet, is one of the best brains in the business when it comes to framing and public opinion, in large part–I think–because she has spent most of her career not talking about art.  There’s a preciousness that seems to come from being so close to our product that makes us forget that ultimately this fight can’t be about us, it has to be about them.  Whether it’s poverty, the environment or the arts, Waller and her partners conduct high quality research with a laser eye focused on the goal of making art more relevant to more people as a way of leading a struggling sector to salvation.  I’m on board, and I think you should be to.  And so, enjoy.–Clay


reframingMore on (Re)Framing the Charitable Deduction
by Margy Waller

In case you were thinking the debate about the charitable deduction ended at the cliff’s edge….Nope, it did not.

It’s time to speak with one voice about the value of the arts as a public good.

If you have any doubts about how we’re doing with the message, you can cringe your way through this cable news interview with a former chairman of the New York state arts council about proposals to change the charitable deduction.

(Note from Clay: No, really, click that link.  It, in itself, is the most visceral reminder of how much of a problem we really have in this arena that I’ve experienced, well, ever.  Longest 4 minutes and 10 achingly bad seconds of my life.)

Whether or not research supports the theory that a charitable deduction is critical to financial stability of nonprofit arts organizations, the way we share information about the value of the arts to public decision-makers matters in every public funding or policy discussion about the arts.

This is nothing new — just possibly more urgent now that the charitable deduction is in play with pending debates about the debt ceiling, funding cuts, and comprehensive tax reform.

Why is there a continuing attack on arts funding and tax incentives? Small government proponents put the spotlight on the arts precisely because they know that the public reaction is along the lines of: “Why should my tax dollars be spent on choices the elite and wealthy are making about their own entertainment?” Or even more simply, “What do I care about art? I don’t go to art.”

And that’s the problem. The way most people think about the arts (the dominant frame, in other words) works against us in the public dialogue.

When it comes to a debate about the charitable deduction, it leaves us dangerously vulnerable to a charge that the arts don’t fit into the definition of charity at all.

The IRS says that the “promotion of the arts and of culture is generally recognized as an educational activity.” But, consider this finding reported in the Chronicle of Philanthropy:

A survey commissioned by Independent Sector found that government officials and other influential people in Washington have a positive perception of nonprofits as “organizations that provide services to help others, provide an alternative to government, are motivated by the common good, and provide a vehicle for engaging communities, fostering altruism, and allowing the public to donate resources to benefit others.”

Would your arts organization’s mission statement fit easily inside that view of nonprofits?

The public’s most common way of thinking about the arts is as entertainment. This means they are thinking about how we each make individual choices to spend our time and money. The arts are seen as a nicety, not a necessity, in this category. It’s really hard for people to think of entertainment as a public good, particularly as a way to spend (or forego in the case of the deduction) tax revenue. If “the arts” equal entertainment and don’t fit easily into a category people think of as charity, the public can be expected to wonder why the arts should benefit from preferential tax policy designed to encourage giving that will “help others.”

These widely held perceptions and the current legal definition of charity make the deduction for arts contributions particularly vulnerable under the law.

Some lawmakers and policy advocates have long argued that contributions to nonprofits serving the most needy in society (generally defined by their income level) are the most desirable gifts and should provide a larger tax benefit to encourage donors. So far, this argument has succeeded only at the state and local level. But it came up during the fiscal cliff negotiations and there’s every reason to think it will come up again soon.

Recent framing science research by Topos Partnership provides a way to build support for the arts as a matter of public concern — and it’s not by throwing out a lot of numbers about “return on investment” using a traditional dollars and cents argument. (The public doesn’t believe those arguments now, if they ever did.)

What is the value statement that works? This one:

The arts have a surprising ripple effect of benefits in our communities.

The research identifies two specific benefits that people already believe in and value:

  • Theaters and galleries mean vibrant, thriving neighborhoods where people want to live, work, and play.
  • Music, museums, community arts centers and more mean people coming together to share, connect and understand each other in new ways.

These benefits are both practical and intangible, and importantly they resonate even with people who don’t think of themselves as “goers.”

Elected and appointed officials have recently started using this framing to build broad support and increase public funding.

  • Connecticut officials doubled funding and tied grantmaking to strengthening neighborhoods and creating places we all want to live and visit.  A state official explained, “Instead of the money going out with no strings attached, we are placing the goal of creating a more vibrant community,” said Kip Bergstrom, deputy commission of the state Department of Economic & Community Development, which runs the Office of the Arts. “We want to put our money behind folks that are doing this well.”
  • In Cincinnati, Mayor Mark Mallory used the Topos research findings in his state of the city speech to encourage broad giving from individuals (and found a perfect way to also recognize a large donation to the Symphony).
  • And Mesa Arizona Mayor Scott Smith, speaking on a panel at the Republican National Convention, discussed his support for maintaining public funding of the arts even in a tough city budget year. “There is a direct connection between the health of the arts and culture in your community, and your ability to grow economically,” Smith said. “People want to live in a place that is vibrant, that is growing.”

The arts’ value to the public is a critical part of the discussion about the charitable deduction in the pending debates over spending cuts and comprehensive tax reform when the definition of charitable could well be in play.

Framing that conversation and speaking with one voice is necessary…now.

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  1. says

    Thank you Clay and Margy,
    Very interesting and very valuable!
    Just to confirm what you are saying about what people not connected to the arts say: I recently listened to a real estate investment proposal from Canada. For investmentors in real estate, the future attractiveness of the location is of paramount importance. Naturally, if people are going to move out because this is a losing neighborhood the property will lose residents, it will be difficult to find new ones and it might be difficult to get rid of the real estate. “Location, location, location”, is what real estate investors all over the world is talking about.
    In this real estate video promo, they stressed that this is not only a blue collar but also a surprisingly strong white collar city, there is a new university, there is around a dozen hospitals AND THERE IS A VERY LIVE AND VIBRANT LOCAL ARTS COMMUNITY WITH INDEPENDENT ARTISTS AS WELL AS A THRIVING ORCHESTRA (showing pictures from the arts community).
    If I was promoting a real estate investment, I would probably be positive to donating to keep the local cultural life going.
    If I was a real estate investor, I would probably also be positive.
    And if I was politician or elected, I would probably be positive to this argument.

    Margy, your way of framing is very logical and compelling.
    I’m on board with you!
    Magnus (Finland)