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Is there a Better Case for the Arts?
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March 09, 2005

Know Your Audience

Sorry to be late to the blog. First I think it really important to differentiate among 1) personal love/passion for the arts and 2) methods for exciting and involving new participants in the arts and 3) what it takes to convince a decision maker to financially support the arts. They are three entirely different situations.

According to NEA statistics some 40% of the American public participate in the arts on an annual basis. That figure includes folks who attended just one event so the percentage of involved truly passionate folks is much smaller. I assume that all of us and all arts advocates are in my first category above. However, I assume that we have a lot of cultivation work still to do to get most of America's adults and children to become even marginally interested in what we love.

That comes first from there being an opportunity for these people to be engaged in some way and secondly once an opportunity (theater, dance, music, literature, an arts center, a close to home visual or performing arts venue, a decent art program in the local schools) is available there needs to be some way to involve and excite these prospects in an art form of their choice. This necessitates engagement and passion and people to help and guide others along that journey. But is that new? That is what some 50,000 nonprofit arts organizations in America try to do every day (up from 7,700 nonprofit arts organizations in America in 1965). This is always all done by getting people to experience intrinsic benefits.

No one comes to an arts event or gets excited about an arts course in school because someone has told them that they will be contributing to the community’s economic impact or that a child’s SAT scores will become higher (even though both could be true). And anyone who works in the arts knows this already.

So this brings me to my third area which is convincing decision makers--whether public or private; whether national, state or local--that they should do something to support the arts or arts education like allocate money or pass a policy. For now I am just focusing on the nonprofit sector (sorry Bill).

So just like all of America we can expect that the backgrounds and arts interests of these decision makers is a mix with a small percentage being really passionate about the arts, a bigger number being somewhat interested, and an even bigger number not really getting it because they have not really known the full wonder of the arts in their lives. The first rule of advocacy is: “to whom are you advocating” and the second rule is “what do they care about” not “what do you care about”.

Next week Americans for the Arts along with some 70 of our national arts organization colleagues will host 400 cultural advocates from around the country for National Arts Advocacy day to advocate for more federal arts dollars for the arts and arts education. These 400 advocates in tandem with thousands of email advocates from every state will reach 435 congressional offices and 100 senate offices and they will find a mix of receptiveness but every congressperson’s and every senator’s vote counts.

Some, the lucky ones, will meet a decision maker who already loves the arts and usually that is a vote we can count on but that is probably in my experience about 40%. Some, the very unlucky ones, will meet a decision maker who mostly on philosophical grounds will never support funding for the arts. These are libertarians and strict constitutionalist or fiscal or ideological arch conservatives.

In my experience at the federal level these days that is also about 40%. So to win a majority for the arts the middle 20% are key. And they will prove to be quite a mixed bag to those who visit them. Some care about the economy, some about jobs, some the federal deficit, some about kids after school, some about how kids grades in school compare to other communities, some pretty much only about getting more money to their districts, and all about getting reelected.

These leaders can and are tipped to support our issue only by what is referred to here as instrumental arguments, a term I don’t like. (I don’t like it because art is neither intrinsic nor instrumental but always both as all indigenous cultures know.)

Every year Americans for Arts consults the National League of Cities for their annual survey of elected officials, which highlights the top issues concerning their 1,600 city members. This year, like all years, among the top ten are (only the order changing from time to time) city economic conditions, health and housing, unemployment & jobs, racial & economic inequalities. The arts are never in this list but the arts make a contribution to each of these areas and we need more research to even more effectively draw these connections.

Anyone making a case for the arts to a public decision maker who ignores the full spectrum arguments necessary to reach the full spectrum of decision makers in todays environment of miniscule vote margins will lose. And the private sector decision makers are no less tough. There is no evidence that social good and economic arguments have begun to wear thin. To research this all anyone needs to do is look at the congressional record, state legislature and local city council and county commission voting records. It will be an eye opener.

Finally here are a few random thoughts. We need not decrease or de-emphasize any arguments we have but new arguments are very much welcome and needed. The landscape varies. The rise and fall of state government funding has risen and fallen in direct relationship to local state economies. The rise and fall of federal monies has been more ideological and political, and the pretty steady rise of local government funding has been directly linked to issues of community development. So there is no one size fits all. As Tip O’Neill said “all politics (insert arts politics) is local”.

There are suggestions that economic, educational, and social benefits of arts arguments are new since the late 80s and 90s. Not true. The United States evolved from very practical roots. Practicality and self reliance are still core values. Think of the John Adams quote we all know about the number of generations of practical endeavors it would take before the arts and letters could be a key part of peoples lives. Arthur Schlesinger, Jr in the first Nancy Hanks lecture produced by Americans for the Arts reminds us that the WPA Arts Projects in 1935 were for jobs creation.

The NEA itself came out of the House Committee on Education and Labor (note education and labor) and I myself was sitting across from Governor King of Massachusetts as early as the late 70s arguing to keep him from eliminating the Massachusetts State Arts Council budget of then $2.3 million when he instead chose to actually increase the budget based pretty exclusively on new economic impact data that we brought fresh from a young Tom Wolf at the New England Foundation for the Arts.

The reason that public money, private money, and earned income for the arts have all been challenged over the last four years has very little to do with the arguments and a whole lot to do with Sept.11th, the stock market decline, and the earlier erosion of the dot com industries.

It is important to recall that the 1995 slashing of the NEA by 40% for the FY1996 budget was part of a three year phase out plan voted by the Newt Gingrich Congress that most people pretty much thought was a done deal. Elimination of the NEA was turned around by enormous national advocacy efforts focusing on instrumental arguments that could allow moderates to find reasons to support federal cultural funding that were compatible with party policies which compelled the Senate to keep the NEA alive.

Then in 2000 we won for FY 2001 the first increase for the NEA in 9 years because of continuing enormous national advocacy efforts and the fact that some 20 moderate republicans crossed party lines and voted for the arts based almost entirely upon economic impact arguments because they could defend this rationale to their own constituents.. The Endowment’s increase was by three votes but signaled a major policy shift.

I have gone on too long. Supposed to keep this short. Too late.

Posted by rlynch at March 9, 2005 03:15 PM


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