I realize a posting at this point about Arts Advocacy Day is about a week and a half too late, but I’m in graduate school, cut me some slack.
This year I attended my first Arts Advocacy Day, and helped represent the delegation from Virginians for the Arts. Every year, Americans for the Arts (AFTA) spends two days “rallying the troops” in an effort to convince our Representatives in Congress that yes, the arts DO matter for many reasons, and yes, they DO deserve public funding. This year’s special guests included actors Jeff Daniels and Kyle MacLachlan, OVATION CEO Charles Segars, NEA Chair Rocco Landesman, and various well known Congressman such as Rep. John Lewis, Rep. Louise Slaughter, and Rep. Jim Moran (my representative), who chairs the House Appropriations Subcommittee on the Interior and the Environment that decides NEA appropriations . Even the ol’ battle-ax herself, Nancy Pelosi, still reeling off her victory in the health care reform battle, took time from her busy schedule to address the group of us supportive arts advocates and to accept the AFTA Arts Leadership Award.
After the first day of meeting and getting to know our delegation, familiarizing ourselves with the facts and figures and going through a crash course in “Lobbying 101″, I found myself the second day walking the halls of Congress eager and ready. I will admit, it is a touch intimidating, walking those halls and passing doors reading “John Kerry”, “John McCain”, ” Joseph Libermann”, and knowing that you’re playing with the big boys now. Being from Virginia I met with my district representative, Jim Moran, as well as various other State Representatives, including the now infamous Minority Whip, Eric Cantor. Eric Cantor by the way has a an F score from Americans for the Arts, i.e., he votes against every bill that in any way would have supported arts related initiatives. My delegation also met with the offices of both senators from Virginia, Jim Webb and John Warner.
Okay, some observations:
Who you meet with shows your issues’ importance to that representative’s agenda – I realize members of Congress are busy people, but this was a highly scheduled and planned lobbying day, and not ONE representative met with us personally. Instead, we met with a member of their staff. What got really interesting was breaking this down even further by seeing what level staffer we were relegated to. In the case of generally supportive Congressman, i.e., every Democrat we met with, we were received by usually no less than their primary legislative aide. In the case of Eric Cantor’s office, (remember, he gets an F), our entire delegation of six pitched arguments, facts and figures to someone who amounted no more than the secretary. Would it surprise anyone if I told you his office had Fox News on the television?
Support for the arts was argued based on extrinsic value indicators – A review of the Arts Advocacy Day handbook provided to each delegate contained a plethora of facts and figures about the economic impact of the arts, as well as numerous other charts and graphs showing ways in which the arts and “creative industries”(buzz word), all impact the economy. Now, I’m not stupid. I get why we’re going for the economic angle. In obvious times of economic hardship, it is important to show how government subsidy can support an industry, but also how that industry can bring money back to the government. Our argument is that the arts and creative industries do that exceptionally well. Naturally, there are facts and figures used to support this, but I don’t want break up my writing flow with that. If you want to read for yourself, you can find the info here.
While understanding one’s audience is key to an effective argument, I wonder, are we trying to “sell” the arts based on external effects caused by arts activity? In other words, by arguing for the extrinsic benefit of the arts, are we taking something away from their intrinsic value, and thus further relegating art and artists into just another profession like steel workers who make a product for consumption? Call me idealist or naive, but I really think the arts and the experiences and emotional connections they afford people are worth more in “social capital” than they could EVER be worth in “monetary capital”. But then again, I recognize who my audience is and what the political climate calls for right now. Thus, the appropriate buzz words must be used in order to be heard.
Even with all the facts and figures in the world showing the economic impact of the arts and their seven-fold return in tax revenue to the government, there will always be those who just don’t get. After my long day on the Hill, and promoting these figures ad nauseum, I came home to see this video on my local evening news and literally wanted to throw something at the t.v. I understand there are those who take issue with government funding of ANYTHING non-military. For those people, I choose to count my losses and realize convincing them is a waste of time. However, for those who do believe domestic government funding can be effective, I ask why more support for the arts is not there. Why is it that an Urban Institute Study surveyed Americans to find that they hold art in high regard, while at the same time do not see its public benefit? This “American paradox” as it was aptly called in the study is quite perplexing and what, I believe, lies at the root of our public art funding dilemma. Americans simply have a disconnect between art as entertainment that they want to consume, and art as facilitator of expression, personality, education, well-being, community, etc., etc., etc.,
It is at this point I shake my head and wonder, will Americans ever have the kind of public support seen in Finland or Germany? But then I also wonder, is public funding the answer to the current problems facing the arts? Aside from funding issues, will increases in government funding make classical music “popular”, opera accessible, and modern art palatable? Sadly, I believe the answer is no. The problem with the arts in America goes well beyond the problem of money. It is a matter of education and cultural relevance. Arts education is increasingly being cut from our schools and thus not exposing kids to art at an age when they are most impressionable. Culturally, arts organizations are struggling every day to remain relevant in a world where art is just one “app” or “I-pad” away.
The current situation is bleak. The challenge we face as educators, arts administrators and policy makers is daunting. Yet, I remain optimistic.