THE TREND IN VISIONING CONFERENCES
“And the beat goes on.........................................”
IN THE FACE OF THE TIGER:
California’s funding for the arts continues to be in crisis mode. There is yet again a huge deficit facing the state, and the prospect of new funds on the state or municipal levels is all but a non-starter. Foundations portfolios have lost value and budget cuts to their funding allocations continues (witness the letter from Hewlett to grantees advising them that their Performing Arts Program - cut 40% over the past two years – will remain flat at that level, and that the foundation will end its support for national arts service organizations, scale back on any new research or initiatives into the arts education arena, forego any other kinds of new initiatives, and will only accept letters of inquiry by invitation. Corporate giving continues its downward track, audiences are shrinking and individual donor giving is good for some, not for most.
The California Arts sector’s financial underpinning may be worse than many areas around the country, but it is hardly alone. In the face of this daunting funding calamity, advocacy has become particularly challenging. The sector is asked to rally to this emergency or that crisis - not to make any headway, but to keep draconian elimination of programs and services from happening. In terms of public funding the supply continues to shrink, the demand continues to increase, the competition gets more fierce and we remain less organized than other sectors and still without real political clout. And so arts advocacy could hardly get more difficult in that environment.
Last week the California Arts Advocates invited 100 leaders / thinkers from around the state to gather in Sacramento to engage in a Visioning Retreat – a two day affair to try to jumpstart a state wide dialogue and conversation on how the arts sector might envision making itself indispensable to the daily life of the average citizen.
I am seeing more of these “visioning” gatherings around the country as the times dictate that traditional advocacy and lobbying is not likely to succeed. Faced with the prospect of spinning our wheels, more of us are turning to tackling the even harder challenge of how to change our fortunes over the long term based on our (at least perceived) value to the average person in our local communities. At least at this gathering, there was a clear understanding that such an undertaking would take a long, long time to affect. But the prevailing feeling was that such a Herculean effort had to start somewhere. The unspoken feeling was, I think, that if we aren’t likely to succeed in the short term goals of convincing government decision makers to increase our funding, then we still need to do something – anything – so as to keep our coalitions alive and nurture our own. And so maybe addressing the biggest issues is the right thing to do at this point in time.
I think this is exactly right for the most part.
The Sacramento gathering started out with consideration of the changing composition of California demographics, then moved to small discussions of what a dynamic, relevant, meaningful sector that resonated really well with the average local citizen might look like. I think the organizers of this event – and similar ones that seem to be taking place across the country – are to be commended. They are trying to help us to stay joined together, to focus on something tangible (even if grandiose) and to feel empowered.
The problem with these efforts is the practical challenge of moving forward. How do you sustain momentum? How do you take a somewhat esoteric exercise and package the process so that you can replicate it and actually engage a large number of people in an ongoing conversation – first within your sector, but then (and more problematical) to the larger community? Given the challenges and demands everyone in the sector faces – how do you launch a real dialogue that will take root and last in the community? I think this particular gathering might have spent more time on the practicalities of that specific task. I am afraid that the goal of making the dialogue real got somewhat lost in the mechanics of trying to envision the scope of the problem and the form the solution might take. Unless there is some grappling with the specifics and logistics of fomenting a real dialogue it is very difficult to sustain a conversation despite the best of intentions.
But in the overall scheme, that is a minor criticism. There is much to be said about the effort itself – the involvement of those that originate it, of those they invite to join them, and of the process of moving forward. Advocacy needs involvement to stay alive; it needs some focus, the periodic sense of victory and empowerment to avoid paralysis borne of ennui.
I was one of the original founders of the California Arts Advocates back in the mid 1990s – itself a reincarnation of any earlier advocacy effort. I know how difficult arts advocacy can be - a grossly underfunded, exclusively volunteer effort that simply has too many challenges and too few victories. I have the greatest respect and admiration for those who are selflessly and tirelessly dedicating their time and energy into the current advocacy effort in California – given the times a largely impossible and thankless enterprise. The ones I know personally who are now guiding the Arts Advocates - Brad Erickson, Deborah Cullinan, Daniele Brazell, Dalouge Smith, Terence McFarland, and Kerry Adams Harper together with their board colleagues and all the participants across the state are doing a quite incredible job to keep the hope and reality of arts advocacy alive. And the same is true of other dedicated people in our ranks across the country.
I hope that those local collective efforts to launch conversations and dialogues across the sector about how we might envision a way to finally, and more fully, be considered by the public as an indispensable part of daily living in our local communities take root and grow. I hope we spend more time talking about the mechanics of how we might launch and keep those “big picture” conversations going, and how those conversations tie into arts advocacy and its future – because I think that will be key in accomplishing the goal. And the process will be a long, long one for changing public attitudes is no easy task. I hope too that in the not too distant future, arts advocacy can again return to the more mundane, practical job of trying to influence decision makers in our favor and that we keep in mind the importance of political clout to the task. Vision by itself will never be enough for successful advocacy.
COMING UP ON WEDNESDAY OF THIS WEEK – Americans for the Arts new ARTS INDEX.
Have a good week.