“And the beat goes on……………………”
In the aftermath of last week’s election, the question is what will be the impact on the arts sector? Of course all politics are local, and thus it is a mistake to generalize too much; nevertheless there seem some very likely reasonable conclusions we can draw about how this election might impact us.
In exit polls a very high percentage of voters (well over half) identified with the T-Party – amplifying the level at which Americans are angry, fearful of their futures, and suspicious and impatient with their government(s). As reflected in the new Congress, there is strong sentiment to cut spending, reduce the deficit, and shrink government. Indeed, for the GOP, the T-Party message is that every single Republican candidate is being watched – and that the only likely safe vote for the "now" incumbents – at least on spending issues – will be a ‘no’ vote. A number of moderate Democrats that rode Obama’s coat tails into Congress in 2008 were defeated last week. We seem to have now institutionalized the ‘no compromise’ intransigence of the last two years, and I suspect there we are in for grid lock and paralysis. The 2012 Presidential Campaign will begin in earnest – to the chagrin of many of us – in January, and will last for the next two years.
For us, I think this means two things:
1) As to the NEA allocation – there will likely be new attacks on the Endowment and cries to get out of funding the arts at all. The T-Party / Libertarian lines intersect here in calling for arts funding to be one of those spending items that is either philosophically inappropriate, or simply unaffordable in the current climate. While arts funding may be a bi-partisan issue in some states (for example, with Jerry Brown’s election, there are now doors open in California that haven’t been open for a long time), in most areas, and nationally, there remains a great (and growing) divide between Democrats and Republicans in support for our interests. We can narrow that divide in economic good times, and often, even in questionable economic times, at the national level where the balanced budget isn’t mandatory – but the same cannot be said at the state and local levels. In reviewing the Americans for Arts Senate Report Card in ranking how current members of the Senate voted on arts issues, out of 28 Senators who got an “F” grade, 25 were Republicans; out of 23 who got an “A” grade, all of them were Democrats. Once again the arts will have to defend themselves at the national level – at least in the House. I doubt the cries for getting rid of the Endowment will really amount to anything more than shouts in the dark, and that the only real battle on our hands will be the dollar amount of the Endowment’s line item in next year’s budget. Fortunately there will still remain support in the Senate and White House. But I suspect that it will be a battle to keep funding at the current level – unless there is a dramatic turnaround in the economy (which would qualify as a miracle of the first order). We are now dealing with a much more dogmatic GOP controlled House with far less room for variance in how those members will be able to vote, and that will hurt us.
2) On the local level, there will likely be some of the same sentiment where the composition of state houses, city councils or boards of supervisors has moved from the center to the right. Each will be different, and the arts may do well in some areas, and horribly in others. But because of the shift at the Federal level, many states will feel a negative impact irrespective of how the elections went locally. In Congress there is likely to be strong anti-stimulus sentiment and it will be difficult, if not impossible, to pass any bill that authorizes increased stimulus money (and that despite any consensus by a majority of economists that the economy desperately needs stimulating by the government). Couple that reality with a likely intractable anti-tax House position, and federal money that might have flowed to the states (and remember it was stimulus money last year that allowed a number of states to balance their budgets or at least reduce dramatically their deficits) will cease. That will mean that there will be more pressure on state governments for shrinking revenue pools, and that will mean more battles on those fronts to protect arts funding. Cuts will have to come from somewhere. And as the states scramble to balance their budgets they will continue to look for local funds they can appropriate to the state level, thus continuing the cycle and putting more stress on local budgets – all of which will make it even more difficult to maintain arts support at the local level too.
What are we suppose to do then? What can we do short term to protect our funding, and what can we do longer term to move the arts towards the center as a non-partisan issue?
As to protecting what we’ve got – it will likely be a fight - at all levels. We will again have to spend precious time and resources to make our case, rally our troops and stakeholders and advocate and lobby to keep what we have. I think the earlier we get out front on the coming battles, the better we might fare. Proactive will be better than defensive posturing. This will be difficult for a variety of reasons, not the least of which are: 1) the field is getting weary of relentless attacks and having to defend ourselves with fewer real victories to be had; 2) time is an ever scarce resource as we work to survive and transition to new economic revenue stream models; and 3) as government support becomes less available it becomes less relevant and that makes it harder to recruit support to defend it. Smart states and local jurisdictions will contremplate formation of local arts PACs to increase their political clout.
Let’s Infiltrate the Chamber of Commerce:
I think we need to begin to develop strategies that that will allow us to foster relationships and support within the infrastructure that is the backbone of the GOP. I’m not talking about just educating the Republican party leadership, nor just making our case to them, but rather to become involved in those mechanisms that constitute the skeleton of the party itself.
As to longer range efforts to establish beachheads in the Republican strongholds, I have a suggestion: The Chamber of Commerce is increasingly moving towards aligning itself with the right. In this past election, it was the vehicle for undeclared corporate money supporting various ballot propositions and specific candidates it identified as sympathetic to its agenda. There was a time, at least in some places – including California – where the arts had a decent relationship with the Chamber and could even count on its support. That reality now seems distant. The arguments that use to work in terms of convincing the Chamber to be supportive – namely that the arts were really just small businesses like most of the other Chamber constituents; that the arts were integrally important to the tourism industry and to business innovation and creativity in general; that the arts were an economic engine and a source of job creation; and that arts education was central to job preparation in an ever increasingly competitive global marketplace – all now seem unimportant to those that control the Chambers.
In California there are some 14,000 businesses that constitute the state Chamber’s membership. Local chapters deal with local issues and the work of the state Chamber is done by committees and volunteers from those local chapters. The hierarchy of the state organization’s leadership and governing Board come from the bottom up. There are some 10,000 nonprofit arts organizations in California. If 20% of those arts organizations were to join their local Chambers of Commerce (dues are modest and local chapters welcome arts organizations) and get involved on the statewide committees and move up the ranks to chair some of those efforts – thus moving up the ranks of the organization – in just a couple of years the arts could constitute a formidable bloc within the state Chamber – and in so doing we could begin to seriously impact the policies and positions the Chamber takes. If 40% of all the arts organization would join their local chambers, and work into postions of authority, we could virtually take over the whole structure by 2016. That's only five years from now. And there are benefits - from networking, to resources, to local advocacy for the arts as small businesses in joining the local chapters.
When I was the Director of the CAC, some arts organizations were (as is still true) members of their local Chambers. The local membership welcomed those arts organizations as local businesses and partners and the very fact that arts organizations were involved members, helped to educate the entire local business communities as to how much in common arts organizations had with other businesses and how many mutually beneficial intersections existed for cooperation and collaboration. I went to several state Chamber conferences, and the membership of the state Chamber was very open to, and supportive of, the arts as part of the businesses community. It is only at the very upper echelon of the state and national Chambers that the leadership doesn’t seem to get that the arts are their constituents. But if we were 10% of their membership, I guarantee you everything would change. And the leadership would fall over themselves trying to address our needs.
If we joined and got involved in the local, state and national Chamber we could change its attitude towards government arts support, and in so doing, increase the number of intersections with the GOP and the possibilities to educate them and change their perspectives on us. And it wouldn’t be all that hard, nor at all costly for us to embark on that sort of strategy. It would take some investment of time (which I know is scarce), but the benefits would arguably be direct, meaningful and (almost) immediate. Now I know this is highly unlikely to happen. No, we are likely to continue to plod along the way we have for decades, and with the same likely results: the arts will continue to flounder and struggle for government support and legislation they want passed - to only marginal success. We are, in this area alas, the very embodiment of Einstein's definition of insanity.
This is the kind of effort we need to move towards in our advocacy and lobbying strategies if we are going to keep (and ultimately grow) government support for what we do – not just in funding, but in receptivity to a range of legislation that we might wish to put forth to protect the arts, artists, arts education and arts organizations over the next few years. If we don’t figure out a way to move arts support from being a one party issue, then we might as well resign ourselves to forever fighting the same battles over and over again, with the likelihood that, at best we will win some in good times, and that in bad times we will lose more and more of them. Both our advocacy philosophy and strategy must become much more sophisticated than just making the case for our value and defending ourselves against attacks.
Have a great week.