Sunday, February 13, 2011


Good morning.
"And the beat goes on........."

Ongoing Conversation Reactions:

1. The Overbuilt Arts Infrastructure:
In response to the blog conversations of late on the overbuilt nature of the arts (Including NEA Chairman Rocco Landesman's blog) several quick observations:  Is the sector overbuilt?  If by that people mean are there too many arts organizations - the answer is no.  How can there be too many arts organizations?  That's like saying you can have too much fun.  There can never be too much art and thus never be too many artists or arts organizations.  If, however, we mean are there too many arts organizations given the limited financial resources and funding available to support all the arts organizations there are, then the answer is yes, of course.  The demand is simply - at least at the present - greater than the funding currently available.  Is this a problem?  For those struggling simply to survive - most assuredly.  But the marketplace - our marketplace of funders (government and private) combined with the donors, audiences and patrons - will settle the issue and some will survive while others will not.  All of the component parts of our marketplace will prioritize their support based on their own criteria.  That is simply the reality.  It really isn't the province of funders and audiences and donors to tackle the issue, other than to cast their votes with dollars, time and attendance, and they will do so.  Technology, shifts in public interest and taste, talent and skill and much more will impact what survives, what thrives, what doesn't.  The conversation, if we need one, should be about what criteria we will employ to make our decisions about where to place our limited resources.

2.  The State Arts Agency Elimination or De-Funding Crisis:
With the (for now anyway) elimination of the Kansas State Arts Agency, and the threats to SAAs in South Carolina, Texas, Washington, Arizona and other states, and the proposed cutbacks to the NEA, we have finally come to the point where we face a domino effect and the reality that our political advocacy must be addressed as, at least, a partial failure.  As usual, Ian Moss provides an excellent summary of the news on his blog Createquity.

There has been some excellent commentary on what went wrong and what direction we ought to take, none more passionate than Arlene Goldbard's blog reaction.  Arlene is a gifted writer and one of our best thinkers.  She posits what others have argued - that economic arguments long in vogue as the front line of our defense in these instances belie the point, and urges us to fight for government arts funding as indicative of who we are as a nation, as a people. It's not about the money she says.   As many before her have argued, the arts should be supported because of their intrinsic value and for our values as a people.  I have no quarrel with that position.

But with respect to government funding, we must never lose sight of the reality that we are dealing - like it or not - with politics.  And in politics, you use every single argument you can.  It is myopic to focus on one thread - be it the economic value we add or the value creativity adds to civic life or what our commitment or lack thereof says about us as a people.

In politics, especially the politics of the budgetary process (which dominates all politics), there  is never only two sides to an issue - but multiple sides.  It isn't about the money, and it is.  Whatever way an elected official votes - yes or not, in favor or in opposition - there will be constituents, supporters, colleagues, and even the media who want the official to vote the other way,  Politics is about compromise and about finding "cover" - some reasons why a politician can say they voted the way the did.  Almost every political vote - especially as to what gets funded and what does not - is a lose / lose position for the one casting the vote.  While some may be happy the vote went 'their' way, many more will be unhappy, some angry and some even incensed.  The funding 'pie' is only so big - not big enough to address all of the worthy claimants who want a piece.  Even those who seemingly win by a vote, are often disappointed they didn't get everything they wanted - didn't get it all.  Politicians learn very early on to seek out ways to minimize the unhappiness, to keep those who are likely to be angry with them to the smallest number, to placate them with votes on other issues.  No vote occurs in a vacuum; no vote is ever truly on the merits.  As often as not every vote is a trade-off for something else.  Every politician must take into account (for every vote) the positions of their backers and major contributors, their party, the  politics of their local district, the lobbyists who bombard them daily, and whom they (for a variety of reasons) need, the media, friends, colleagues and their own views and values.  As often as not, there is no right or wrong vote.  That depends on the position of the various interest groups impacted by that vote.  Politicians seek to alienate the fewest numbers. 

It is thus folly to rely on any one argument in trying to sway those with the decision making power.  The smarter and more practical approach is to offer as many reasons as possible to convince them to, if not champion your position, at least not oppose it.  Who knows what argument will work with any given decision maker.  No one can afford to forget that these people are going to piss someone off no matter how they vote, and that not every argument works with each of them.  They are looking for some kind of cover to justify their support for one interest group over another, and to align those votes with all the other criteria that goes into any single vote decision.  It is risky behavior indeed to be too smug, too sanctimonious, too lofty when playing politics, irrespective of being right or wrong.  Yes you must take value positions, but within sight of the goal of getting whatever it is you are trying to get.  Dogma works only occasionally.  Politics is the art of the practical.

Then too, the reality is that they listen to some people more than others - and that includes long time supporters (read money contributors), friends, esteemed colleagues, trusted advisors, experts, the press, family and others.  These are by and large ambitious people, with agendas, and to a degree they constantly find themselves in the proverbial rock and a hard place.

Now we can whine, bitch and moan, regret and otherwise not like this reality, but politics IS a reality and it is also a game with its own rules.  If we choose to play that game but ignore the rules, then it should not come as a surprise when we do not succeed, and that is the crux of why the SAAs and even the Endowment, once again finds itself in trouble. We want to win, but too often only on our own terms.  Playing only by your rules, when those are not the rules of the game you are playing is like teaching a pig to sing.  You better be prepared for two things.  First, you are likely to get very frustrated with your lack of success, and second, after awhile you are very likely to annoy the pig. 

I support and applaud any possible way we can best position ourselves to protect, defend and yes, even expand, government support - because I think government funding as one of the threads of our revenue model, is critically essential, and that it will be catastrophic if we lose it. Some arguments take greater resources to sell to both decision makers and the public; some take longer than others, some resonate better, some are easier for us to defend -- all should be used in  concert - including the one we simply refuse to fully support - digging into our own pockets and otherwise raising the requisite funds to start and maintain meaningful political action committees and backing candidates supportive of us.  Very often in politics, victory has absolutely nothing to do with your argument or how you frame it - it has rather to do with your perceived political clout and how you exercise that power - and it has to do with the relationships (over time) that you have developed with those who cast the votes.  The longer and stronger the relationship, the better the chance you have for a vote your way.

And because you never want to give ammunition to those in politics who oppose you, we might want to dial down the overbuilt arts sector debate for the time being.  Telling everyone there are too many arts organizations then asking for more money allows the opposition to wonder why we need the money we have if there are, by our own admission, too many arts organizations already.  While that can of course be explained easily enough, it deflects our attention and energy away from otherwise making our case and playing the game that we need to defend ourselves and minimize the damage that we face this year, and it makes it easier to shift the debate to the opposition's terms.  There is always an opposition, and success is often dependent more on neutralizing the opposition than in rallying your supporters.

Happy Valentine's Day.  Tell your Congressperson you love the arts.

Have a good week.

Don't Quit,


  1. Thanks, Barry (for the link as well) - this is really great and an important perspective. For a while I've been struck by Scarlett Swerdlow's observation that we don't seek out strategic alliances with (read: opportunities to help) other sectors nearly as much as we could or should. Do you think that if, as a field, we took a more proactive stance on providing a voice on transportation or environmental policy, that it would pay dividends for us on the pragmatic side? Is this a realistic thing to hope and push for?

  2. There is a thin line to walk here I think. On the one hand, political success often depends on the ability of a special interest group (and that is exactly what we are) to cultivate and motivate stakeholders and potential supporters to take up your cause. Other groups who may directly or indirectly align their goals with ours may have relationships and access beyond our ken. We can use all the help we can get. Thus, for example, if we were more directly involved with, and active in, the Chamber of Commerce to the extent that our fiscal health was seen as an integral part of the health of the nation's small business community, and the Chamber adopted (at least some) of our objectives as in sync with their own, they might more convincingly argue our case to many decision makers who ignore us. If we were to champion certain of the entertainment and high tech industry objectives (e.g., protection of intellectual property rights), we might have a better chance to get those people to help us when we need it.

    There might also be larger issues which naturally align with our goals (e.g., education reform, nonprofit tax status, philanthropic tax considerations etc) that we can easily support.

    On the other hand, the development of strategic alliances requires a certain level of political sophistication we currently lack. It is risky for us to ask our own people to do too much, to dilute the message, to spread ourselves too thin. We need to stay focused - at least until we make changing our culture to embrace political action as a priority. Somehow we need to become active and savvy political players and at the same time develop and implement workable strategies to move the public to the position (and action) that the arts and arts education are non-negotiable and essential values that justify widespread support. To the extent we can move to widen our political action to include other areas, other issues, we have much to gain over time.

    But first we need to take some baby steps.

  3. Thanks so much, Barry, for the mention and kind words. All three parts of my arts funding series are now up at