Over the next week, I'm co-hosting a special blogfest on art and political clout and power, planned with blogger Arlene Goldbard - writer, author, consultant and public speaker.
The series begins with a dialogue between Arlene and myself. Subsequent entries will be authored by Roberto Bedoya, executive director of the Tucson Pima Arts Council; Dudley Cocke, director of Roadside Theater; Ra Joy, executive director of Arts Alliance Illinois, and Diane Ragsdale, creator of the "Jumper" blog - posted one each day beginning Tuesday, March 13th. To each, we posed this question:
"The way we've been doing arts advocacy for the past thirty years isn't working: the real value of the NEA budget has dropped by well over half, for instance, and state funding has nosedived. We remain timid and unimaginative, acting as if cultural support were a rare privilege instead of a human right. With a blank slate and all your powers of social imagination, redesign it: why and how would artists and arts advocates claim social, economic, and true political power? What would you do for the arts to develop real political clout—and what has to change for us to move down that path?"
Please read, forward, and comment. The entire series can be accessed here. Arlene and I will post a wrap up next Monday.
The result of all this bad strategy has been an NEA budget reduced in real value by more than half since Ronald Reagan’s time, and even worse news in some states. What would it take to convert the weak boosterism that passes for arts advocacy into a meaningful movement for pluralism, participation, and equity in cultural development? What would it take to convert timidity to chutzpah in pursuit of real power? Starting with the issues and communities you care most about, what would you advocate?
Barry Hessenius: I have used the Oliver Twist metaphor a score of times over the past decade as a apt description of the timidity of the arts (though for poor Oliver, his act of asking for more was actually quite rebellious)
Anyone familiar with my position on advocacy knows that I believe that the core of our problem is that we have internalized the erroneous belief that advocating for our positions (read: telling our stories, enlisting communication with elected officials in reaction to some negative action on their part impacting us, trying to make the case for our value via economic and other arguments, and the ongoing education of elected and appointed officials as to the positive impact the arts have) is pursuing political power and clout. It is NOT. It is an essential part of the process of being political, but it isn’t real power. Over time successful lobbying campaigns send the message our “special interest group “(and that is exactly what we are) must be reckoned with, but even active (and successful) lobbying to influence legislation is only a first step in the development of real political clout. The only way to build real political clout and power is to have a large, mobilized constituent group that “puts its’ money where its’ mouth is”.
Despite the fact that the arts have an excellent claim to the value they provide the society and despite the fact that there is widespread public involvement in, and appreciation for, the arts, we have had only limited success in protecting our government support and / or in advancing a legislative agenda. Why?
Because unlike a pantheon of other special interest groups, we refuse to organize ourselves to be political -- to form Political Action Committees (PACs) and to get actively involved over the long term in the election (or defeat) of candidates sympathetic (or opposed) to our interests. We do not contribute money in the name of the arts to candidates. We spend precious little time building long term meaningful relationships with elected and appointed officials (and their staffs), and we do not volunteer in numbers to work for the election of the candidates we support. The arts not only will not measurably contribute to the campaigns of our supporters, we won’t even dig into our own pockets to support widespread advocacy organizations with paid staff and significant resources. We do not run for office ourselves. We are decidedly not proactive. Why not?
Because we mistakenly believe that the laws prohibit us from doing so. WRONG. Because the people in our field don’t want to mix politics in the arts. Because we organize our even small attempts in this area as volunteer efforts, and with only a few notable exceptions we do not even fund our own advocacy efforts with paid staff. Because we are territorial and have difficulty cooperating and collaborating for the common good. Because we simply do not understand that politics is at the essence of all the governmental decisions that we are interested in -- from direct funding support to a diverse legislative agenda. Because we cling to the notion that because we are ‘worthy’, that alone ought to be enough to win the day and because that notion misunderstands that every decision (money or otherwise) in “favor” of one special interest (like us) is very likely to be “against” some other special interest group (like us). Because, as you point out Arlene, we do not (with only a few exceptions) effectively reach out to form alliances that would increase and enhance our clout.
All of this limits our access to political power decision making. In short, what we call advocacy simply isn’t how the political game in America is played. We can whine and moan and pout and whatever to deny that reality, but it will NOT go away. (Again with some notable exceptions, chief among them AFTA’s PAC - the Arts Action Fund) we deny the maxim that IF we want political clout, we must be political. For whatever reason, the nonprofit arts have repeatedly decided that they do not, will not, be political. I do not understand why, but it is not surprising that we are at best Sisyphus pushing the rock up the hill.
Arlene: Deepak Chopra of the Center for Community Change put it well, I think: “There are two kinds of power in this country, organized money and organized people.” Quite a few special interests succeed entirely on account of organized money: there’s no big popular groundswell or volunteer corps behind all the sweetheart deals Big Oil or Big Pharma have made with politicians, for instance. Some red-carpet arts institutions may have major financial access through wealthy Board members who are active as political donors (and there are a few sweetheart deals to prove it), but for the rest of the cultural landscape’s population, if there is a route to political power, it must be through organized people, as you point out.
Where we may diverge is on the type of political power we believe is needed. It’s good to have members of Congress vote for budget allocations for existing arts agencies, of course. But I see the need for changes that are beyond yes or no votes on funding. Social change happens long before elected officials recognize and formalize it: by the time Congress passes a bill that expands human rights, for example, a grassroots movement has already brought the issue to public awareness and done the hard work of getting people to see what’s needed.
So where is our grassroots movement? I think part of the problem is weak and boring “arts advocacy” rhetoric and campaigns. “Support the arts” is never going to rally millions: where’s the passion? What difference will it make to voters’ lives? I think we have to catch up with the widespread (if not always articulated) understanding that today, culture is the container in which people work out their identity, shared values, social imagination of the future. We communicate through music, debate public issues through films, express our shared heritage through public celebration and spectacle entailing many art forms. Above all, supporting a vibrant, creative, accessible apparatus for making and disseminating art—music, dance, theater, writing, visual arts, media, and on and on—is supporting our resilience, building capacity, creating a foundation for innovation in all things. Our common culture matters because it answers the key questions for any civil society: Who are we as a people? What do we stand for? How do we want to be remembered? We need answers worthy of our aspirations, but right now, if you look at how we spend our commonwealth, our answers are frightening: above all else, we value war and punishment, profit for the wealthiest, and social control. I know many of us do not want to leave that as our legacy to the future.
So while you are urging on people who want to create the kind of political clout that aims to affect Congressional (and other) votes on allocations—an important aim, and one you have characterized aptly—I want to urge organized-people coalitions on essential cultural issues that aren’t yet on the Congressional docket:
- We need a new WPA to address epidemic unemployment, and cultural-sector jobs should be as core to that as they were to the New Deal 80 years ago; there’s common cause with everyone concerned about unemployment and infrastructure deterioration. I’m not the only person appalled at four years of a Democratic president without a public-service employment program in a time of tremendous suffering over joblessness. It would take a while to succeed, but along the way, alliances would be powerful.
- We need to institute something like a “cultural impact report,” analogous to an environmental impact report, assessing the cultural impact of public actions such as leveling historic neighborhoods to build sports stadiums. If a community’s cultural fabric has no legal standing, we’ll just keep on making those same inhumane and short-sighted “urban removal” decisions over and over again. The environmental impact report was one of the first innovations of the environmental movement to infuse daily public decisions with environmental awareness. I’m not saying it would be easy to institute a cultural counterpart, but campaigning for it would do a lot to raise cultural awareness.
- We need cultural equity, in which access, funding, and other social goods are distributed fairly among all groups and categories. There’s always been a contradiction that funding is skewed toward the haves—mostly white, urban institutions—but when advocacy time comes around, the have-nots are expected to be good sports and rally to the cause. In my dream, the most powerful spokespeople for the subsidized arts—the heads of the major institutions and agencies—stand up to advocate in no uncertain terms for equity for communities of color and others without the same access to capital. That would attract some attention!
I’ll stop here for now, with a final point. The existing “arts advocacy” culture has been tremendously short-sighted, willing only to advocate for what seems most doable, modest, and immediate. There’s something to be said for working toward immediate gains (although even on that score, the track-record is poor), but to build a movement, you need a long view: social imagination, aspiration, passion. Artists have these things in abundance, but if there’s one thing these campaigns have lacked thus far, it is art. Mostly, these are conceived and run by administrators who mistakenly believe that success will come from acting exactly like their counterparts in health or business. What would it look like if we acted exactly like ourselves, organized around our deepest truths, stood for what we really believe?
Barry: I agree with you, and I don’t. I agree that in the long run what is needed is as you describe - a massive, sustained grassroots demand for support for arts, culture and creativity akin to what we have seen as the green movement over the past fifty years - real social change that drills down to the core of societal fabric. I also agree with you that such a movement needs to have at its essence the value culture has in people’s lives, and cannot come into being without passion and our willingness to dig deeper than we have in the past. But the problem is that broad social movements of the type you envision - even if they can be jump started by some conscious attempt (problematic at best) often take decades, if not generations to grow and succeed. I would agree that we have to start that somewhere and the sooner the better, but even if there were a “perfect storm” to set it in motion, it will take a long, long time to even begin to flower.
In the meantime, I argue we ought to develop more practical political clout so as to protect ourselves as best we can in the near term, and that such effort will help us to better organize ourselves into cooperative collaborative efforts that will improve our sense of ourselves as ‘community’, and be ready to capitalize on a social movement should we be able to mount such an effort. That effort is characterized by thinking more about organization, tactics, and the cold hard reality of how special interest groups get what they want within the system (or fail to get what they want).
I would hope there would be room for both approaches in our thinking and that we could figure out - given all the assets, talent and intelligence within our sphere - to move forward simultaneously on both fronts.
As to your specific recommenations:
- I am not sure a WPA approach is viable in this new century. I think the goal is lofty and admirable, but I think we have to come up with something better.
- I absolutely love the idea of a cultural impact report and think that might even be a catalyst to begin to launch the kind of grassroots movement you espouse. Brilliant.
- I completely agree with you about the need for a united front that demands cultural equity including in education and agree that would be attention grabbing. Alas, I think the haves are not likely to quickly join in such a clarion call. That is a challenge that has been around for some time and we have not yet met it.
Finally I completely disagree with the assertion that we “mistakenly believe that success will come from acting exactly like their counterparts in health or business.” Politics is a game with very defined rules. To be a success in that arena (until they change the rules), you must play by and master those rules. Political success in that sense for the arts depends on us acting “exactly” like our counterparts in health and business - to play the game by its own rules, and to play it as well as any other sector. Now if you mean that we will not likely successfully launch and nurture a long term grassroots ‘movement’ that will change how our society looks at arts and culture, then you are right - being successful political activists and lobbyists will not do that. And I think you are right that if such a movement flowered, it would make it much easier to achieve our political goals. But again, that is going to take years and years to grow. We are talking about two very different things here. Forsaking one in favor of the other seems counter-productive to me. I do not see them as mutually exclusive pursuits that we have to choose between. I believe we have to use every weapon at our disposal, employ every strategy we can devise to develop political power that will help us to realize our objectives and ends - long and short term.
We haven’t talked about all of the barriers and obstacles to our becoming effective political players. Perhaps this discussion will begin to touch on why we have failed to a large degree in pursuing both my practical approach and your more visionary one.
Arlene: The “new WPA” discussion is a whole ‘nother topic, so I won’t attempt right now to engage your reasons for rejecting it. I’ll just say that I’ve written extensively on how it could work today, notably in the two “New-New Deal” essays that can be accessed from this page of my website, and the only arguments I’ve heard against it are that people don’t think it’s doable in this political climate. To that, I say that if we curtail our aspirations to the currently doable, we’re sunk. Setting our horizons too low is part of the problem.
I agree that there’s a more immediate option of using conventional forms of political fundraising and aggregating donations to build clout for public arts funding. I just don’t know if the passion, commitment, and imagery is available to make it a popular cause. If what people are doing now reflects the best, most creative thinking in the field, it won’t fly. Right now, the weakness of arts advocacy has meant that as a political tool, arts funding works best for its opponents, as a symbolic way to oppose government spending without cutting much, as I wrote in my series “Life Implicates Art.”
As is so often the case, real political power needs both a grassroots movement and an advocacy apparatus for existing (and increased) allocations. If the political will is there to do both, we will succeed. Let’s see what our colleagues have to say about it.
Please follow along this week for Roberto's, Ra's, Dudley's and Diane's comments and please share your thoughts.
Have a good week.