"And the beat goes on....................."
Here are the four guest blogger entries (in their entirety) for the blogfest on Clout and Political Power - co-hosted by Arlene Goldbard and myself this week.
Arlene and I will post our wrap up comments on Monday.
Dear Arlene and Barry,
I found your exchange very interesting and myself at times in agreement and others not with your thoughts. Arlene, your critique of current arts advocacy as problematic and Barry your lament about the lack of political clout are correct. How we remedy these problems is a challenge and asks that we sit with the meaning and expectation that folks bring to terms like “advocacy” and “political” embedded in your remarks, and wrestle with the slippery nature of public and power. You two have been doing this work for awhile and know the frustration it brings. You also know the power of passion, of the social imaginary to envision and animate our plurality.
What I’ve been wrestling with is a tone in your remarks that we are stuck in some “Dickens” Bleakness. I don’t feel that way. It’s not that I am all Pollyanna and trapped in American Sentimentality, which reduces complexity to happy-face strategies of “Can’t we all get along?” I get frustrated often when I am dealing with elected officials, especially during the spring when my agency’s allocation is being debated. But I can not let my frustration get in the way when I am arguing for the importance of the arts in front of Mayor and Council at the same time as Police and Fire are arguing for safety, Social Services organization are arguing for a safety net, Businesses are arguing for Tax Breaks, Tea Baggers are arguing for no government. It is quite a show.
Advocacy work is not a Bleak House…it is part tenacity, it is about creating the argumentative turn that results in the outcome you seek, it about telling the story of your impact to elected officials, business leaders, neighborhood associations, artists’ groups … that door to door stuff—you know this.
(A story: last spring when the arts council’s budget debate was happening, the artists’ community as part of their advocacy strategy took advantage of the Call to the Audience that is a part of every City Council Meeting where an individual is allocated three minutes to speak them. So for a number of weekly meetings they presented a piece of art – the women’s choir sang, poems were read, a novelist read a section of her work that was about city council meetings, a Native American flutist played for them…. It was wonderful and all of them spoke about the value of our cultural community. It worked. We were held harmless in terms of the budget and received no reductions.)
Barry: your questioning about the development of political clout is a good one. For me PACs and lobbying are important, but it not where I put my energies. We have had our advocacy success in the area of coalition strategies. Specially, our work in community cultural development efforts is primarily through the P.L.A.C.E. (People, Land, Arts, Culture ,and Engagement) Initiative, which supports art-based civic engagement projects that address contested and complex social issues. It has become an important vehicle that the arts council employs to support the democratic principles of equity and civil society, and underscores the strong regional ethos associated with stewardship, (cultural, civic and ecological) which exists here. To date we have supported 45 projects. All of the projects involve artists working across sectors. So when it is advocacy time our partners—neighborhood associations, schools, churches, immigration right organizations, environmental organizations, senior citizens, youth, mental health and homeless advocates—speak on our behalf. They are not a PAC, and I choose not to organize them into one. My job is to get them the resources they are seeking to develop their community and I ask them to give witness to their success and failures to the larger public.
Arlene: your remarks about the grass roots movement brings up the question of the romancing of the “movement” to the point of fetishization into an ideal on the horizon and elusive. It also prompts the question whose “grassroots,” whose “movement,” the political left or the political right? The mantra of we need to organize is real and how we do it in the culture sector is weak in comparison to the power of crony capitalism and how they do it and destroy our democracy along the way. In our network society what does organizing look like? It is not the dream of the million “gente” march, or the modest effectiveness of arts advocacy day on the Capital steps—it more than that. I suspect it is a rhizome strategy like the artists that I mentioned earlier, who spoke to our Mayor and Council.
You often refer to the power of the social imaginary in your writings, a term I also use. The philosopher Charles Taylor describes the social imaginary as “the ways people imagine their social existence, how they fit together with others, how things go on between them and their fellows, the expectations that are normally met, and the deeper normative notions and images that underline these expectations.” He goes on to say, “I adopt the term imaginary because my focus is on the way ordinary people ‘imagine’ their social surrounding, and this is often not expressed in theoretical terms but is carried in images, stories and legends.” So in some way, I feel that the “movement” task to engage in is to organize the power of images, stories, legends, songs, movements, that are emancipatory, that are sublime, that shape our plurality—how we imagine and live our lives together—into a greater focus. For example, being old school, I saw how the power of the Red Ribbon, created by artists to bring forth actions to deal with the AIDS pandemic, and the religious imaginary of the Virgen de Guadalupe was used to aid the organizing of farmworkers, worked to advance the human rights of the people who enliven society.
Arlene and Barry: let’s return to the topic of political power, how it works, how to utilize it and how to gain it through advocacy. Let me wrap-up my commentary with some remarks how to confront political power. I live and work in Arizona where the politics of belonging and dis-belonging is being played out with a hateful vengeance, where racism is alive and well. Arizona’s current social/political landscape is toxic. The shooting of January 8th, 2011, prompted a great deal of community reflection on civil society. Prior to the shooting and the passage by the Arizona Legislature of Senate Bill 1070, the anti-immigration law, and House Bill 2281, the ban on ethnic studies in Arizona High Schools, the chilling effects of these laws upon community expressions is being felt and a growing atmosphere of intolerance towards cultural and political differences is present. These laws reflect the animosity toward difference that is being stirred in Arizona and risks undermining our diverse civic landscape by prompting intolerance, incivility and cultural misunderstanding.
Let’s call these laws an example of “Culture Wars 2.0.” The first Culture War of the 90’s was an attack on art and artistic free speech. Cultural War 2.0 are attacks against our civil and cultural rights: the right to be taught the works of Latino novelists in high schools; a woman’s right to control her body; the right of gays and lesbians to marry their loved one; the right to be free from racial profiling that is happening with intensity to America’s Muslim and Latino communities; the right of collective bargaining….
So advocacy for me is not about arts advocacy, it advocating for and defending the very meaning of public—of the public good embedded in civil society. I believe strongly that my charge is to build and defend civil society through the tools at my disposal—the creative community that the arts council serves and our collective passionate belief in democracy. It also has to deal with how complicity is constructed through laws and policy that says you belong, you don’t belong. How the cultural sector plays into the politics of belong/dis-belonging is a charged topic that we must engage in with more rigor and vigor, if we want our advocacy efforts to have weight and soul. Yet, in spite of the attacks against cultural differences and the very notion of the public good, I feel that the cultural community is steadfast as it faces these challenges through the work of creating shared visions of our relationships to each other—be it in a concert hall, in a barrio, in a gallery or in a book.
Your words triggered much thought and if my musing a bit much and off target because of its local references, let’s continue the conversation. As my advocacy work has moved from the national that took me to the Supreme Court as a co-plaintiff in the Finley vs. NEA lawsuit to now my local efforts in a mid-size American city, what I’ve learned is how the sovereignty of context is essential to advocacy arguments: that what works in Tucson, may or may not work in SF; what works with the white gloves may or may not work with the anarchists; what works in communities of color may or may not work among the Anglo community—that understanding context with all its complicities is essential to successful advocacy work.
So good ones, thank you for this opportunity for some commentary and since you riffed on Charles Dickens – a literary reference for me is Emily Dickinson and her line, “I dwell in possibilities…” or maybe Mr. James Brown: “Get on the Good Foot!”
Barry and Arlene have done a terrific job of priming this conversation. Here are my thoughts, building on their debate.
Part 1 – On why we may not be doing a better job of advocating for the arts…
It strikes me that there are a couple assumptions embedded in the questions above: (1) that arts organizations desire increased public support (particularly at the federal and state levels); and (2) they have been ineffective at getting this support because they do not have real political clout.
But are these assumptions true? I guess the first proposition I want to put on the table is that perhaps the arts and culture sector in the US is neither inept at nor put off by ‘politics,’ nor simply so demoralized or offended by 30 years in the political dog house that it doesn’t have the will or willingness to engage more strategically with the political sphere. Rather, I perceive that the sector may be quite reasonably shunning the approaches that Barry suggests (contributing money to campaigns, trying to influence elections, building meaningful relationships with politicians) because it is ambivalent about the benefits of public arts funding and long-ago figured out a way to use its perceived dog-house position to its advantage.
I don’t see the sector as Arlene and Barry do—Oliver Twist, cap in hand and a charming accent, pleading for any spare coin or crumb that can be spared. If the efforts seem half-hearted or even half-assed, perhaps it’s because deep down what many of those in the sector feel towards those that would shun them is, “Screw the Philistines, we don’t need them.” In other words, if we appear to be Oliver Twist, perhaps it’s an act?
As Lester Salamon (Johns Hopkins) has written, the US nonprofit sector (generally speaking, not exclusively in the arts) has proven to be incredibly resilient in recent decades, in the face of numerous challenges (including the loss of public support). Is it a stretch to think that such resilience might very well go hand-in-hand with our decentralized, indirect subsidy system? When government closes a door, quite often some wealthy individual opens a window (and doesn’t attach strings to funding like expectations of ‘access’ or ‘education’). And should no benefactor open a window? Well, there’s always the market (after all, it’s in the DNA of many in the sector).
Furthermore, as Arlene noted, the most powerful arts organizations in the arts and culture sector are already able to successfully lobby for line item allocations. So what’s in it for them to fight for a bigger pool for the rest? Again, they’ve figured out how to work the system to their advantage. Furthermore, significantly increased support would probably mean that many more organizations (those nudged out in the 80s and 90s and those that have never been in) would get (back) into the tent. So, if we’re waiting for the organizations that have the most power and influence in the arts and culture sector to lead the charge on this front, I think we may be waiting a long time.
Of course there are those that don’t have wealthy friends or significant government support. To the degree that they’ve survived it is probably by staying small, being entrepreneurial/market-oriented, and/or relying on low-cost (or even free) labor. But let’s face it: even if the budget of the NEA were quadrupled tomorrow most of them would not expect money to be flowing their way.
A different, but perhaps related, question is when will those artists and arts and culture organizations that are not benefitting from the current ‘arts system’ (that is, the large majority of them) take control of and reframe the conversation around culture?
Part II – On why other people may not be buying into us and how we might change it …
Both Arlene and Barry endorse the power of a grassroots movement (though Barry sees this as a longer term goal and secondary to a more immediate strategic engagement with the political sphere). Both also embrace the idea of cultural impact studies. In principle, I do as well; however, I doubt whether either of these approaches would be successful if they were biased towards the nonprofit arts and culture sector and if it were generally perceived that, again, the primary goal of such efforts would be increased support for the NEA.
This leads me to another point (also raised by Arlene). We stand for something both too abstract and too removed from everyday cultural life for most people to fight for. And this seems to suit us just fine. How do we think people in the professional nonprofit fine arts sector would answer (privately, if not publicly) if they were asked the following question?
In the minds of ‘the masses’, is it worse for ‘the arts’ to stand for:
A: Snooty orchestras and avant-garde work created for wealthy people, which you won’t understand and which may challenge your values or sensibilities?
B: Your kid performing in a youth orchestra, your local banjo club performing at the zoo and at senior centers, the American Pie music video created by the ‘dying’ city of Grand Rapids, Michigan, and Wicked, the Broadway musical?
We need to address why ‘the arts’ are (and have been) such a hard sell in the US. The best explanation I’ve read in recent years is by Bill Ivey (former chairman of the NEA and director of the Curb Center for Art, Enterprise, and Public Policy at Vanderbilt). Back in 2009, I interviewed Ivey for Grantmakers in the Arts in conjunction with the release of his book Arts, Inc: How Greed and Neglect Have Destroyed Our Cultural Rights. In our interview (you can read the interview here), Ivey remarked that the US has never come to terms with American culture for what it really is: a grassroots vernacular “that embraces amateur as well as professional, rural as well as urban, and unschooled as well as schooled.” The concentration of public support and private philanthropy on the fine arts is not sustainable, he says, because it “flies in the face of American culture.”
Ivey correctly asserts that when we face resistance to the idea of support for the arts it's often because our highest priorities are out of sync with those of everyday Americans. Too many people receive little or no tangible benefit from the current nonprofit arts system, thus whatever generalized good feelings citizens may have about the arts don't translate into sufficient “goodwill” when the arts must compete with education or the environment—when advocacy really counts.
While Arlene and Barry invited those of us blogging this week to start with a blank slate, for my money, Ivey has already proposed an idea (both an ideological reframing and a practical reconstitution) that has legs. Ivey proposes that if we want to achieve true cultural vibrancy we must “adopt a new, comprehensive approach to our arts system” that encompasses the nonprofit, commercial, and amateur arts sectors. Furthermore, he suggests we need to coordinate our interventions in these interrelated sectors in order to serve the public interest. Finally, he proposes a Cultural Bill of Rights, which he says we must be willing to assert, with the goal of providing every American with the benefits of a vibrant, expressive life:
The right to our heritage—to explore music, literature, drama, painting, and dance that define both our nation's collective experience and our individual and community traditions.
The right to the prominent presence of artists in public life—through their art and the incorporation of their voices and artistic visions into democratic debate.
The right to an artistic life—to the knowledge and skills needed to play a musical instrument, draw, dance, compose, design, or otherwise live a life of active creativity.
The right to be represented to the rest of the world by art that fairly and honestly communicates America's democratic values and ideals.
The right to know about and explore art of the highest quality and to the lasting truths embedded in those forms of expression that have survived, in many lands, through the ages.
The right to healthy arts enterprises that can take risks and invest in innovation while serving communities and the public interest.
In their opening statement Barry and Arlene write, “We remain timid and unimaginative, acting as if cultural support were a rare privilege instead of a human right.” Actually, I would suggest (in line with Ivey) that the beneficiary of cultural support (if we want to talk of it in terms of a right) needs to be reframed in terms of citizens. Ivey writes, “It is time to establish a new set of goals designed to reclaim art and culture for the American people; it is time to assert the rights of citizens to the multiple benefits of an arts system turned to public purposes.”
Part 3 – A possible next step…
So, here’s my suggestion: What if the NEA were disintegrated and its components set free to be recombined (with other components) into an agency to fund the realization of Ivey’s Cultural Bill of Rights? The first order of business could be a broad cultural assets mapping of the commercial, amateur, and professional nonprofit sectors as Ivey has suggested. A second order of business could be trying to understand the interdependencies (on a local, national, and global level) across these sectors, as well as the diverse social, cultural, or economic values and impacts on individuals and communities realized by this comprehensive cultural sphere, and its leverage points. The third order of business could be using this knowledge to advocate for exponentially greater support for those leverage points—that is, where subsidy is both needed and likely to be impactful. The traditionally funded institutions that benefit from the NEA and state support would not be eliminated from the picture; they would be appropriately valued for their role within the larger cultural landscape.
At this point, how beneficial is it for us to advocate for increased funding for the National Endowment for the Arts? I’m not challenging current leadership, programs, or strategies or asking how beneficial the money or NEA imprimatur may be to the organizations that receive funding. I’m asking whether the NEA is an idea for which we are likely to garner widespread support now, or in the future. I fear we may be chasing windmills. Political support for the NEA seems to have begun to wane almost as soon as it was written into the legislation.
And as for all that leverage? As John Kreidler points out in his essay Leverage Lost: The Nonprofit Arts in the Post-Ford Era, the NEA’s approach to providing seed funds to be matched by other sources was, of course, modeled on the Ford Foundation’s practice, which was widely adopted by all institutionalized funding sources. Those running arts organizations can bear witness better than anyone to the result of this widely-embraced practice: money leveraged is, too often, other money seeking to be leveraged. Everyone is counting on an ever-increasing flow of money and on someone else down the line to pick up the tab; however, resources are limited. We are not growing the pie; indeed, in some cases, we are just swapping leverage. Kreidler has likened it to a Ponzi scheme.
But I digress.
The preservation, advancement, and understanding of America’s diverse artistic and cultural heritage and the rights of citizens to an expressive life are vitally important. But is the NEA an adequate vessel for such goals? Here’s where we are curtailed by not having a larger cultural policy; NEA policy (with its limited mission and role) becomes our de facto cultural policy.
Perhaps the NEA successfully fulfilled its mission (look at the exponential growth of the sector over the past 30 years)?
Perhaps we are trying to sustain and advocate for an idea whose time has come and gone?
Perhaps if we want to achieve real political clout in the arts and culture sector, we first need an idea that exponentially greater numbers of people can buy into?
In a society in which the social structures underpinning artistic and social hierarchies have been crumbling, ‘the arts’ appear to have a choice: become valued as an important part of a more catholic conception of arts and culture or willingly stay in the margins as the last man standing for the old system.
Dear Barry and Arlene,
Thanks for inviting me to your blog fest party. The question of the week: How can artists and arts advocates claim social, economic, and real political power?
For those of us who work in the arts advocacy field, finding the answer to this question is what keeps us up at night.
All too often, conversations about the arts advocacy movement get bogged down by hand-wringing about how we make the case (intrinsic vs. instrumental value) or how we talk about the sector. I welcomed your charge of creating a blank slate and imagining a pathway forward for the arts to develop political clout. So here’s my three-point plan for the arts sector to think bigger, act faster, and advocate smarter.
#1 Grow the Base
I agree with you both that a massive, sustained grassroots movement is the best way to achieve real power. But where Barry focuses on “money power,” I’m more focused on “people power” as the route to clout.
I’m from Chicago -- the home of community organizing, made famous by folks like Saul Alinsky, Jane Addams, Jan Schakowsky, Harold Washington, and Barack Obama. Community organizing has been a central strategy for almost every successful social change movement in world history. From civil rights to women’s right, from the Arab Spring to the People Power Revolution in the Philippines, an organized people can create real and lasting change.
The quality challenge arts advocates face is tapping into and fully leveraging the widespread public support for the arts that Barry describes.
As a sector, the arts are uniquely positioned to excel at coalition-building and alliance politics. Cultural organizations have direct access to broad networks that often include staff, board, audience members, and community partners. And today’s technology and social media tools enable us to reach more people with less money than ever before. If hundreds of arts organizations stand firmly behind a common cause, they can collectively engage and mobilize hundreds of thousands of people. That’s power.
The best way to move the needle on arts policy issues (whether it’s Barry’s NEA budget or Alrene’s WPA 2.0 idea) is to create strong grassroots and grasstops networks that transcend age, race, ethnicity, geography, and other factors. I give credit to Bob Lynch and our friends at Americans for the Arts for working to create an arts advocacy network that’s built to last. An empowered and informed network enables the arts sector to appropriately “thank” or “spank” policymakers based on their actions and our priorities. In the end, the stronger our network -- and the better our organizing tactics become -- the more policy wins will be achieved.
Here in Illinois, building our network of arts advocates is strategic direction number one for Arts Alliance Illinois. Some of the network building goals we’ve established include:
Increase our e-list subscribers to 50,000
Increase online followers on Facebook to 25,000 and Twitter to 5,000
Engage 15% percent of network in advocacy action
Last month the National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy released a report titled “Cultivating the Grassroots.” While the report is geared to environment and climate funders, it offers best practices in grassroots organizing relevant to advocates in any field.
#2 Occupy Democracy
My second recommendation for building political power for the arts is to position cultural organizations as centers of democracy. I believe deeply that democracy is a verb -- it’s not something we have, it’s something we do. And I think more artists and cultural organizations should “do” democracy.
Barry described a disconnect that some arts stakeholders have with the political process and the civic life of their communities. This strategy would help close the gap. But instead of partisan politics or PAC contributions, another important point-of-engagement is around civic discourse and expanding voter participation.
We should provide cultural organizations with the training and support they need to register voters, provide easy-to-use voting information, and play a more active role as catalysts for community engagement. By strengthening the connections between cultural organizations, community members, and civic issues, we can bolster the arts and build bridges across sectors.
Nonprofit Vote has good resources to help nonprofits effectively encourage participation.
#3 New Policy Agenda
Generally speaking, for a sector that represents human creativity we have been pretty unimaginative when it comes to developing new policy solutions.
Ben Cameron, Arts Program Director at the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation, often tells the story about the great hockey player Wayne Gretzky and the value of anticipating the future. What made Wayne such a good player? He skated to where the puck would be, not where it has been. From an arts policy perspective, instead of skating to where the puck will be, many advocacy groups have been frozen in time.
If we’re serious about strengthening the operating environment for artists and cultural organizations, we need to think beyond our traditional sources of support for the arts. In addition to fighting hard for state arts agency appropriations, we should look for policy levers in economic development, neighborhood revitalization, cultural tourism, and national and community service.
We need to invest more time and resources around formulating winnable policy goals. We need to do a better job of sharing best practices and innovative ideas for both the public and private sectors. We need to think about how our policy initiatives can empower individual artists and be meaningful for for-profit arts business.
Thanks, Barry and Arlene, for inviting me to join your Blogfest. I accept with some trepidation, not about the topic per se, but because of my tendency to get on the high horse when a subject this broad appears. I’m sure I’ll not be able to completely avoid this habit, but perhaps I can spare the reader until the conclusion.
I’m a member of a rural theater company that for 37 years has been writing, producing, and touring plays. About midway through our nearly 40 year journey crisscrossing the country performing, we became interested in helping other communities create their own local plays. It was another way to test our idea that local art is a good way for local life—and local democracy—to become more aware of itself.
Roadside Theater’s home audience in the mountains of eastern Kentucky, southern West Virginia, northeastern Tennessee, and southwestern Virginia has always been low income and working and middle class people from all walks of life and of all ages—families of coalminers, government workers, small business men and women, and hill-side farmers. On any given night, Roadside’s crowd looks like the hard scrabble Appalachian communities of which the company’s artists are a part. By cosmopolitan standards, these are wildly spirited audiences who don’t hesitate to arrive early and stay late—and to spontaneously banter with the actors performing on the stage. They understand the evening is as much their cultural creation as it is the theater’s.
When we started touring nationally in 1978, we unexpectedly found ourselves looking out at a very different audience, one that appeared to represent only the wealthy slice of the host community. It didn’t bother us too much at first—we were full of ourselves—but as the 1980s rolled on and the nation’s income gap widened, we found ourselves facing a life-threatening artistic problem: now with no low-income and working class people in the house, our plays were becoming something we didn’t recognize as ours.
I’d seen something of the same phenomenon in San Francisco years before at a performance of the Royal Shakespeare Company. Tickets were going for $140 a pop, and by the end of the comedy’s first act it was plain that the actors playing the low parts were dying right there in front of us for want of any response. In live theater, the audience is responsible for half the magic.
So the question is: What would it take for a theater like Roadside to have real political clout? Part of the answer: For low income, working class, and middle class audience members like ours to have real political clout.
This raises the question of how, in our democracy, the majority of us have become subjugated to a wealthy minority of us. When we talk about the arts gaining political power, I think this is the bigger problem we need to address, and I’m worried that we’ve lost the democratic infrastructure to pursue a solution.
After these past 30 years of intense privatization and the rise of a pervasive proprietary culture, we all seem to be living in boxes defined by class, race, age, politics, sexual orientation, religion, etc. Where are the commons (neutral grounds in New Orleans’ parlance) to meet and think together, regardless of difference?
Clearly, our public institutions, like Congress, are failing us, and our civic and religious organizations are not meeting the challenge. This is bad news, because maintaining their integrity correlates with the integrity of our democracy. To this point, yesterday I received this e-mail from an artist friend in Arizona: We are fighting two new proposed laws, one to allow weapons on college campuses (which defines "public" space as any space with an armed guard, btw) and one to allow guns within 15 feet of K-12 schools.
Roadside Theater, whether performing in a tent up an Appalachian hollow or at the Manhattan Theatre Club, has always aspired to be an unarmed, democratic meeting place; art, as a manipulated expression of culture, invariably has the potential to help create the conditions for animating democracy. But rag-tag groups of nonprofit artists are, obviously, insufficient. Something more is needed.
What are the prospects for a broad based social movement of the type Barry and Arlene advocate? Barry cautions Arlene that such movements often take decades, if not generations to grow and succeed. But isn’t the stirring for such a movement for justice and equality already present in each of us? I think so, if only in our better half.
What would it take to catalyze this potential, and how do we develop the public spaces where together we can work at it?