Sunday, March 25, 2012

Interview with Doug Borwick

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

Doug Borwick is currently President of the Board of the Association of Arts Administration Educators and has for over 25 years been Director of the Arts Management and Not-for-Profit Management Programs at Salem College in Winston-Salem, NC.   He also writes a blog on engaging the arts in communities.  I wanted to ask Doug questions about the University degree programs in arts administration and some of the issues that face that sub-sector of our field, and to get a better sense of how those issues impact the whole issue of professional development in the arts as well as other challenges we face.

Here then is the interview:
1.  Barry:  What have you learned in your tenure as the President of the Association of Arts Administration Educators? What are you optimistic about, and what gives you pause for concern, for the future of our university degree in arts administration programs?

Doug:  The most important lesson for me has been the true meaning of ours being a young field in academia. While Oxford, Cambridge, and their descendants have had centuries to figure out what an education in English or philosophy should include, we are only now, just more than forty years into the development of the field, even realizing how different our programs are.

Arts administration programs are unique in ways unheard of in more established disciplines. Because of the youth of the field, they reflect the personalities and interests of their individual founders, their home departments, and their institutions in ways completely foreign to, say, mathematics. And the youth of the field gives the administration of the host institutions (and their accrediting agencies) far more sway over content and faculty hiring/promotion decisions than is true in other disciplines.

Arts administration programs housed in business schools emphasize management and finance; those in arts programs emphasize understanding of the medium; others focus on marketing, research, community engagement, or policy. They are all arts administration programs, but they turn out graduates with very different areas of expertise. And I’ve not even touched upon the differences between graduate and undergraduate education.

This issue is complicated by the fact that arts administration is highly complex. I refer to it as the ultimate liberal arts discipline. It’s necessary to understand economics, finance, management, marketing, leadership–all of the traditional management tools/skills, but it’s also important to understand not-for-profit-specific areas (e.g., fund accounting, fundraising, volunteer management, board development), the art form and its history, sociology, politics and advocacy, ethics, and community organizing to name a few.

The fact that the practitioner field itself is not aware that it does not agree on what it wants in arts administrators does not help. I’ve spoken with numerous professionals who want “more” and “better” from arts administration graduates, but they do not know that they don’t agree on what they want “more and better.” Some want higher order finance skills, some board development, some advocacy, etc.

That said, what I’m proudest of at AAAE are the strides we have made in curriculum guidance. Almost a decade ago, we began developing a set of standards in a broad range of categories for graduate programs in arts administration. These were, necessarily, focused on what the vastly disparate member programs were offering. Round one was a set of graduate standards. Round two, completed in my first year as President, presented refinements of those and added a set of undergraduate standards. In these two phases, the work was in-house and available only to AAAE members. As we finalize the i-dotting and t-crossing of both, we are getting ready to make these public, institute a continuous-review process, and actively solicit field input in refinement and development of the standards. I know some may think that backwards (“Get field input first.”), but that would only work (from an “art of the possible” perspective) if we were beginning with no programs in place.

I am also pleased about the fact that we have made some progress in establishing links with the field in ways that are uncommon in academia. In my first year as President, I met with and discussed partnership possibilities with AAM, Americans for the Arts, Chorus America, Dance/USA, LAO, the NEA, OPERA America, and TCG. Out of those conversations, AAAE created its Research Advisory Council to act as liaison between the needs of the field and of academic institutions. It’s in its infancy and the wheels turn very slowly in academia, but I have high hopes there.

As for concerns? The vastly different perspectives, needs, and interests of academia and practitioners make working together difficult. There is mutual if not distrust then lack of understanding. You know, stereotypes of academics looking down on those outside the ivory tower and on-the-ground professionals disdaining “pointy-headed, head-in-the-clouds intellectuals.” The reality that I’ve seen on both sides does not, for the most part, bear out those perceptions, but the fact that they remain in people’s minds could derail efforts to work together or cause the inevitable delays in implementation to be seen as lack of commitment.

Another very practical concern is that, given the many things that could and should be done, AAAE is a small organization with one part-time staff person. The individual Board and committee members have demanding day jobs that make undertaking new initiatives a challenge.

2.  Barry:  Do you think the curriculum at these programs (both undergraduate and graduate) meet the challenges facing the next generation of leadership?  Besides the basics of nonprofit arts management (finance, fundraising, program design and oversight, marketing, board relations and the like) what broad areas do you think are currently underserved (for example:  is there sufficient preparation in public policy and advocacy, or in the more subtle management skills such as how to motivate employees, how to listen, how to communicate effectively, conflict resolution, organizational adaptability etc.)?   Are there standards for graduation requirements across all the programs and how are these standards monitored and determined?

Doug:  No curriculum can meet all the challenges. As I’ve said, AAAE has made major strides in articulating the areas that should be addressed, but there are many, many areas. The best to be hoped is that each program (undergraduate or graduate) will provide depth in a few and breadth by covering most.

This is the time, also, to articulate the role of our curriculum standards. AAAE is not an accrediting body. Even if some members and some outsiders might want it to be, the politics of academia preclude that at this time. AAAE’s curriculum standards are a statement of our best current understanding of what graduates of our programs should know and be able to do. The role of the standards is to serve as guidelines in program development, curricular improvement, and advocacy on the part of programs within their host departments and institutions. As for the on-going development of the standards, one of my last acts as President of AAAE will be to formalize standing committees to oversee constant review of the standards and to solicit field input into their content.

That said, if you take all our programs together, I would say there is no content area that is missed. In individual programs, the answer will likely depend on one’s point of view. I might say that some are woefully inadequate with respect to community engagement. I suspect from your perspective many are not up to snuff with respect to the practical, hands-on aspects of advocacy. In addition to the institutional constraints and individual preferences I’ve mentioned already, there is the constraint of what can be covered in how much depth in, for instance, a two year Master’s degree. I do believe that opening up the standards to feedback from the field will assist AAAE in determining, in general, which things need more emphasis and which less. Given that we are academic institutions, I suspect that we may need to devote a bit more time to nuts and bolts preparation (especially for our younger students) and somewhat less to theory.

3.  Barry:  Further to the above question: Are our university arts administration programs preparing their graduates to be more entrepreneurial, adaptive and innovative?    Are the base curriculum models mired in a too traditional, and arguably, outdated and antiquated approach?  In his keynote address to your organization's annual conference in 2010, Ben Cameron asked: "…does the present environment and the possibilities of innovation through applied research invite us to rethink our larger training - rethinking what we teach, with whom we teach, indeed what we are ultimately trying to instill?"

Ben went on to ask:  "In addition to teaching subscription theory, should we also teach voter registration and as paradigms of engaging public energies? While the internship at the nearby LORT theatre may be hugely valuable, can we entertain the notion that the more valuable experience may be with the political campaign, the sports complex, the environmental justice center? Should marketing and audience development be taught in tandem with social psychology? Should we insist that EVERY research project—including supporting of productions and marketing—be interdisciplinary, requiring students to engage their colleagues in econ, business schools, emerging technologies and more? What would happen if we too adopted the five-stage business development model in lieu of our training emphasis (which typically is based on only two steps—training and, if lucky, mentoring)? Do we dare prioritize post-graduation capital even at the cost of student aid? Indeed, might our primary goals be the cultivation of acute external awareness, deep curiosity, rigorous self-scrutiny and a deep abiding understanding of, and commitment to, risk? As training programs, can we promote to our students and model a vision of the arts that are firmly rooted in the world, rather than insulated from that world; that speaks with the world in dialogue, rather than to the world; that mirrors the same principles of nimbleness and openness, of innovation and curiosity that we may seek to impart?"   

Is that a dialogue your field has prioritized? What are your thoughts on Ben's inquiry?  Is Jim Undercofler's launch of a degree in arts entrepreneurship for Ithaca College an isolated, ground-breaking experiment or a trend in arts administration curriculum thinking?

Doug: There are a variety of important questions you are asking here. First, with respect to entrepreneurship, there is a good deal of discussion going on. Each of our last three conferences has had several sessions devoted to it. One of our Board members has volunteered to begin developing a curriculum standard addressing it. We have hope of partnering with some organizations advocating for entrepreneurship in academic programs (although our human resources for accomplishing that are limited). I am convinced that Jim’s proposed program at Ithaca College is at the vanguard of a real movement in the field.

Regarding your question about curricula that are “too traditional . . . outdated and antiquated,” we face a significant dilemma. To a large extent, our programs, especially the graduate ones, are judged by the success with which they place graduates in positions in established arts institutions. If those institutions do not truly value graduates with an entrepreneurial bent (and by “value,” I mean hire), it can be counter-productive for arts administration programs to place a significant emphasis on it. This does not mean they will not; it simply means that there could be risk to them in doing so. In spite of that, as I said above, this is a wave of the future for our programs.

As for Ben’s questions to us in 2010, AAAE has recently added a new curriculum standard in the area of community engagement. One of its functions is to foster the kind of awareness of and interaction with the broader community for which he was advocating.

4.  Barry: University degree in arts administration programs are an enormously valuable asset for our sector.  But are they underutilized?   Due to costs, scheduling and location isolation, by and large our university arts administration programs are unavailable to the majority of our current managers.  What role do you think these programs might play in the future (if any) in terms of the wider picture of addressing the professional development needs of our sector's managers?
5.  Follow-up: What movement is there in the arts educator field to offer access to its curriculum online, on demand - in whole or in part?

Doug:  Underutilized? From whose perspective? Over the last few years, perhaps due to the economy, we have had a big boost in graduate program enrollment. (While that may seem counter-intuitive, the downturn in employment has encouraged many to seek higher education.)

You are right, though, that a traditional in-residence degree is not an option for people with full-time jobs. Several member programs of AAAE have degree programs that are largely online, designed to accommodate the needs of working professionals. We began work on compiling a list of workshops and short-term training programs that may be of interest to those seeking continuing education in the field. That effort still needs work. It should be noted that our programs can be at the mercy of host institutions that discourage online offerings (a dwindling number to be sure) or non-degree opportunities.

I have spoken with some of the national arts service organizations about collaborating on professional development training. The idea was met with some enthusiasm (in some quarters). However, as with any collaborative effort, the time and energy required to pull off such partnerships can be daunting.

6.  Barry: Is there any data / research on the composition of the students enrolled in these programs - compiled in the aggregate?   I'm wondering whether or not there is proportional representation of multicultural groups in particular?  What is the field doing to ensure such representation for the future of an educated and trained arts leadership?  It wo uld also be informative to know the breakdown of enrollees as to gender, geographic hometowns, age etc.  Is that data available anywhere?

Doug:  I am not aware of significant quantities of the kind of research you describe. I would like to have access to it, but collecting and analyzing such data annually would require resources that AAAE simply does not possess right now. And our member programs are surveyed within an inch of their lives. This should probably be high on this list of things to do for AAAE in the near future. Unfortunately, that is a very long list.

With respect to your question about multicultural representation in our programs, on a purely anecdotal, observational level, the make-up of our student bodies appears to me to reflect, in large measure (except younger), the make-up of arts audiences: upper middle class, white, and female. While that’s a gross over-simplification, it’s an issue for the arts as an industry, not just the arts administration profession.

7.  Barry:  And speaking of research, what kinds of research (either that being done, or that which ought to be undertaken) do you see as essential for the future of the arts educator field?  What kinds of information and data does the field need that it does not have?

Doug: I should probably defer to our Research Advisory Council on this. The question is precisely why we established the group. This may be the time to point out that I am the first President of AAAE from an undergraduate program. (It’s not been too long since undergraduate programs were first allowed to be members.) Not only that, I am not a researcher. I’m a qualitative kind of guy with a background as an artist. I had to spend a bit of the first portion of my term assuring the members that while I was not a researcher I understood the value of it and wanted to be proactive in focusing on its role in our field.

8.  Barry:  Virtually all of these programs tout that graduates can expect to land prominent positions post graduation.  From your observations, is there a hiring bias in favor of those who have completed these kinds of programs over those without such training coming up from the ranks?  And is that a problem for our sector (i.e., will such a bias be an obstacle to recruitment and retention of those without such training coming into our field as they will perceive that upward advancement and promotion would be that much more difficult than it already is for them)?

Doug: Here again, research data would be extremely helpful. As the director of an undergraduate program, my perspective may not be too useful to this question. My graduate program colleagues tell me about the placement of their students (and I have observed it as well). I would say that the older the field gets, the more there is an expectation among arts organizations that their “hires” have some academic preparation. But here is yet another difficulty facing the field. Experience is vital; knowledge is crucial. (This is why there is an expectation in AAAE programs that students will have substantive field experience in some form or other.) How do you get both in the “correct” proportion? I think those doing the hiring today have an intuitive sense of a sliding scale between academic preparation and experience. Soon, if not already, a “zero” on either scale will likely be a deal breaker.

I truly believe that as the discipline of arts administration comes of age, some kind of academic preparation will be essential for placement. The days of the artist-turned-administrator (without any management training) are numbered, if not over. I don’t see that as a bad thing.  The field is complex and its relationship with society at large will become even more complicated as time goes by. The opportunity to understand the theory of the practice that education or training provide will be critical.

I’m not sure I fully understand your last question. If you mean that the need for education will discourage those without that education from entering the field, isn’t that true in any professional arena? If it’s a numbers question, we do have the issue that pay has not changed enough to keep up with the increasing need for professionalism.

9.  Barry:  As someone who has for a long time championed the idea that "engagement" at the community level is essential for the survival of arts organizations, what is your take on the current debate and dialogue on the topic of "engagement"?  While "engagement" is a hot-button issue for the field - is it similarly a front-burner topic within the curriculum of the nation's arts administration programs?  How do arts administration programs integrate this kind of thinking (or other current threads in marketing and other areas) into the courses they offer?

Doug:  As I have said (incessantly) on my blog, I am thrilled that engagement is on everyone’s lips. I am also terrified at the prospect of it becoming trivialized as a fad or as an attempted quick fix for fundraising or to increase ticket sales. (The latter simply will not work and the possible result would be the conclusion that engagement is not important or is ineffectual.)

When I first began attending AAAE conferences, I proposed a lunch table discussion dealing with the topic of engagement. Two people showed up (one by accident). Granted, one reason for that, although not the only one, was that I was new and totally unknown there. Today we have a curriculum standard addressing it and a number of our programs focus prominently on the issue. I am hopeful that the issue of the arts engaging substantively with the communities in which they work is now one with sufficient momentum to keep it in play along with (and more important, in support of) marketing, fundraising, and advocacy.

10.  Barry: What advice do you have for your successor of AAAE?

Doug:  (Thank you, thank you , thank you for asking this question. I might not have put this together otherwise.)
  • Remember how disparate our programs and their needs are. Serve as translator between them and an advocate for all.
  • Don’t try to do too much yourself. Use your energies to push forward (rather than implement) initiatives. Take advantage of the new blood in the Association to develop and carry out selected new programs.
  • See yourself as a liaison between the arts industry and the programs training those who will manage it. 
  • Facilitate dialogue. Seek out the industry. They are bigger than we are.
  • Remember that what we do has the ultimate purpose of connecting people with the arts.
  • Figure out how to do it all with (virtually) no money. 
Thank you Doug.

Have a great week.

Don't Quit.

Monday, March 19, 2012

Clout Blogfest - Arlene Goldbard wrap up

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

Here is Arlene Goldbard's Wrap Up to the Political Clout Blogfest:

I'm grateful to everyone who took part in this blogfest, here on my website and through their own blogs, and especially to my cohost, Barry Hessenius. It showed me that there is considerable energy and imagination to bring to questions of cultural policy and political power, and that this resource isn't being tapped enough to support the ongoing, vibrant dialogue that should be front and center in public discourse.

It also surprised me to be charged with excessive pessimism by two of the participating bloggers—Roberto Bedoya and Diane Ragsdale—as I usually field the opposite charge, having to deny being a mindless optimist (or an optimist at all, since I prefer to think of myself as an agnostic with her eyes open to enormous potential).

The blogfest made me realize that for me, this is not one topic, but three, and my thoughts and feelings about each are very different: (1) Cultural development: What is happening? What does it all mean?; (2) Public cultural policy and funding; and (3) What's needed now.

(1) Cultural development: What is happening? What does it all mean?

Every culture develops; the question is how. Many influences come to bear on the cultural landscape: technologies; changes in population; interventions by institutions and funders; and all of the forces that affect every social sector.

Here in the United States, we've seen remarkable changes in the past few decades, as digital technologies have expanded our capacities for artistic creation, dissemination, and interaction. Culture is now at the center of civil society to a much greater extent than at any time in our history. We conduct our national conversation about even the most crucial issues through music and media. Consider how much of our political discourse is now shared in video clips comprising performances of dialogue, music, and accompanying images. I get up to a dozen short movies every day via email from people who are trying to alert me to important issues and occurrences, or engage me in public campaigns. They are now our primary form of public discourse.

Nobody made this happen through the application of conscious strategy. But it is self-evidently the new cultural reality, and all indications are that it will grow and evolve for some time. I've written often about the ways scientific research is converging with what many of us know about art through lived experience: how artistic capabilities have been survival traits for the human species; how art can heal the mind and body; how culture can create the container for social healing; how movement, imagery, and music can help us access important cognitive functions and promote understanding far better than old-style dry data, by providing a human context for information and connecting ideas and emotions.

When a new reality emerges, not everyone perceives it. It takes some time to filter up and trickle down. The most important question is whether some of those who don't yet get the new reality are in a position to impede it. Right now, among those who don't yet understand the centrality of human creativity—especially artistic creativity—to life as it is now lived and to a sustainable future are many of the operators or our existing social institutions, including policymakers. They are still so strongly attached to an old mechanistic model of value that they simply cannot perceive what is otherwise evident everywhere.

Unfortunately, living as we are—camped out on the bridge between paradigms—those gatekeepers get in the way. But the signs are strong that it's only a matter of time. The public and nonprofit sectors tend to be behind the curve when it comes to social innovations. So right now, foundations and government agencies are particularly enraptured with metrics and benchmarks, insisting that numbers are the best language in which to convey value, even social value.

But take a look at the most exciting thought leaders in the business sector, and you will see something very different: a growing recognition that the obsession with metrics distorts perspective, pushing people to serve the numbers (the business equivalent of pervasive "teaching to the tests" we see in education); and that success is all about relationship, which is subtle, fluid, human, and subjective. Business thinkers are urging businesses to tell stories; to hire people with the skills of improvisation and imagination; to learn how to listen and cultivate connection; to privilege meaning over metrics. It only a matter of time before nonprofits and government catch up.

When they do, my guess is the first thing they'll see is that culture can no longer be neatly divided into for-profit/non-profit, nor into the traditional disciplines (this is dance, that is theater; this is painting, that is sculpture)—or rather, there is no point in insisting on all these boundaries unless you're a resource-provider who wants a convenient set of gates to keep. Culture is an ecology, as I perpetually insist, in which each element interacts with, supports, and influences the others. The sooner the guardians of our official policymaking see this, the better. It exhausts arts advocates to keep coming up with even halfway plausible arguments to rope off the subsidized arts from the commerical ones, and in their exhausted state, absurdities abound. You get advocates bemoaning the state of music, for instance, when music—considered as whole sphere, from community choirs to elementary music lessons to symphony orchestras t o Broadway musicals to salsa dances to jazz clubs to the top of the hip-hop charts and beyond—permeates practically every waking moment of almost every life. (Several guest bloggers alluded to this, including Diane Ragsdale, taking off from a framework proposed by Bill Ivey.)

(2) Public cultural policy and funding

But I don't want to wait around for that to happen in its own good time. Bureaucracy moves at a snail's pace, resisting anything that might disturb its well-worn rut. And the nonprofit and public sectors belong to the public, both literally and figuratively. We pay the taxes, grant the tax exemptions, elect the decisionmakers who employ the regulators. In return, we get institutions and agencies charged with responsibilities that the marketplace can never effectively perform: ensuring human rights; investing in social well-being through education, health, housing, conservation, culture, and other social goods; providing a buffer zone between the marketplace and the citizenry, so that those who lack power and privilege do not succumb to the war of each against all that is unbridled capitalism.

I applaud the DIY energy that Diane Ragsdale described in her blog, grounded in nonprofit sector resilience:

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).
But I can't just say, "Oh, well, that's going great, so let's leave government to the people who are now calling the tune and focus our attention elsewhere." Those window-opening wealthy individuals are a lot less thick on the ground for arts work in rural communities, low-income communities, immigrant communities, and communities of color, for one thing—and I don't want to live in a public culture shaped by a sort of social Darwinism that privileges the taste and clings to the comfort zone of wealthy donors. Of course, many artists and groups are resilient and resourceful in finding ways to stay afloat. But I can't help wanting to see what they could do if subsistence didn't take so much time from creative thinking and practice. Watch out, world!

Even more than that, it appalls and nauseates me that we have let this country become a wholly owned subsidary of Corporation Nation. I can't just sit blithely by while politicians fund the planet's largest prison system, subsidies for Big Oil, a war industry that every day makes living more dangerous and deadly, and tax breaks for the wealthiest, then stand with straight faces to say we can't afford decent education, healthcare, or the kind of cultural development investment that even the poorest nations typically make. The surrealism of that big lie, and evident ease with which so many people swallow it, indicate a cultural crisis of epic proportions. I know mine is a minority voice in holding the public sector to a full measure of public responsibility, but so what? On this, I know I am right, and some guest bloggers see it similarly, including Dudley Cocke:

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.

Roberto Bedoya said it well in his blog: "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."

Just so, Ra Joy and others advocate artists' involvement with civil society in its entirety:

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.

With artists and cultural organizations involved—as good cultural citizens—in the full range of public discourse and deliberation affecting their communities, support for cultural development also spreads across the public and non-profit sectors, rather than being sequestered to a few small arts agencies. Under Rocco Landesman, the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) has been moving this way, creating pilot partnerships with other agencies of federal government. This is a good beginning, but too often gets sidetracked by the arts agency being the weak partner, which ends up distorting democratic cultural values in favor of conforming to the language, values, and bureaucratic structures of the larger, stronger partner agencies. Ultimately, the public interest in cultural development has to be encompassed by a comprehensive cultural policy that mandates across-the-board involvement and cooperation. If a nd when that happens, it will be both top-down (a policy directive from some future White House) and bottom-up (the public sector finally integrating what has long been evident to many of its citizens).

(3) What's needed now

In my writing and public speaking, I've mentioned the NEA more in the last couple of years than during the two previous decades. Why?

It's because the agency's funding is such a rich and handy symbol for everything that's wrong with our current cultural policy and national advocacy. First, there's the absurdity of spending only 50 cents per capita on the public interest in art: 50 cents to balance the excesses of the marketplace, make space for marginalized voices, water the roots of creativity!?! Second, there's the fact that though the FY 2012 NEA appropriation is only $8 million less than FY 1980's $154 million (68 cents per capita), the real value of the appropriation has dropped by over 60 percent. In the same period, our spending on prisons and associated costs increased by 500 percent in constant dollars, more than a doubling of real value! (This chart only covers 1982-2007, but is still worth a glance.) Do you need the numbers to know that the story has been the same with respect to war (if you do, we're still spending more than two annual NEA budgets a day, seven days a week, on war), and on subsidies to Big Energy, Big Pharma, and Big Guns?

Who are we as a people? What do we stand for? How do we want to be remembered? Most advocates never mention our egregiously distorted national priorities when they drum up support for the NEA's appropriation. Most never mention that if they succeed in helping another $10 million to be restored to that appropriation, they will still be far less than halfway to securing even the paltry value of 1980's appropriation. I suspect that my feeling about these realities is the reason why a couple of bloggers felt I was too pessimistic.

That's why I talk about the NEA: I have the idea—perhaps mistaken—that the starkness of the contrast between conventional discourse and hard reality will help to awaken the urgent sense of cultural citizenship we need. Otherwise, sure: the agency is still minuscule compared either to its counterparts abroad or to the landscape of need and opportunity here in the U.S. Diane Ragsdale is ready to consider letting it go: "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?" Politically, I don't see much wisdom in jettisoning the NEA at a point when our national cultural policy dialogue is so anemic that its replacement is likely to be nothing. But neither is it the centerpiece of my vision for the future, as you will see below.

It isn't a lack of good ideas that keeps things stuck. Instead, I think it's three factors:

First, pervasive resignation to the status quo. This still allows for creativity in wiring around it, finding pathways to success that bypass a stultified system, as Diane Ragsdale pointed out, instead of trying to change it. But it keeps this conversation from enlarging to engage a much broader group of those who are affected (which is to say, everyone). I'd like to see a lot more people pointing out what our current spending says about public priorities, for instance, contrasting culture to incarceration, and demanding that change.

Second, too many artists and arts organization reps are hanging onto old barriers and boundaries within the cultural landscape. What do they get out of pretending there's some guarded frontier between not-for-profit land and Hollywood? A sense of specialness, often, that is some kind of compensation for feeling marginalized. The public has to be the main beneficiary for any good public policy. Stand down the border patrol and invite the public in.

Third, there's a puzzling resistance to articulating cultural goals that serve the entire body politic. We should adopt the overarching cultural policy goal of an active, engaged citizenry, participating in a rich public cultural life.
There are many private actors whose funding choices influence the cultural landscape: foundations, corporations, collectors, investors, and so on. They have no obligation to adopt public goals, or indeed, any conscious goals at all. Some are interested in publicity, some in beauty or innovation or prestige or the expression of personality or a hundred other things that can be pursued through art, and all of this is part of the landscape.

But the public sector should and must be shaped by the principle that there is a public interest in cultural development, that should be guided by democratic values of pluralism, participation, and equity (often summarized with the rubric "cultural democracy"). As distinct from private actors, our overarching public purpose should be to balance other forces, the ones that tend to consolidate cultural privilege, power, and wealth. It is an essential and uniquely public role, and most of the deficiencies on our own cultural landscape can be traced to the fact that we have abandoned it.

Instead, I propose four governing ideas that can sweep across the cultural landscape, sending ripples in all directions.

Encompass the whole landscape: If you look at the entire cultural landscape as an ecology, you see some parts that are very richly fed and others that need nourishment. The instant we begin to consider how they can be conjoined (the way everything in the forest, dead or alive, supports something else), ideas spring up for new revenue streams to underwrite cultural development. Some commenters on the blogfest proposed ways of doing this, such as a small tax on commercial events to subsidize noncommercial ones. My favorite is a tax on advertising to support new creation.

We have an excess of passive, capital-intensive entertainment, and limited exposure and accessibility to diverse voices: it should be a public goal to pursue balance; let's tax video games to support youth arts learning and participation.

We should adopt the goal of a vibrant, multi-directional media landscape. We have an excess of authoritative voices broadcasting from the center to the margins, and limited exposure and accessibility to other views of the world, other ways to tell the story; let's require commercial news and public affairs providers to tithe to a fund for independent media and community broadcasting. We should adopt the goal of full cultural citizenship. We have an excess of museums and public monuments enshrining a white-father view of U.S. history; let's support a much fuller story that acknowledges everyone's contributions to our common culture, not as an add-on during Black History Month, but all year round.

To implement this policy of cultural ecology and cultural democracy, we need a nuanced, decentralized system that stresses relationship over metrics, where multiple, diverse actors can collaborate or act independently, in a fluid dance of development that mirrors the process of art-making: skillful, experimental, story-based, humane, aware.

Total arts integration: We should push for artists and arts work to be an integral part of every public- and nonprofit-sector agency and activity. This is already beginning to happen organically in the private sector, with a few inroads into government and nonprofits. Education is better with teaching artists in every classroom; communications are better when artists are devising creative ways to place data in human contexts; health care is better when storytellers are part of every clinic and hospital intake process, helping patients to discover the roots of their own resilience and healing; and so on. Similarly, artists are functioning more and more as citizens, bringing their gifts to public forums, to organizing projects, and to street-level campaigns.

This is a snowballing phenomenon: everyone can work on it in any local, state, or national context, and the aggregate of all our efforts will shift the weight toward culture as the container for our national conversation about values, identity, democracy, and community. Right now, at the agency level, existing allocations for public information that no one reads and public hearing processes no one trusts can be repurposed for artists' work in community engagement. In future, a new public service employment program can create jobs for artists and creative organizers, helping to address our epidemic unemployment through investment in cultural development.

Give culture standing: In the first installment of this blogfest and elsewhere, I proposed a cultural impact report:

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.
Maybe that's the right device and maybe something else would be better, but however it is implemented, the goal is essential: to give culture standing in our public and private deliberations. Right now, there are grounds to stop a freeway or sports stadium from decimating a well-established community and shredding its cultural fabric: officials and regulators may discover an endangered species habitat, or run a cost-benefit analysis that calls the allocation into question. But there's no basis for taking cultural life per se into consideration. We've seen the results of ignoring it, such as neutron-bomb urban removal that creates downtown wastelands no one visits unless there's a stellar attraction at the shiny new peforming arts complex. Virtually every public and private action has cultural impact. Just imagine what would change for the better if we started taking it seriously.

Achieve cultural equity: This is a public-sector responsibility, to regard all members of our national community with the same respect, and to take action to remedy the structural racism and embedded privilege that have skewed cultural funding toward the haves. Everyone has the right to full cultural citizenship, the sense of belonging in one's own community, the sense that one's cultural contributions count, the unequivocal invitation to be an equal contributor in shaping cultural life. As I wrote in the first blog in this fest:

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!

Contending ideas are out there, but they don't get much play. Bill Ivey's Cultural Bill of Rights seems unobjectionable, but weak, in that it makes no reference to impediments to the right to culture: what about the right to a fair share of resources, and the right to remedial action to balance the embedded racism and sexism of past allocations? What about the right for communities' cultural fabric to be considered in policy decisions and allocations affecting it? In 2009, I was part of a group that suggested an alternate framework, which still seems sound to me, although it does not encompass a complete range of policy issues. At her Creative Infrastructure blog, Linda Essig proposes four priorities for public funding.

These are not special pleading for artists, but broad public-benefit policies that incorporate acknowledgement and support for the public interest in art and artists. Culture precedes politics, as my friend Jeff Chang is fond of saying. By the time new laws and appropriations happen, innovations are embedded across the cultural landscape. The next step to real political clout? Democratic ideas of culture need to be in much, much wider circulation: written about, debated, blogged about, filmed, sung, danced, and staged, feeding the rich soil in which cultural democracy can take root.

Thanks to everyone who took part in this iteration of the needed conversation, "Clout: A Blogfest on Art & Political Power." Can't wait to see what's next!

Clout Blogfest Wrap Up

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

While this limited dialogue may not be representative of the whole field, in reviewing the entries by Roberto Bedoya, Diane Ragsdale, Ra Joy and Dudley Cocke, plus the comments from readers here at and Arlene's blogsite, I am left with several impressions:

1.  There simply is no consensus on what approach "advocacy" and the development of real political clout for us ought to take.  We are all over the map without focus and a united front. It would seem we remain unable to, or even incapable of, agreeing on a conceptual context for how we ought to approach the development of political power (or even if we should), and how that power might be best obtained, managed and manifested.  I suppose it's hard to agree on how to fight for who and what we are, when we haven't yet agreed on who and what we are about.  Power is about leveraging strengths and consensus.
That's a problem for us.

2.  Within the various threads of what might be the best approach, there seems to be an overarching exclusivity bias.  Those who think we ought to take this or that approach, seem not to want to embrace any other approach.  While as Roberto pointed out what works in one place at one time, might not work in another place at another time (and one is reminded of former House Speaker Tip O'Neil's famous maxim:  "All politics is local"), what I continue to argue for is a quiver with lots of arrows in it, and we don't seem to agree on that need.  As Arlene pointed out there are two principal means to exercise real clout -- either by amassing people power by organizing volunteer, grassroots foot soldiers to carry the message forward and demonstrate an active and concerned constituency (whether the result of a true 'movement' or otherwise), or a deep pockets war chest to buy the best lobbying effort one can afford.  Most special interest groups don't have even the potential to develop both people and money.  We do.  So why does if have to be one or the other?  The most powerful and arguably successful group with real political clout in the  country is the NRA - and they combine a highly organized and sophisticated army of volunteers ever at the ready to fight for their agenda, with a successful fund raising apparatus to pay for that organization and one of the better federal and state lobbying efforts.  It remains a mystery to me why anyone would opt for one at the exclusion of the other.
This too is a problem for us

3.  As several people pointed out, we have thus far failed to develop any successful strategy or process to involve artists in the advocacy matrix.  We remain without one of our very likely most promising and powerful assets in the failure to organize and mobilize the vast number of artists in this country.  Unquestionably this is a major challenge and obviously (given our lack of progress in this area) one that is daunting.
That is a continuing problem for us.

Some other reactions:
1.  If I inadvertently created the impression by echoing Arlene's Oliver Twist observation that I thought our advocacy work is characterized by the 'bleakness' Roberto points out - then I want to correct that. While I am continually disappointed by our advocacy work, and often frustrated by our failure to move towards political power and clout, I don't consider this work to be 'bleak".   I am buoyed by and deeply appreciative of the dedication, passion, and hard work of the many who fight the good fight.  I heartedly endorse the kind of action Roberto cites in having artists "testify" via their art to secure local City Council support, and equally applaud his efforts at enlisting effective coalitions to support the arts agenda.  My position is that we might not have to continually have that fight if we had more effective political clout via the access and power one gets by amassing money, and that all of this goes hand in hand.  Many arrows in the quiver - none at the exclusion of any other.

2.  Further to Roberto's analysis of the past and current culture wars, I have a different take on that.  In large part what we call the culture wars have little to do with the arts.  Rather they were principally a fund raising tool by the radical right.  Nothing works so well for that element than to raise the specter of gays and pornography and that is precisely why they zeroed in on Mapplethorpe.  We have to be more sophisticated I think in understanding why our enemies attack us.  It is a conceit and far too easy to think that we are always actually the target.  Often times we are simply the "easy" means to a greater end.  Those who ply power in the political arena are almost never one-dimensional, nor are they unsophisticated.  We underestimate what we are up against by thinking too simplistic about what our opponents do.

3.  I disagree with Diane's opening two paragraphs.  I believe the vast majority of arts organizations do indeed want more government support (and every other kind of support they can get), and that our failure to get it is precisely because we lack the clout necessary to compete in the lobbying marketplace.     I do agree with her that we lack the will to do what is necessary to get that power - and the chief problem there is that it takes time, people and money to organize on that level.  Yes, we pride ourselves on our resilience and that we are survivors - perhaps fooling ourselves in the process that our ineptitude is a good thing. We are reactive, not proactive. Again, I don't see that the failure to secure more government support opening other doors necessarily means those doors might not open anyway (with government support), and I honestly believe fundraising too ought to have every arrow in the quiver that might be helpful.

I don't know if Diane's postulation that the arts may be consciously (or subconsciously) shunning the tactics I espouse because it is ambivalent about the benefits of public funding is correct or not. My gut tells me she is wrong.  But perhaps she is right.  If she is, I think that is unfortunate for us.  And I think it a mistake to characterize the reason for being political as only related to funding.  There are all kinds of government decisions that impact we artists and arts organizations do.  I do think she is right in asserting that some of the larger institutions in our field perceive there is little for them to gain outside their efforts to work the system for their own direct advantage. Arlene made the same point. Territoriality and "in it for ourselves". I have seen this over and over again.  I think that situation is also tragic for us.  If we can't somehow see that we are all in this together, then it will very likely always be that we are divided and the development of real political power will remain axiomatically difficult, if not impossible.

4.  To Diane's query:  "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?" I can only echo:  When indeed?  (And I would also point out that the overwhelming lion's share of government support for the arts isn't at the federal NEA level - it is local money - and so it is a mistake to characterize the need for political clout to be about the endowment.  It is only partly about federal funding.  It is much more about local funding - that's where the real money is.)

5.  I have long agreed with Bill Ivey's assessment and analysis and Diane's thinking that we need to reframe cultural support in terms of "citizenry". The challenge is how to go about addressing that challenge - and alas it seems to this reporter that we have made precious little progress since Bill's thoughts first surfaced some years ago.  How is the real question that we seem never to get to.

Finally, Diane's thinking on a new role for federal support and questioning whether or not the NEA might better be reconstituted is something I have wondered myself for a long time.  Though I suspect my priorities for the agency (spending more money, time and effort on improving the ability of the field to succeed (the sustainability, capacity building aims we are all too familiar with by now) in doing such things as convening more national summits to address such issues as the development of a national arts policy, exploring a national data policy, addressing the need of the field for professional development, etc. etc. etc.) is different from hers and likely different from other people's thinking too.   I don't want to be glib in commenting on Diane's thinking, so I need more time to think about the very important issues she raises.  I had hoped that last year's multi week blogfest on the NEA would raise the issue of whether or not the agency ought to be re-thought from top to bottom, but it never did.  As 40% of the agency's budget goes to the states on a per capita basis, I suspect there is an entrenched group that would not want to entertain any rethinking that would threaten that revenue stream unless their interests were protected.  There are a host of other problems with reinventing the agency including the reality that in Washington DC it is hard to replace something with something new.

6.  With respect to my esteemed colleague (and I personally think one of the best advocates the arts have in America) Ra Joy's thoughts, again I would argue for both people power and money power to go hand in hand (ala the NRA).  Please folks let's learn something from the NRA - we have the same potential power to raise both a foot soldier citizen army and a huge war chest (as I have previously suggested if every performing arts organization and museum in the country were to hold one benefit performance or exhibit - the proceeds of which went to fund advocacy / lobbying and the development of political clout - every two years (just one), we could raise millions and millions of dollars.)  And we can do it within our own resources without recourse to having to necessarily mobilize and incentivize the wider public.  We control our own destiny.  Again it would take far less than most people think it would take to garner some real political clout.  Alas, it would seem Arlene is right - the passion and commitment to do that don't seem to be there.

7.  There is no bigger fan than I for what Bob Lynch, Nina Ozlu Tunceli and the whole AFTA team has done with the Arts Action Fund and building an effective state advocacy network - but I wait patiently for that network to spearhead an effort to create local Action Fund PACs on the state level.  And the fact is that once a year arts advocacy days, at either the national or state level, while valuable, are hardly enough.  Advocacy is a 24/7/365 job and we need a far more sophisticated network than what we have and the only way to develop that network is to pay for it. It cannot be a wholly volunteer effort.  And you don't build relationships with a once a year visit.  Sorry that's the fact.

I like Ra's thinking on developing the arts as center hubs for democracy, and I think his specific suggestions are excellent ("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."  - and I might add we should run arts people for public office.)   And as to Ra's idea that:  "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." I can only agree wholeheartedly.   But that will cost money.  THAT is the kind of thing I think the NEA ought to be doing.

8.  Dudley Cocke, I think accurately asks the bigger question when he observes:   "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?"

I don't know Dudley how the wider society (let alone us) will deal with that issue - which is not new to the world.  I only know that in terms of political power and clout those with money carry a big stick, and the daily grind of trying to defend one's position, let alone move forward, is a slow, laborious step by daily step process fought in the trenches and those that aren't engaged in those small battles invariably lose the war.  We are only peripherally engaged in those battles.

9. Finally, I hope somehow the movement Arlene dreams of takes off.  Again, far greater minds than mine will have to weigh in about how to make that happen.

I am very grateful to our four participants in this small experiment of Arlene's and mine and want to thank them and those who took time to comment for adding to the dialogue. I am humbled to be in their company. I especially want to thank Arlene.  I hope somehow we can figure out how to move this discussion forward on a larger stage than the isolated, piecemeal private conversations that pass as our attempt to develop some real policy on political power.  And I hope that somehow we can soon begin to answer the question; "How" - specifically how do we make some of these things happen?  

I will post Arlene Goldbard's final wrap up tomorrow.
Have a great week.

Don't Quit.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Good morning.
"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.

Roberto Bedoya

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!”

In community,


Diane Ragsdale

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.

Ra Joy:

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.  

Dudley Cocke:

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?

Don't Quit.

Sunday, March 11, 2012

Blog Fest on Political Clout and Power

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

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 Development of Political Clout and Power:
Arlene Goldbard: The last 30-plus years of arts advocacy remind me of a scene from Oliver Twist: “Please sir, can I have a little more?” Instead of making demands, asserting rights, or exercising clout, advocates tend to act grateful that they weren’t cut more. Often, even the advocacy strategy is minimizing: Look how much we do with so little; we hardly cost anything, and you’re spending lots more on other stuff. Give us a little!
Even the idea of “arts advocacy” is problematic. “The arts” is a funny, abstract category that lumps apples, oranges, mangoes and watermelons. No matter how much most people love music or dance, for instance, they tend not to speak of “the arts” or think of themselves as included when “the arts” are invoked. If it means anything to people who don’t work in the field, it conjures marble palaces and velvet curtains, places they know or imagine to be unwelcoming. Instead, they like music or dance, they write poems or make photographs. That doesn’t reduce their capacity for beauty and meaning. It just means they call things by their true names. Why don’t we?

Many of the things I care about—rural cultural development, cultural equity—really aren’t part of the “mainstream” arts advocacy conversation. Within that conversation, there are few meaningful, functioning alliances with people in other fields who could be allies (and vice versa). There’s almost no discussion of the public interest in culture. 

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.

Don't Quit.