Monday, March 5, 2018

Interview with Pam Breaux, President and CEO, National Assembly of State Arts Agencies

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

Pam Breaux Bio:
Pam joined the National Assembly of State Arts Agencies (NASAA) in 2015 as president and CEO.  A native of Lafayette, Louisiana, Pam has held leadership positions at the local, state and national levels. While in Louisiana state government, she was secretary of the Louisiana Department of Culture, Recreation and Tourism (CRT), assistant secretary of CRT (overseeing its cultural development portfolio), and executive director of its state arts agency (the Louisiana Division of the Arts). During her time at CRT, Pam developed and led Louisiana’s cultural economy initiative and spearheaded the successful UNESCO inscription of Poverty Point State Historic Site (an ancient Indian site) as a World Heritage site.

Before working in state government, Pam was executive director of the Arts and Humanities Council of Southwest Louisiana and managed southwest Louisiana’s Decentralized Arts Funding Program. She has served on the boards of the U.S. Travel Association, NASAA, South Arts and the Louisiana Board of International Commerce. Pam is currently a member of the U.S. National Commission on UNESCO. She graduated from McNeese State University with a B.A. in English and earned an M.A. in English and folklore from the University of Louisiana at Lafayette.

Here is the interview:

Barry:  You’ve now been at the helm of NASAA over a year.  What is different about the job from what you expected?

Pam:  When I walked through the doors of NASAA’s offices in July 2015, I expected we’d chart a new course toward NASAA’s future and the future of state arts agencies.  I’m incredibly pleased that we’ve charted that course, and it’s now manifested in NASAA’s strategic plan; it was ratified by members in the fall.  What I didn’t expect was for the political tide to shift so abruptly (after the 2016 elections) that we’d soon be fighting a serious attempt to eliminate the National Endowment for the Arts.  We now know that last year’s work by many strong advocates, NASAA and members of Congress prevented the NEA’s elimination.  Congress demonstrated that it values the NEA and other federal cultural agencies, and their commitment to these important agencies will be the reason we survive the newest elimination attempt by the administration.  On a productive note, developing NASAA’s new strategic plan while facing an elimination attempt positioned us and our new plan to more effectively respond to new political realities.  Our plan and our advocacy work are stronger, and the climate demands it.

Barry:  Assess the current status of funding for state arts agencies, how the challenges of preventing cuts and increasing support are effectively being addressed and what can be done to make it a more reliable, steady and meaningful cash stream into the future across all states?

Pam:  Overall, state governments invest $357.5 million in state arts agencies; that represents about $1.08 per capita.  During fiscal year 2018, legislative appropriations to state arts agencies decreased by 2.4%; yet, there are distinctions among the states.  Twenty-two state arts agencies reported increases in 2018; fifteen reported flat funding, and nineteen reported decreases (50 states and 6 jurisdictions total).  The most significant revenue challenge faced by state arts agencies is that they’re inextricably linked to fluctuations in state tax coffers.  The Great Recession of 2007-09 hit state government budgets especially hard; it forced significant reductions in state spending and services.  Even as the broader economy is expanding and getting back on track, state government recovery has lagged.  As state governments struggle with revenue challenges, state arts agencies (and all state agencies) endure that same struggle.

Historically, state general fund dollars have provided the largest funding source for state arts agencies.  Legislatures also use a mix of strategies to provide public support for the arts and state arts agencies.  Those strategies include, but are not limited to, dedicated revenues, special taxes and fees, specialty arts license plates, income tax check-offs, and more.  Adding to those legislatively enabled strategies, state arts agencies have also developed partnerships with public and private collaborators that allow them to extend their reach, resources and services.  Arizona Commission on the Arts, for example, developed AZ Creative Aging with funding from Virginia G. Piper Charitable Trust, to enhance quality of life for older Arizonans.  With an eye toward addressing the needs of veterans, Oklahoma Arts Council developed a partnership with the Oklahoma Department of Veterans Affairs to engage veterans through creative expression.  A longer-term strategy was developed in Minnesota, where a 25-year amendment to the state constitution provided resources to develop the Minnesota Arts and Cultural Heritage Fund, dedicated to preserving the state’s historic and cultural heritage.

Individual state challenges and opportunities are unique to the assets and policy environments within each state.  Paving the road to steady and meaningful cash streams for state arts agencies can’t be undertaken in globo because no single strategy fits all.  State by state, mining the opportunities that fit can best pave the way to develop short-term and long-term revenue streams for state arts agencies.

Barry:  Apart from funding, what are the principal issues facing today’s state arts agencies?

Pam:  As demographic, political and economic changes reshape our country, they also reshape the landscape for state arts agencies.  Further, as artists and the arts move into the future, traditional assumptions about how administrators define, support and fund the arts must change to meet a new day.  Key issues facing today’s state arts agencies also include:

Supporting a meaningful role for the arts in the innovation economy
Advancing diversity, equity and inclusion in providing resources and services
Diversifying revenue streams for state arts agencies
Creating new systems of support for the arts
Developing multi-sector partnerships
Navigating a changing national and state policy environment

Barry:  Not every state has a working, viable arts advocacy infrastructure.  What is being done to remedy that situation and what is the role of NASAA in that process?

Pam:  The State Arts Action Network, a part of Americans for the Arts, is currently made up of 42 states/jurisdictions.  As a support network for arts advocacy, they work toward effective advocacy infrastructure in every state.  Americans for the Arts is the best place to get information about their support of state arts advocacy.  NASAA also plays a role in in the state arts advocacy realm.  In service to state arts agencies, we create and distribute reliable research and data, case-making tools, state policy publications and advocacy guidance documents.  Further, we provide counsel and presentations to state arts agencies and advocates as requested.  During last year’s threats to the National Endowment for the Arts, our work expanded greatly, as we, in real time, provided guidance to help state arts agencies and advocates defend the value of public investments in the arts as well as debunk erroneous assertions about those investments.

Barry:  You recently raised the issue of SAA leaders being prepared in the area of crisis response, noting that state agencies are no strangers to having to confront controversy and criticism.  What are the fundamentals of being prepared to respond to crises?

Pam:  Not every controversy becomes a crisis, but being ready for both are important.  With respect to controversies, making smart readiness choices today can help an agency navigate a future controversy and even mitigate it.  Last year SAA leaders experienced crises and controversy, and that was NASAA’s cue to prepare them to manage both.  To prepare for controversies, an agency should:

Build its reputation as a trusted source—establishing media relationships and a track record of providing facts and expertise will pay dividends when controversy strikes.
Establish monitoring systems—keeping track of public conversations about the arts will reduce chances of being caught off guard.  Agencies should monitor mainstream media and social media through automated news alerts to stay on the pulse of arts discourse.
Establish a fact-based narrative about the impact of the arts—regularly shining a light on how people benefit from the arts helps agencies be transparent and accountable, as well as ready to provide the broader context and benefits of public arts funding when controversy happens.
Draft a crisis communications plan—having a playbook ready when controversy strikes ensures that actions are thorough and effective.

A controversy becomes a crisis when communications about the issue become chaotic or people become politically polarized.  Artists, organizations and funders can be at risk and subject to harassment.  To prepare for communications crises, agencies should:

Establish a crisis advisors team—know who to call to help work through the problem.
Identify possible crisis scenarios—we can predict some potential crises; identifying them and gaming them out in advance is smart.
Rehearse the scenarios—since dealing with a crisis is never comfortable, developing model responses in advance (not under duress) will make life easier.  Assume that model responses would need to be adjusted to meet unique situations.
Train spokespeople—authorize spokespeople in advance and make sure they’re trained to be effective.
Compile key contacts—have critical information at the ready because crises are often rapid and chaotic with little time to spare.

Deeper guidance on this subject is available through NASAA’s Communicating about Arts Controversies, published on our website.

Barry:  There has been a slow, but steady turnover of state arts leaders over the past decade, with boomers retiring.  The field doesn’t look anything like it did a decade ago.  What, if anything, might NASAA do to help preserve the institutional memory of all those SAA leaders who have been, and currently are, retiring from the field?

Pam:  You’re right, Barry.  State arts agency executive directors have turned over significantly during the past decade and a great deal during the past five years.  Fortunately, NASAA’s reservoir of information and institutional knowledge is deep.  For example, every time a state arts agency staff or board members requests information or counsel from NASAA, the request and response are catalogued.  This information is used in many ways, including providing training and counsel to new members.  In addition, NASAA’s boot camp for new executive directors positions them to build a framework for leading state arts agencies.  Our most recent boot camp was held just last week, and there’s smart, new energy moving into SAA leadership posts.  NASAA will also soon release an online portal to share years of state arts agency best practices from across the country.  In everything we do we work to bring the experiences, lessons and successes of individual state arts agencies to benefit all 56 states and jurisdictions.  That blend of services is how NASAA approaches maintaining institutional memory for individual SAAs and the collective.

Barry:  How can the field better prepare state arts agency leaders to face the challenges they face today and be more effective leaders?   What are the most important skills that new state arts agency leaders need not just to survive, but to thrive?

Pam:  In addition to the strategies already mentioned, NASAA is focused on smartly designing Leadership Institutes for top state arts agency leaders, including executive directors, deputy directors, commissioners, chairs and council members. These conference agendas address high level policy and public arts management issues and trends.  For example, the Institute convened this past fall included sessions on building public will, government agency transformation, crisis leadership and effective case making in an era of political polarization.  As NASAA continues to improve professional development opportunities for leaders, we work to strike a balance between equipping them with skills to face today’s challenges as well as preparing them for a new tomorrow.

As you’ve suggested, there are important skills that new state arts agency leaders need to thrive.  Some of those skills include:

Political acumen—understanding and navigating the authorizing environment is key to being an effective champion for the arts and the state arts agency.
Focus on public benefits—recognizing that the primary stakeholders for state arts agencies are the people of the state is fundamental to leading any public agency.  Aligning the arts and agency resources to serve the needs of the entire state is critical.
Change management skills—initiating and responding to change is central to leadership.  As the demographic, political and economic environments around us change, state arts agency leaders must manage change strategically and with an eye toward expanding opportunities.
Innovation IQ—incorporating innovation and creativity in the design and delivery of programs and services is essential when navigating challenging times as well as times of great opportunity.

In addition to these skills, it’s helpful to possess government, communications and arts expertise, as well as financial and operational acumen.  Having been a state arts agency executive director (2001-2004), I can attest that these are tough jobs, and they’re deeply rewarding too.

Barry:  The RAO (Regional Arts Organizations - e.g., WESTAF) seem to all operate independently - not only of each other, but with only minimal intersections (either individually or as a group) with the NEA, NASAA or other national organizations.  Should NASAA take a more proactive role in building those intersections and in facilitating more communication and collaboration?  What might that kind of effort look like?

Pam:  I’m pleased to share that NASAA and the Regional Arts Organizations are meeting regularly to share information and explore opportunities to collaborate.  For example, we have committed to joining forces (NASAA and the appropriate RAO) when a state arts agency is facing a significant challenge.  Together we can bring all our resources to bear in being of service to a state arts agency in need.  Together we’re a stronger support system when states need us most.  Looking forward, NASAA is committed to ongoing communication and collaboration with the RAOs.

Barry:  A long time ago, the idea was floated that one way to make the NEA more appealing to Congress would be to increase the (then 15% - currently 40%) share allocated from the NEA budget to the states and the RAOs on a per capita basis under the theory that then more of the funds would be available to be distributed according to each state’s self-determined needs.  Is that theory worth pushing today, whether in response to new attempts to eliminate the Endowment entirely, or wholly apart from that challenge simply on its own merits?

Pam:  NASAA is committed to advocating on behalf of the NEA, keeping the agency whole and maintaining the federal-state partnership in its current form.  A strong NEA and strong state arts agencies are critical for the arts ecosystem.  Together, the NEA and states support 23,000 grants in 5,000 communities across the United States.  We support rural, urban and suburban communities that span every state and congressional district.

It’s also important to remember that a strong NEA should maintain a robust grantmaking portfolio and a strategic leadership role.  With respect to grantmaking, arts organizations and communities across the country benefit from receiving an NEA grant in two ways: (1) the money is needed and it fuels activity, and (2) the national/federal award leverages additional investments.  That currency shouldn’t be diminished.  With respect to its leadership role, the NEA can accomplish vital initiatives that no one state or local organization can accomplish independently.  For example, the NEA partnered with the US Department of Education over 20 years ago to develop the Arts Education Partnership.  Still serving the field, AEP continues to be pivotal for the arts education profession and policies surrounding it.  Creative Forces is a more recent example.  As a federal agency, the NEA shaped a partnership with the US Department of Defense.  That partnership piloted important models of arts healing for military personnel, and now that model is expanding to states.  There are many examples of initiatives created by the NEA that have shaped our field and advanced it (creative placemaking, Bureau of Economic Analysis partnership, et al).  For these reasons, diminishing the agency’s capacity just doesn’t make sense.

On a final note, many people don’t realize one of the most important aspects of the NEA’s federal-state partnership.  Many within our network already know that 40% of the NEA’s grants go to states and regions; that’s an important part of ensuring arts support all across the country.  What’s largely unknown about the partnership is that the dollars are designated for state needs, not federal mandates.  This is basically unprecedented within federal systems, where federal dollars usually go to meet federal goals.  The NEA’s enlightened approach to serving states ensures that federal dollars meet needs determined within states.  This is a strong model, and by extension, a strong partnership.

Barry:  NASAA has always had a solid relationship with both the NEA and AFTA.  Both of those organizations are now 50 years old and have changed over the years.  As each of those organizations may be getting near to their own re-invention and nearing their own 2.0 versions, what might be the relationship between each of them and a re-imagined NASAA 2.0?

Pam:  What a great question!  I won’t get out too far ahead of having those conversations directly with the NEA and AFTA.  In the spirit of offering a little inspiration for those discussions, I’ll make a couple of comments.   With respect to the NEA, it would be worthwhile to collaborate on several issues germane to advancing the arts field.  For example, as a community of public grant makers in the arts (federal and state), it would be interesting to explore how grantmaking structures can be modified or transformed to address the changing nature and needs of artmaking.  On a separate note, we could also explore how to improve or reinvent those structures to advance equity within our grantmaking portfolios.  Both issues are critical for the future.  NASAA also has a long history of collaborations with AFTA.  In fact, during ongoing discussions, our organizations have committed to exploring what collaborative efforts might come next.  Whether we deepen our joint work in advocacy or embark upon something else programmatic…you’ll have to stay tuned.

Barry:  Some people think research, data collection, the power of convening, making the case for public value, professional development and other functions are more important to the field than grant making and that the NEA ought to move in that direction away from grants to arts organizations.  What is NASAA’s position on that approach?  And if neutral or opposed, where might the field look for funding for more convenings, more public case making, more professional development, more advocacy training?

Pam:  I don’t think we have a zero-sum game here.  The NEA’s grantmaking portfolio is important and leveraging project funding across the country.  At the same time, the NEA and numerous national arts service organizations, including NASAA, are engaged in many of the worthwhile activities you’ve cited.  Let’s take research, for example.  The NEA’s research portfolio has blossomed during the last ten years, and it’s fueling dynamic partnerships and programs.  Biased I may be, I can also confirm that NASAA’s research portfolio has expanded and is stronger than ever, fueling smarter practices at state arts agencies.  At the same time, there’s more work to be done in these areas: research, convening, professional development and case-making.  I think it would be productive to conduct a gap analysis of the development and distribution of these services across the national and federal arts service community.  NASAA and the NEA aren’t the only entities working on these issues; many national arts service organizations do this work too.  If we get to the heart of which services are adequately provided and where the gaps in service may exist, we can also have a national arts service conversation about how to be efficient and effective in providing services and filling gaps.

Barry:  GIA has succeeded in recruiting and making a part of their framework the public arts agencies, including, principally the SAA’s.  How has NASAA moved to facilitate that expansion and what new crossroads and intersections has that expansion opened the door to for NASAA members?

Pam:  NASAA, too, is a member of GIA, and I’m delighted that so many state arts agencies have joined.  Our country needs public and private investors in the arts, and it’s important for this full field of arts funders to connect to each other.  Private and public arts funders are largely distinct in the benefits they provide.  Private-sector investments provide capital for major endeavors; they also nurture experimental work, and arts professionals are stronger because of their efforts.  Public investments serve the public interest, are driven by citizens and reach all states and districts; people all across the country benefit from public sector investments, and that enriches communities large and small.

At GIA, public and private grant makers have the opportunity to communicate and learn from each other.  Public and private grantmaking practices are strengthened as a result.  Public and private funders are also collaborating on shared goals.  Earlier I referenced the Arizona Creative Aging program, serving the needs of older Arizonans through a public-private partnership.  It’s a productive collaboration for both funders.  Based on my own post-Katrina experiences in Louisiana, I can personally attest to the power of public-private grant maker collaborations after a disaster.  Our team facilitated and assisted a number of private arts grant makers make a critical difference for artists who needed assistance after the storm.  Public and private grant maker goals were achieved, but most important, many artists and organizations were provided resources that helped them get back to business.  

NASAA is supportive of state arts agency involvement in the broader arts grantmaking community.  We’re also proud of our past and current work with GIA, which includes contributing expertise and information to arts research initiatives.  As GIA moves forward with new leadership and energy, we at NASAA look forward to remaining connected and exploring new ideas to advance arts grantmaking.

Barry:  One of the most visible of NASAA’s research reports is the annual survey of state arts agency funding.  The results invariably show a wide divergence between the top tier states and those nearer the bottom.  Moreover, there is constant fluctuation and movement within the 50 states.  Should there be a campaign for a baseline minimal funding level for every state as the goal - say a minimum of one dollar per capita - and how might that kind of campaign be launched and pursued?

Pam:  NASAA’s new report on state arts agency appropriations was just published, and your readers are encouraged to check it out.   It’s important to remember that states are not monolithic entities.  Their policy and budget challenges and opportunities are unique to each state.  As I referenced earlier, state government revenues were hit hard by the recession and their recoveries are lagging.  In fact, the recession is the reason states experienced their worst fiscal conditions since World War II.

Since state revenue health is a large factor in determining state arts agency appropriations, and state budgets are enduring unique challenges, there’s not a single strategy or campaign that would work for all states.  A campaign that’s successful in one state might completely backfire in another.  Challenges aside, and state by state, I certainly believe that national service providers can equip state advocates with the tools they need to champion an arts funding goal that’s customized for their state.  Smart timing and a customized approach for each state would be essential.

Barry:  Where do you see the SAA’s and NASAA in ten years?   What will be different?

Pam:  In ten years I believe that state arts agencies will have transformed their programs and services to respond to a greatly changed arts field.  As the arts and communities move forward, so must the structures that support them.  I also believe that in ten years SAA work with arts organizations and citizens will have significantly heightened community engagement in the arts.  I’m also confident that state arts agencies will have meaningfully advanced diversity, equity and inclusion within their grantmaking portfolios and across all services and programs.  Having helped SAAs achieve these successes within ten years, NASAA will be charting the course for SAA success for the following ten years.

Barry:  What has been (and is) the role of SAA’s (and NASAA’s support) in the area of equity and addressing systemic racism in our field?  Assess progress so far.

Pam:  NASAA has made addressing diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) central to its work.  As you’ll see in our policy statement, we have committed to advancing DEI in policies, programs and practices at NASAA and at SAAs; this includes advancing equity in SAA grantmaking portfolios.  Our commitment calls for our ongoing reflection and action, and we track our related activities publicly for SAAs to access easily.  

Our DEI policy charges us to “empower SAAs to uphold diversity, equity and inclusion in their policies, practices and programs, including, but not limited to, equitable funding practices.” Here are three of the ways NASAA is meeting this goal in 2018:
» The “Visualizing Grant Diversity: The Demographics of SAA Grants” project is off to a great start, with more than twenty SAAs that have already participated a customized demographics-in-grant-making consultation.  These consultations and tools help SAAs see their grants activities and populations served in alignment with state demographics by county that include household income, poverty rates, populations of color and populations with disabilities.  SAAs can also observe populations benefitted by race/ethnicity, age, individuals with disabilities, individuals in institutions, individuals below the poverty line, individuals with limited English proficiency, military veterans and active duty personnel and youth at risk.  Understanding grants distribution in alignment with populations served is a fundamental step in addressing equity, and we look forward to continuing these consultations with SAAs.
» Later this fiscal year, we’ll develop and distribute a new self-assessment tool to help SAAs diagnose equity and bias in grant-making practices.
» NASAA Treasurer and South Carolina Arts Commission Executive Director Ken May and I are participating in a national steering committee dedicated to exploring and disseminating best practices in advancing equity in the work of arts grants panels.  We look forward to sharing what we learn with SAAs.
Admittedly, there is much work to be done to advance diversity, equity and inclusion in our field.  NASAA is committed to empowering state arts agencies to significantly move the needle.  Inspiring, informing and equipping SAAs to advance their practices in DEI can and will have a tremendous impact across the country, and that’s why we’re dedicated to this work.

Barry:  NASAA’s funding sources have been historically limited to its share of NEA funds and what it can raise from its member organizations or individual supporters (and that last part is a relatively new and successful component of the whole approach).  Are there any plans afoot for NASAA to seek (and get) foundation support - if not for general overhead and operations, then for specific projects or programs? Or do you have any other ideas to diversify income?  Can you share information on that front?

Pam:  NASAA is experiencing success in seeking and receiving foundation support, and we will continue to expand that part of our revenue portfolio.  In addition, this fiscal year we’re developing a plan to generate new earned income.  It’s too soon to know what our earned income venture will be.  Placing one foot in front of the other, this fiscal year is about exploring our potential and determining our most strategic opportunities.  Then we’ll select a course and move it forward.  Stay tuned!

Barry:  Along the same lines, what kinds of partnerships is NASAA developing with either other governmental agencies, or with the private sector?

Pam:  NASAA is focused on sustaining current partnerships in the arts field, while reinvigorating and developing new cross-sector partnerships.  Both public and private, as well as national and state in scale, we’re advancing conversations and partnerships within the following sectors: policy, rural development, education, innovation and community development.

Barry:  What do you consider to be NASAA’s greatest assets and strengths, and what are its greatest limitations?

Pam:  NASAA’s cup runneth over with strengths!  Citing top assets, I’d include:
A highly engaged and energized board of directors is in leadership.  We’ll also soon be joined by new, at-large board members who are not affiliated with SAAs.   A recent change in our bylaws now positions NASAA to benefit from board experience and expertise from outside the SAA field, and I couldn’t be more pleased.
 A top-notch staff surrounds me.  Excellence is standard at NASAA, and our team continues to produce an expanding portfolio of services that’s second to none.
A visionary new strategic plan that pushes our association forward.
Dedicated supporters of NASAA’s mission (both in cash and in kind).

With respect to limitations, our ambition and drive exceed our comfortable reach!  Our 2018 action plan alone contains 118 distinct activities to be undertaken by a small team.  We’ll add to that by responding to hundreds of information requests (large and small) this year.  Info requests may sound dreary, but we’re actually jazzed when our members call!  Their calls aren’t a distraction; in fact, helping SAAs navigate opportunities and challenges is who we are, so they’re the reason we’re jazzed with the phone rings.  Practically speaking, continually expanding our portfolio of services isn’t possible without budget growth.  This is the reason I commented earlier about developing a new earned income strategy.  Diversifying and expanding our revenue streams will empower NASAA to more deeply strengthen SAAs.

Barry:  Where do you go for advice and counsel, and where do you look for inspiration?

Pam:  I have no one-stop shop for advice and counsel.  I have the great fortune of being able to seek counsel from several sources, depending upon the issue.  For example, the NASAA staff is a wonderful source of information and experience.  I maintain that Kelly Barsdate has one of the best arts policy IQ’s around, and I’m grateful she’s just down the hall from me.  In addition, the state arts agency field is populated with some of the smartest people I know, and I call on colleagues individually to brainstorm challenges and opportunities.  Sometimes I need wisdom from well outside the arts administration field, and the District of Columbia comes through!  This is a place thoughtful and idealistic people often move to, determined to improve the country in some way.  I’ve found some of my most brilliant friends in the neighborhoods of D.C., and I call on them as I navigate the professional and social environment here.

Washington D.C. is also a great place to find art-ventures, one neighborhood at a time, and regularly experiencing arts and creativity is my kind of inspiration.  On the Louisiana home front, familial inspiration is always important.  I celebrate Mardi Gras, even in DC, and I’ll continue to do so, bringing along new fans each year.  I’m also lucky to have amazing young nieces who keep the inspiration flowing!  It’s not uncommon to hear brilliance from them: “It’s okay if you mess up; you can just do something else.”  Or, “I’m an artist today, and I will be an artist when I grow up.”  They always inspire! (Here are the young artists preparing for career day at school.)

Thank you Pam.

Have a great week.

Don't Quit