Tuesday, September 12, 2006

September 12, 2006

Hessenius Group on the November Election

Hi everybody.

"And the beat goes on.............."

I am very pleased to welcome the following new members to the Hessenius Group project. This brings the total group to 25 and gives us even wider representation of the various constituencies within the arts sector.

Harriet Sanford - Ex. Director of the National Education Foundation
Rick Hernandez - Ex. Director of the Texas Commission on the Arts
Abel Lopez - Associate Producing Director - GALA Hispanic Theater
Randy Rosenbaum - Ex. Dir. Rhode Island Arts Commission
Harvey Seifter - Ex. Dir. Business & the Arts Councils Creativity Connection
Judy Weiner - Ex. Dir. Alliance of New York State Arts Organizations.
Bob Booker - Ex. Dir. Arizona Commission on the Arts

NEW PROTOCOL: So as to make the discussion move quicker and to make it easier for you to follow along, the Hessenius Group discussions will continue to start on the 2nd Tuesday of each month (excluding January, June, July and August) but will now run for two days (not four), ending on Wednesday. In addition to the new members announced above, we will be inviting more "guest expert" participants from various sectors and disciplines of the arts field to join specific topic discussions.

This week the group discusses the November election and what implications it might have for our field - on the national, state and local levels.

Participants include:

Shelley Cohn
Paul Minicucci
Randy Rosenbaum
Shannon Daut
Judy Weiner

Joining these regular group members as "guest experts" this month will be:

Nina Ozlu - Chief Counsel, Government & Public Affairs - Americans for the Arts
Thomas Birch - Legislative Counsel - National Association of State Arts Agencies


The upcoming November election promises a sea change in the fortunes of the two parties that may result in a fundamental shift in power - at the national and state levels.

What are the implications for the arts field?

Does this election represent an opportunity or challenge for the arts?

Are the arts capable and prepared to play any role in these elections that might improve its position in terms of influencing the decision making process, budgetary and otherwise?

What should the arts being doing in the next 60 days? What are doing, if anything?

Have we done enough to put the issue of the value of arts & culture in front of candidates across the country?

Have we done enough to demand candidates take a stand on funding for the arts?


Shannon what is going on in Colorado?

Shannon Daut:
In Colorado, we have an upcoming gubernatorial race. This is particularly important because our current governor has slashed state arts funding and we hope to have new leadership that will value the contributions that the arts make in our state. The opportunity arose to work with a campaign field worker that was working with the Democratic candidate and was focused on Young Democrats.

Through this alliance, several arts administrators were able to work with the campaign to put together an event for the candidate to speak and rally support for his campaign. This event took place at a first Friday arts walk, and was widely attended. Due to our involvement in this event, we were asked by the campaigns policy team to submit an arts policy paper. While the policy recommendations may not become a part of the official policy of the campaign, we have successfully put the arts on the radar for the (potential) governor, and have given him another avenue in which to argue for various policy points with regard to economic development in the state. Not to mention that at the event he spoke glowingly of the impact of the arts, both intrinsically and instrumentally.

I think this approach is one that warrants further consideration many politicians are looking to attract the youth vote while, increasingly, the arts become an entre to do so. After our successful event we will make a concerted get-out-the-vote effort in order to ensure that the arts are considered a valuable voting bloc in our state. While our experience in Colorado is somewhat rare, I believe that working with campaigns in the early stages--and in a way that fulfills their needs--can be an effective strategy to create an atmosphere where the arts, and its community, is valued and accepted as part of a healthy policy.

Judy, what about New York?

Judy Weiner:
I believe every election represents new opportunities. Of course, each new opportunity brings its own challenges. Some of the challenges are internal to our own advocacy organizing process: breaking down demographic barriers; limited resources of the advocates themselves; and transmission of unified messages. Some challenges are external: the initiation of new legislation and inter-agency partnerships; and making friends and influencing people.

For some of these challenges, the months leading up to the elections are certainly a time to get out in front of the curve. But facing a sea of candidates requires significant time and energy from advocates with limited resources. That time may be better spent when we are past the zealous frenzy that precedes an election.

That said, in NYC it made sense to begin that relationship building early in the game when the outcomes are clearly anticipated. We will have the first new Governor in 12 years; a Harlem Senator is expected to be Lt Governor; there will be a shift to democratic control at the top; all 211 legislators are running; and control in the two Houses may change. Now this is a sea change.

Although we began with staffers and campaign people some time back, not all the action is at the top of tickets, or even with the elected officials. We need to drill down into communities to expand access to a much more diverse advocacy pool, to recognize the impact of shifting demographic power bases, and to be certain our agenda resonates with diverse communities. More than six months ago the Alliance initiated a new project in Harlem in collaboration with Columbia University and the Harlem Arts Alliance to cultivate and train student advocates as the next generation of arts leaders. Hopefully, we are in sync the changing political landscape.

So to circle back to your questions Barry. Are we capable? Yes. Are we prepared to play in the game? Yes and no. Yes at the federal level, where Americans for the Arts has a very effective well managed infrastructure in place to accomplish its mission and tasks. And not at the local level, where with few exceptions, most states lack a similar depth and infrastructure. Advocacy is a dramatically undercapitalized venture at the local level. As a result, we tend to be reactive rather than proactive.

The paucity of resources in the trenches results in a perpetual catch-up game. Real support from the private sector for local advocacy and public policy work would make a significant difference. After all, it is at the grass roots level that there is incredible potential and power to initiate change and increase resources.

Initiating change also requires thinking outside the box. Budget increases bring more cash to the table. Imaginative and creative approaches to legislation can produce a plethora of resources. Two years ago we initiated a pending bill, the Cultural Development Areas Bill, to stimulate private investment in the arts with tax credits and incentives. We need to put our heads together and brain storm and since we are such a brilliant bunch, we certainly will come up with creative new ideas.

There are other issues that inhibit our success and access at the local level. The arts community is not lazer-like or unified in its approach to the political process and that is reflected in the mixed outcomes at all levels. It is sometimes difficult to get everyone on the same page. Nothing kills a position faster at any level of government than mixed messages. Sometimes it is difficult to compromise even for the greater good. In the end, no one wins.

The "arts community" at the advocacy level tends to be white and middle class. We need a broad spectrum of advocates that reflects our population at all levels: federal, state and local. We need to have an agenda that resonates across the board. We should be looking at the powerful online communities that represent diverse populations. American for the Arts took a groundbreaking position with their online advocacy center. And they shared the wealth, bringing states onboard. I would suggest that is only the tip of the iceberg.

You asked if it were too late. I do not believe it is ever too late. There are always friends to be made and people to be influenced.

And in Rhode Island Randy?

Randy Rosenbaum:
I live in a fairly unique political environment. Rhode Island is as "intimate" -- politically as well as geographically -- as you can get. In spite of our insidious conservative talk-radio programs (aren't they everywhere?), most Rhode Islanders are on the liberal end of the political spectum. Even our Republican Governor and one U.S. Senator act more like Democrats than their national counterparts. So, at the state level, any "fundamental shift in power" would be minimal. At the federal level? Who knows? Even with a (welcome) change in the political make-up of Congress, we're still entangled in "foreign adventures", we've built up a staggering deficit, and we've stripped the government of the funds it needs to do the things that "we, the people" expect of it.

Changing this equation will take time, leadership and bipartisan cooperation. Are we likely to see much of that in the short term, no matter who wins? I think not.

It is, in fact, the financial "train-wreck" ahead that scares me most of all. We have the good will and support of our legislative leaders, but as the bills start to come due it will be harder to maintain that political good will. Our friends believe that the arts are good for our state's economy, but we still lose the battle when we're pitted against sick children and homeless people. In moderately challenging times we've managed to say, convincingly, that we should be able to do both. In really bad times (and there ARE really bad times ahead in Rhode Island) even the most supportive among our friends in the General Assembly start to waver.

So, what do we do? I believe every election is an opportunity to renew relationships with incumbents and educate challengers. We're encouraging our arts advocates to talk to our state and federal candidates and asking our arts organizations to invite the candidates to events and to speak to their board. We're providing them with the raw information, and encouraging them to tell their own story as well. Over the next 60 days (following our state primary on Sept. 12), we're promoting discussion about the arts with the candidates, so the arts don't become the non-issue they usually are once the election is over in November.

Is this enough? It's never enough. Too many candidates ignore the invitations or side-step the questions. But if the right people issue the invitations and ask the questions, statements will be made. And if those statements are made based on information provided to candidates by arts advocates, and politicians believe that the arts are an economic stimulus and NOT an expense, then perhaps we can grow support for the arts during the most difficult of times.

Hope. That's the Rhode Island state motto, AND the theme that runs through every advocacy campaign.

Shelley, you've were politically active in Arizona while at the state agency, now that you're semi-retired are you still involved, and how are the arts faring today?

Shelley Cohn:
In my new life, I have the freedom and ability to be open and direct in my political activism. To that end I have been working on several campaigns; several for the state legislature, our Governor and two congressional seats. I don't believe that we can ever individually do enough and collectively the arts field still seems reticent about being politically involved. From the constituent point of view, there are many who don't yet realize that elections are coming. They do not understand the value of voting in the primaries, which in Arizona state legislative races, is where the decisions are made. From the candidates point of view, they are beginning to see that the arts community has fundraising potential. Arts fundraisers have been very successful and lucrative. The challenge is that the arts are still not a top of mind issue; candidates may speak when asked specifically, but the arts are not something that is one of their top issues. And unfortunately, they might also feel that a positive stance on the arts is a liability.

Tom, we seem to have solidified congressional support in the last few years. But every federal election has members of the House vying for the Senate and retiring office holders in both chambers. What's the picture at the federal level in this election?

Tom Birch:
This year's election, as with any election, offers the opportunity for arts advocates to stand up and make the arts a visible issue in races across the country. That means volunteering to work on political campaigns and letting candidates know about the importance of public arts funding. It means going to town meetings and candidates' forums and asking questions about arts education and public arts spending, along with the scores of others being asked about schools, highways, health care, and immigrations, so that candidates understand that the arts are part of the political agenda of importance to the voters. Between now and election day, candidates will be even more visible and offer even more opportunities for arts advocates to present the message.

The need to engage candidates should apply to candidates at all levels -- U.S. Congress and state legislatures, city and county councils, governors, mayors and school boards. The arts enjoy bipartisan support around the country and in Congress. There are Republicans in Congress who can be as supportive of the arts as many Democrats, and there are Democrats who can be just as problematic as some Republicans. If the majority power changes in the U.S. House of Representatives, as many pundits predict, and less possibly in the Senate, the significant differences will be in the leadership positions on the appropriations, budget, tax-writing and authorizing committees in the House and Senate. In some cases, the current Republican chair could be preferable to the Democrat who might be presumed to take over. In other cases, there may be a significant win for the arts in the change of chairmanships from Republicans to Democrats. What counts is the attitude, understanding, and interest these senior legislators have taken on arts issues during their years in Congress leading up to the assumption of new positions of power. If the House (or the Senate) changes parties, arts advocates will find some strong advocates in committee positions where more support was needed in the past, and advocates will find some tough assignments convincing some of those who might take over.

Of the two Republicans and four Democrats from the House running for the U.S. Senate, most have records of consistent support on arts issues, which one hopes they will carry with them should they win seats in the upper body. Of the thirty or so members of the House and Senate leaving to retire or run for other office (such as governor in their home states), some of the strongest opponents of federal arts spending will be gone from Capitol Hill, and some of the arts community's stalwart supporters will not be returning either.

Nina you run the Americans for the Arts created PAC and have for a long time been at the center of the fight for congressional support for the arts. What are you guys doing for this election?

Nina Ozlu:
One of the best times to influence policymakers is BEFORE they become policymakers, while they are candidates on the campaign trail. And, when the stakes are so high as they are now with voters in the mood for a party control change - leaving incumbents most at risk - candidates are particularly attentive to (re)consider their positions on many policy issues, including the arts and arts education.

On this front, Americans for the Arts Action Fund and its Political Action Committee are embarking on several political programs to help advance the arts at the federal level. At the end of this month, we will be releasing our 2006 Congressional Arts Report Card, grading every Member's arts voting record on issues ranging from funding for the NEA, arts education, and Corporation for Public Broadcasting to tax laws providing equal treatment to artists and composers. This report card will serve as voting guide to concerned citizens.

We are also simultaneously conducting Candidate Arts Surveys to all federal candidates, with a particular emphasis on the many open seats this year. This will provide voters with critical information about how candidates with no prior voting record intend to govern once elected. This information will be released in mid-October.

Additionally, the Arts Action Fund PAC has and continues to be making strategic contributions to federal candidates with an A+ voting record, in key leadership positions, and with a particular focus on open seat races.

Several of you make the point that the arts remain "off the radar screen of politicans" - particularly during the election cycles. Why is that? I ask you Paul Minicucci.

Paul Minicucci:
The issues surrounding the politicization of arts and culture among arts supporters is always problematic. I sense a kind of malaise around politics in general which is vastly amplified with regard to the arts. In California there is a kind of acceptance that the best you can hope for is the status quo and if that is not robust so be it. I have had occasion to recently lobby for the passage of a bill related to digital arts and while our arguments for its passage have been self-consciously more in the workforce development arena, many of our allies, mostly Democrats have said "that's good because trying to make an argument for more art these days just won't work." That notion is ironic in that Governor Schwarzenegger this year engineered a large ($105 million) increase in baseline funding for K-12 arts education and there is a new energy around that issue within the County Superintendents Association.

The truth is that arts education in 2006 as an issue, has more credibility than the arts in general, partly because politicians have recognized that the arts do bring balance to our schools and many have worried that they went too far in the No Child Left Behind implementation that resulted in wringing the curriculum dry of the arts. But having said that, when the time came for the Governors people to build his re-election rhetoric, his size-able accomplishment in the arts was nowhere to be found, while smaller investments in other parts of government were being trumpeted. We are not on the map. The unasked questions are: aren't we more comfortable with the low profile? Truth be told, does any legislator want to be closely associated with the arts these days? And isn't that the way we like it? We seem to believe that as long as the funding keeps coming we don't need visibility.

Have we done enough to put the arts before the candidates? I think the answer is a resounding "no." I would venture to say that the politics of the arts today in many states revolves solely around how much funding should we get rather than debating essential public policies. This vehicle, the Hessenius Group is one of the few places I have seen be dedicated to arts policy rather than budget or practice. The experiments of the 80s and 90s to bring legislative committees in statehouses have largely waned. I have also postulated that these committees were crucial to the success of the arts during the 90s because it is around policy issues that the legislators take possession of an issue. And that's the rub it seems to me.

Unlike many other fields, the arts advocacy community has shunned the ongoing development of a legislative agenda and has chosen to spend all of their time either defending the arts from cutbacks or expressive restraints or lobbying for more money. I have not seen legislative development in building arts programs. Often arts people screw up their faces in disgust when I broach the issue. "Why would you want those people (legislators) involved in setting arts policy?" the arts advocates argue, "They are part of the problem. They are the barbarians at the gates." It is true that legislators often rise to the occasion to prove their point. I would argue the other side of the point. You cannot build a sustained legislative effort if all you do is ask for more money, especially when you add the proviso: and don't tell us how to spend the money.

So, unlike education or healthcare policy where there is an ongoing conversation between legislators and policy leaders in the field about what is good education or health care and what can or should the government do to promote it, that same discourse is absent around arts issues. To put it bluntly, we have helped create an environment where there is no stake in supporting arts policies. There is no political value in supporting or attacking the arts for that matter. Contrary to other public policy areas most of our programs are run exclusively by arts agencies with little or no guidance from legislative mandate and for the most part these programs continue to be grant programs. And while it may be nice for a legislator to appear handing out a mock check to a grantee, there isn't that much to be lost by not doing so, and no one ever got un-elected for voted against the arts.

For whatever reasons the arts advocacy effort only mobilizes itself when the arts are directly threatened. That is testimony to the reticence arts supporters have in mixing it up in politics. We play pretty good defense but our offense is not effective. Why is that? If we can come to grips with that reality then we can take the next steps. So sad to say, I do not think the elections will affect the arts one way or the other. I do not see positive campaigns in any election around an arts issue. It could be I am out of touch, but I don't sense the arts as being a "required subject" for politicians anywhere. Even out friends stand quietly by.

OK - arts advocacy remains "reactive" when it should be more "proactive". Several people also emphasized that effective advocacy is about building relationships. Paul, you are suggesting that one approach to both of those situations is to engage elected officials in the policy debate as to the role of the arts in our society. As you note, many in the arts field might call that heresy. If this election isn't likely to change how the arts are regarded and treated, that seems to me to be testament that we should have begun building these relationships years ago. So what can we do now. What will it take to at least get the arts constituencies across the county to make just a little noise in the next sixty days, and then build on that effort for 2008?

How do we get younger people involved as Shannon suggests?

How do we diversify our advocacy base as Judy advises?

What can we do to move the arts from being the "non-issue" Randy and Shelley note?

How do we effecively "engage" the candidates as Tom recommends?

And how do we create, fund and manage an effort in every state that echoes what the Arts Action Fund is doing at the national level - particularly getting involved in candidate campaigns, by identifying and rewarding supportive candidates?

I have read the thoughtful ideas here. Maybe I can recap some of them with a couple of recommendations.

1. First, effective advocacy has to be proactive-we have not been at the state level.

2. The Americans for the Arts Fund is exactly the right idea. To do that at the state level is critical.

3. To raise serious money for campaigns at the state level we must:
  • get buy-in from all arts players, young and old, traditional and cutting edge.
  • we must have an agreed upon set of principles. I have used the idea of the arts compact in the   past to some good effect.
  • we must risk putting our ideas out in the legislative policy arena and work hard to convince  legislators that they can use the arts as leadership issues for their constituents.
  • we must raise money for bipartisan races.
  • we have to systematically reward those who take up our issues and punish those than oppose us- no matter who they are or what party they belong to.
  • we have to build a policy infrastrcuture in each state which should inlcude a center for policy and analysis, a coordinated effort to have entertainers do fund-raisers for us, and a clear and concise agenda that moves ideas forward not just funds.

Frankly, this idea needs a lot more development. I wish some "angel" will come forward who is visionary enough to see that you have to spend money on this infrastructure and not just give to companies and arts orgs.

I am much more optimistic tonight than when I wrote muy original comments. It is so unusual to be on the winning side of elections.

Two state senate campaigns with arts advocate candidates were elected in the primaries tonight. That is truly significant; they both had very challenging campaigns from challengers who think the government should not spend any money and extreme social views.

And three of our congressional races are also looking promising.

Although difficult and challenging, arts advocates did come forward to vote and financially support candidates.

Our next big hurdle will be the governor's race. We are fortunate to have a very smart, engaged Governor who can speak about the arts without a script. But her challenger will find every way to discredit her.

Well, I don't think the arts are going to be a major platform for any state/national candidates anytime soon. Where I think arts advocacy can be most effective is in illuminating how the arts can positively affect their policy priorities--crime rates go down as a result of a community arts center; hospitals' effectiveness rates go up as a result of arts therapy; cultural tourism increases due to a plethora of arts opportunities. These arguments are not new, of course, but I think they would be most effective for candidates and/or legislators if the points are couched within their overall policy initiatives. Arts for arts sake is great, and something in which we all believe, but we need to articulate this outside of our own priorities and inside of their policy priorities. The arts have been used as such a wedge issue in past elections, I can understand why policians may be hesitant to highlight the arts as a major platform. Rather than expending our energy to try and erase the controversies of the past from our collective consciousness (let's let the NEA do that, right?), we can better use our resources to highlight the reasons why the arts can accentuate and play a vital role in their priorities.

Since I posted my original comments we've had a meeting of the 20 largest arts organizations in our state (one of our regular gatherings), and I sat in on a meeting of the board of Rhode Island Citizens for the Arts, our statewide arts advocacy organization.

Advocacy and engagement in the political process were the "topics d'jour" of each meeting.

There is a great deal of interest on the part of arts organizations to "get involved", but a great deal of timidity as well. Our purpose is to assure the arts organizations that it is their inalienable right (at least for now) to talk to candidates for public office and learn their positions on issues that matter to them. We came away from our meeting with a framework for action that involves all the stuff that Tom Birch teaches us: invite politicians to performances, ask them to speak to their boards, press them for their position on public support of the arts and arts education, and maintain the relationship. We feel good about our plans for the next 60 days.

RI Citizens for the Arts is working with the local League of Women Voters and the local PBS TV station on a public, televised debate between the Gubernatorial candidates on the arts, culture and humanities. Things, so far, look good on this.

Since there are obviously no surprises in yesterday's primary in NYS, I would like to circle back to Paul's comments about developing a legislative agenda at the state level. That is an imperative for arts advocates if we really want to see significant resources on the table.

Advocating for the state arts council budget increases takes massive effort and input and often results in relatively insignificant dollars....if we are lucky. In NYS, where we saw the first state arts council increase in 6 years (a $5.1 million increase spread across 19 million people), the result was a 3-5% increase in operating funds for organizations. Not a huge deal.

Would there not be a better return on our time and resources if we work to set new legislative and policy agendas in concert with our legislators? When we developed a bill (working with our legislative sponsors) to incentivize private investment in the arts, it became a public platform for the sponsors. It gave them visiblity and face time statewide. It did the same for the arts. If we develop a win-win for both sides, then it works.

Which, of course goes back to the proactive vs. reactive issues on the local level.

I think Paul and Judy are on the right track - we have got to somehow engage legislators in figuring out ways the arts can be supported so that arts & culture might continue to contribute to civic life. Some states might still need to focus on state funding (e.g., California so as to return the baseline to something meaningful), but we have to do something different, because what we have been doing may have done as much as it is going to. Without raw political clout, which we do not yet have, we aren't going to get legislator support for what we want. We need new approaches (while we continue to beat the drums for creating arts Political Action Committees (PACs)in every state, and growing the Arts
Action Fund so as to amass some power someday.

Every local community should at least draft up a short list of questions to submit to candidates running for various offices (federal, state or city / county) in the local district. Questions as to whether or not the candidate supports funding for the arts, supports arts education, is aware of the importance of the arts & culture sector to the tourism industry, as an economic engine, believes the creative sector is essential to the health and growth of the local area. All candidates should get sent this short list of questions and the answers should be as widely disseminated as possible (even if one or more candidates don't respond - circulate that bit of information to the media etc. too. And all candidates for whatever office in the November election should be invited to as many arts events as possible between now and election day, and a simple email petition should be sent to each candidate urging them to support arts & culture in the district. Those three things can all be done easily at the local level. And all arts supporters should be encouraged to email, write, or call the candidates and tell them how important the arts are locally.

Finally, everybody who supports the arts should join the Arts Action Fund at the $20 level - today.
We have time left to do those things. We should. If we don't, we're once again missing another opportunity to begin to build political power - power we desperately need, and don't have.

Thank you to the participants. I hope you all have a very good week.

Don't Quit!