Sunday, May 3, 2015

The Time for the Arts to Make A Move in the Presidential Election is Now. I hope our people are working on this.

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

So now it begins.  Republicans are falling over themselves lining up to declare their candidacy for President.  On the Democratic side, Hillary and now Bernie Sanders are in.  We will quickly be inundated with the 2016 campaign.  Whereas at one time the media might have been counted on to zero in on the issues, in all likelihood the media will zero in on scandal where they can find it, and manufacture it when it suits them.  The media long ago came to the conclusion that issues and substance are an audience 'turn-off'. Elections are decided on personality, on perceptions and impressions, on a 'feeling'.  Towards the end of the year the primary season will be in full swing, and we will see a ceaseless parade of meaningless television attack ads, and the best we can expect is a very generalized list of important issues, along with some simplistic and virtually meaningless platitudes about those issues.  Everybody will talk about what we need, almost no one will talk about how we get what we need.

Fundraising will again break records and plaintive cries will rise that money is destroying our democratic system.  Nothing will be done to change it.  Every interest group in the country will try to position themselves so that whomever is the nominee of each party, and ultimately the victor in the general election, will appreciate their needs and positions - and so they will have access to the winner. Much of the positioning will be about campaign contributions.  The few really big money players will be offset by the countless little guys.

So as we begin, I'm hoping there is some kind of discussion of a plan of action going on behind the scenes in our field; some kind of strategy to form an Arts Support Group that will reach out to Presidential candidates to try to get the Arts, and support for the Arts, on the candidate's agendas.  I am hoping some people, somewhere in our world, are reaching out to assemble a core group of our leadership, and devising ways to approach the front runners asking them to embrace the value of the arts and the need for public support; a plan on our behalf to position the arts as players (minor, but players nonetheless) in this election.  That will include ideas as to how we can be seen as valuable to the candidates we support. And that means ideas as to how we can raise campaign funds for them.  I know people in the arts don't like this, but that's how it works.

There are two political realities at stake at this stage of the campaign:  1) Being an early supporter of candidates counts -- a lot.  2) Money contributions are absolutely essential if you want your agenda to be prioritized and if you expect access to the candidate - now or after the election.

The Arts have several problems in trying to play the presidential campaign game to its own advantage.

  • First, our field is overwhelmingly Democratic and liberal.  Though it is clearly the smart political move to hedge your bets and support candidates from both parties, that is probably beyond the ability of our sector.  A wing of the GOP has made the Arts a whipping boy, and written it off as unlikely to be of any advantage, or even relevant to the vote. The Democrats see the Arts community as clearly having no real choice but to support it - and so little reason to pay it anything but lip service support (if they see the Arts community at all)
  • Second, the Arts are, if history is any indication, simply incapable of even being willing to offer any collective financial support to candidates [and for the sake of argument I'm not talking about 'organizations' making any moves towards partisan political favoritism, merely individuals within our sphere.  (And please, spare me the bogus and utterly false belief that we cannot support individual candidates for office - as individuals or organizations].   While it is within our power to bundle contributions and use our numbers to leverage support from candidates, we can't or won't do that.  
  • Third, politicians (especially presidential aspirants) are trained and experienced spin doctors whose default position is to avoid answering questions directly or making real public commitments. And if there is no reason for them to take any sides (and the only valid reasons are that a given 'side' is essential to appeal to their base, represents a substantial voting or financial bloc, or there is widespread consensus), then they won't.  We fall into that category.  There is simply no reason to champion our side.  
  • Fourth, the competition for scarce resources is growing, and it is harder and harder for any interest group to successfully make their case.

So the wise move is to work on these challenges, and I hope our people are doing just that.  And whether or not you have given up on politics, whether or not you think anything will change, whether or not you have any faith in any candidate, the question of what is best for the nonprofit arts field remains important, and I would argue that we ought to do whatever we can to increase government support for our organizations and for artists.

But isn't it really too early to declare support for anyone?    Let's take Hillary Clinton as an example.  She is the presumptive nominee.  Might something happen that would deny her the nomination?  Anything is possible.  Having been around a long time, she has baggage.  Whether or not that baggage might potentially torpedo her candidacy, no one knows for sure at this point.  But the odds suggest she will be the Democratic Party's standard bearer.  Those who get on board her wagon now have a better spot than those who don't.  And frankly the bandwagon has a limited number of good seats.  The price of admission is what you bring to the effort.  It's likely the vast majority of Democrats will have no problem in supporting her.  And the more she looks to be a winner, the more various segments of the party and special interest groups that will want to curry favor with her administration, will raise funds for her and seek to align themselves with her machine.  The same is true with any front runner.

I also have no doubt that Hillary is supportive of the arts - in a general way, and up to a point.  Does she fully get it - like we do?  No, and that might be too much to ask anyway.  When she was the First Lady - [and as Bill Ivey (then Chair of the Endowment) has frequently said:  "The NEA is the province of the East Wing - and the First Lady"], she was supportive, but not significantly.  The same has been true of the Obama Administration, and the same might also be argued to have been true under Bush as well.

White House support, no matter how tepid, is important and critical to the continued existence of the Endowment, and to the arts at all levels.  But what we really need is something more:  A recognition that continuation of the status quo of funding for the Endowment and of support for the value of the arts isn't enough.  We need vision in the White House that understands how undervalued and underutilized as policy the arts are - including arts education.  We need an administration that will fight to expand - significantly - arts funding and the presence of the arts at the decision making tables.  We've never really had that.  And we're not going to get it unless we change our approach dramatically.

How do we get that from say Hillary?  I'm not sure we can, but to even be in the running for that kind of consideration, we need to have a strategy right now about how to support her, and how to gain access to her campaign so we can position ourselves in the event of her victory.  Now if there are substantial numbers among us who prefer Bernie Sanders, or Elizabeth Warren or any other candidate (and the same is true on the GOP side) then we ought to have strategies to become involved in those campaigns too.  And the time for that kind of approach is now, not next year, not after the conventions when we will be johnny-come-latelys and indistinguishable among countless others then jockeying for position.

So I hope there are conversations going on right now among the leaders in the city, state and federal arts advocacy halls, among the major service provide organizations, and even among the funders and foundations -- conversations about how we organize support for whichever candidates we prefer (or more importantly whichever candidates we think can win - and I hope that there is talk about which GOP candidates might merit our consideration too).  I hope those conversations include how we can best put together "committees'" for candidates, and how we can approach the campaigns and get involved with them now - and that must include some discussion on how we can marshall support and how we might bundle contributions to candidates we choose to back.  I hope we are already looking for connections and intersections and bridges to the various campaigns, making phone calls, reaching out and initiating contact and building bridges.  We need to engage the candidates in a dialogue with us, and to entice them into doing that we need to bring something to the table beyond how wonderful we are and how we are good for the economy, and education and the salvation of humanity.

I hope we can mount a much more sophisticated arts effort than we did during the 2008 Obama Campaign - which effort was, at that point, somewhat of a milestone - as threadbare as it was.  I hope we can finally appreciate that this is politics in the real world; that the most important story any interest group can tell (and frankly the one that counts the most) is that they have a large committed base that cares about  their issue and votes for those who support them; that the most important numbers and data have to do not with how many jobs we create or how much we contribute to the economy, but with how many votes might be at stake for candidates considering whether or not to align with us, and how much money we might raise for those candidates.

I hope this kind of thinking is already going on behind closed doors, and that we are well along in putting a plan to action so we can benefit from whomever wins the presidency in 2016. There is a lot at stake.  I hope smart people are strategizing, and that we already have pathways into the campaigns.  I really hope that come 2016 we will have done something, and aren't still talking to ourselves; not still sitting on our hands.  Inaction on our part would be absolutely criminal, and herald, I think, our demise for another decade - and maybe longer.

And whomever is leading this charge, you need to share the plan with all of us, and soon.  There is a lot of work to do.

Have a great week.

Don't Quit