Sunday, January 29, 2017

States Arts Advocacy Report - One Third of the States Have No Functioning Advocacy Organization

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

The Federal budgetary process is complex and takes time  (indeed, Congress spends up to 75% of its time on budgetary matters), the continuing resolution for government funding is good until April, and we don't yet truly know if, and to what extent, the arts and the NEA may be a target for funding cuts or even elimination.  What is clear is that the arts may be under attack and more vulnerable than in some time.

The prudent course of action is to prepare to lobby heavily for the value of the arts and the continued existence of the NEA in particular, and it is never too early to organize for that effort.  And as there will likely be a dozen or more federal issues that will impact the arts and in which we have a stake as to the outcome, organization of the advocacy infrastructure for our positions on all those issues cannot begin too soon either.

Last year I did a study / survey for WESTAF of the nation's State Arts Advocacy organizations in an attempt to identify which states had strong arts advocacy infrastructures in place, and which states were less than prepared to carry on advocacy activities from the state level.

The results were mixed and of some concern, in that a large number of states (roughly a third) either had no real functioning arts advocacy organization, or the existing organization was barely operational.  That finding is particularly distressing as the sector now gears up for actions that may come - both on the Federal and on the State levels - that will impact the sector.  While Americans for the Arts and the national service provider organizations may be able to pick up the slack in Federal matters - where state advocacy infrastructure is lacking, and state arts agencies and other groups within the states with the weakest advocacy preparedness may be able to cover for the lack of a viable advocacy presence, it would be beneficial if every state had, at least, the barest fundamentals of a working operation, if for no other reason than to address issues wholly within each state.


In preparation for its October 2016 Symposium on Arts Advocacy, WESTAF sought to survey the nation’s fifty states for an updated composite picture of arts advocacy in each state.

Using internal data, the Americans for the Arts State Arts Advocacy Network (SAAN) listing, online information, and information provided by State Arts Agency (SAA) leaders, telephone interviews were conducted directly with leadership at the state arts advocacy organizations or, where no state arts advocacy leadership could be identified or contacted, with State Arts Agency (SAA) and other leaders to identify current core information about each state advocacy group and effort.

Disclaimer: This scan sought to identify which states were organizationally active on the advocacy stage, the assets each state had to carry out its advocacy mission, which states were only minimally equipped to be effective advocates and which states currently had no real operational advocacy organization.  The study was not intended to be a ranking of state arts advocacy organizations, or any judgment of their success or failure on their state stages. Editorial commentary contained herein refers to and reflects the whole of the state arts advocacy ecosystem and not as to any single state organization.  Moreover, a number of states classified as barely operational may have efforts underway to correct those situations.  And, even in states without a formal functional arts advocacy organization, considerable advocacy may nonetheless be going on.

Here is that report:


Like every other special interest group, the nonprofit arts sector has a vested interest in having the will and capacity to advocate and lobby government officials, (elected, appointed and civil service), on various issues and policies that impact it, including funding support.

Federal:  Americans for the Arts is the primary organizer of arts advocacy at the federal level.  Their PAC - the Arts Action Fund - is the only really viable nonprofit arts PAC in the country, and their annual war chest to award to candidates at the federal level who are arts supportive is the largest and basically only financial clout the arts have.  Working with AFTA are the NASAA, the national service provider organizations representing the various segments and disciplines within the arts sector, which organizations also rally their memberships in support of federal arts issue positions, and provide them with advocacy tools, training, information and advice.

State:  The “state” of state arts advocacy organizations runs the gamut from well financed and supported, stable, successful organizations to non-existent efforts.  Some states are fully functional though they may lack one or more key assets that are thought to be essential to fully represent the arts interests in political situations.  Some states with no advocacy apparatus are in transitional periods; they may have previously had an advocacy organization, which, for a variety of reasons, may have declined to the point where it was no longer operational.  Finally, some states have virtually no advocacy presence nor activity with only limited and vague attempts to launch more active and viable organizations.

The political realities of each state are vastly different and tend to mirror the political control of the governor’s houses and the legislatures.  Yet even in states with supportive governors and legislatures, the arts do not always fare as well as they might hope, due to both economic considerations and a lack of actual competitive political clout among other variables.

One key variable in the success of state arts advocacy organizational function and preparedness seems to be leadership. Without an effective leader, paid or volunteer, for the advocacy sector, it is axiomatically more difficult to sustain an ongoing operation.  Certainly financial and other resource availability is also a major determinant of the success of state arts advocacy organizations.

City / County:  In a number of the most populated states with major metropolitan areas, there exists, in addition to the state arts advocacy group, individual cities with strong arts advocacy organizations.  These agencies prioritize local issues, but also cooperate and collaborate with the state and federal advocacy efforts.  However, most cities and counties do not have any real, full time organized advocacy mechanisms, and any advocacy or lobbying done at this level is essentially ad hoc and more often than not reactive, rather than proactive.  These organizations and their efforts were not the subject of this scan.


In addition to the base criteria (staff size and whether full or part time, paid or volunteer;  years the leader has been involved with the organization; whether or not the organization engaged a paid lobbyist, and core information, (organization contact information, organization structure, budget, revenue sources), the survey sought to inquire: a). as to the sources of funding, b). whether or not the current budget was more, less or the same as the previous three years, and c). the communications platforms used by the organization to motivate grassroots arts support.

In addition, the survey sought to identify whether or not the organization:

1.  provided advocacy training
2.  had launched major initiatives in the last two years
3.  had support (financial or otherwise) from the foundation, corporate / business, media and community interest areas
4.  the current political climate of the state (supportive or non supportive governor, and the existence of an arts / cultural caucus in the legislature)

CLASSIFICATION:  Organizations fell into two principal categories: 1) General Arts Advocacy organizations that advocated for a wide range of arts positions, including state funding support, and 2) Arts Education Advocacy organizations that focused primarily, or in some cases, exclusively on arts education issues.  Some states had both kinds of organizations, some one or the other, and some neither.

Of all the responses obtained, state arts advocacy organizations were grouped into four general categories based on specific criteria, as follows:

Note:  Organizations (below) designated with an asterisk (*) are principally Arts Education focused, but also serve, for the most part, to advocate for the arts in general, and in many cases, the SAA.  Many of these organizations serve as Americans for the Arts SAAN representative for their state.

Group I - fully functional state arts advocacy organizations meeting the following criteria:
a).  Full time paid staffing leadership.
b).  Engagement of a lobbyist or lobbying firm to represent the group’s interest with the state legislature and governor.
c).  Consistent annual budget at minimally $10,000.
d).  Formalized structure - either a 501 (c) (3) and / or a 501 (c) (4) with a governing Board of Directors

Caveat:  Arts Education Advocacy organizations are included in this grouping so long as they also engaged in advocating for other arts issues, including increased state funding to the SAA.

In addition to the above criteria, the organizations that appeared to be the most stable over time, shared a number of common characteristics, including:  1) Longevity of leadership in the position; 2) substantial budget resources, including diversification of income sources; and 3) additional staffing beyond the executive leadership.

It should be noted, however, that the most recently successful organizations in securing increased state public funding for the arts (California, Texas), were not necessarily those that scored the highest on all of the arbitrary criteria.  It should also be noted that many state arts advocacy groups have, for a decade or longer, fought a frequent (and for some an annual) battle to keep from having public funding cuts to the SAA or the arts in general.   Their victories are not necessarily any less impressive than those states that were able to secure increased funding, but rather the political situations and circumstances in each state dictate the realities of what can and cannot be achieved through the kinds of advocacy normally available to the arts.

Group I States:

New Jersey
North Carolina
South Carolina
South Dakota

**note:  The Vermont SAA s not a public agency, but rather a nonprofit.  It does its own advocacy and its Executive Director is a registered lobbyist.

Group II - fully functional state arts advocacy organizations lacking one or more of the elements of those classified in Group I above.

Group II States:

New Hampshire

Group III - states with a form of an arts advocacy organization, but which organization was marginally dysfunctional, and which lacked several of the elements of the Group I state classification, including states with current active efforts to revitalize or relaunch essentially dormant arts advocacy organizations.  A number of organizations in this grouping do not have any staff personnel at all, and the voluntary leadership of the organization is principally from the Board of Directors or otherwise outsourced.  None of these organizations have paid lobbyists.

Group III States:

New York*

Group IV - states with no real functioning arts advocacy organization.  Many of the SAAs in these states fill the void by spending time and resources to educate and inform state legislators and other decision makers as to the value of the arts and arts education.  Other ad hoc efforts may also be going on sporadically.

Group IV States:

New Mexico
North Dakota
Rhode Island*
Virginia (note no response from this state, but indications are that it does not currently have a functioning organization)
West Virginia

Regionally (using the RAO designations: WESTAF, Mid-America Arts Alliance, Arts Midwest, South Arts, New England Foundation for the Arts and Mid-Atlantic Arts Foundation), the state arts advocacy organizations were relatively evenly split as to which (above) designated groups they fell into, with each region having states that were designated in each of the groupings.


State arts advocacy organization budgets ran the gamut from two plus million dollars down to virtually nothing.  The average of the Group I and II organizations was between +/- $10,000 to $150,000.  Most state arts advocacy organization budgets in this grouping have been stable over the past three years; a few reported gains.

State arts advocacy organizations have a number of sources of financial support.  The single largest number of advocacy organizations report that membership dues (organization members primarily, but in many cases individual dues - or contributions - as well) are the largest single source of revenue.  Grants, state agency support - some for operations, some for projects - some corporate and some earned income (principally from hosting a Governor’s Awards for the Arts event) are also part of the mix of funding.

Organizational Structure / Governance:
The vast majority of the states have 501 (c) (3) structures.  Some have 501 (c) (4) structures.  And some have both structures in place, often sharing a Board.  The majority of state advocacy organizations recruit their Board membership principally from the arts sector, but a number also have representation from other segments of the wider community.  Boards range in size from 5 to over 50, with an average near 20.

Organizations in Group I all had full time, paid executive leaders, and most had additional staffing, though the most common additional staff member was a bookkeeper.

Two organizations contract out the management of the organization to private sector companies.

All the states in Group I and many in Group II retain a paid lobbyist on a contract basis to represent the interests of the nonprofit arts with the governor, legislature, elected officials and other decision making bodies.  For some states, their lobbying effort is a complement to their grassroots effort to mobilize public opinion in favor of their positions.  For others, the lobbyist is part of an “insider game” strategy played in the political arena.

Note, beyond the scope of this survey is the question of how and to what extent arts advocacy organizations manage, or are involved with, the strategy to build public will for the arts.

SAA Relationship:
In the past, a number of state advocacy organizations had, at best, arms length relationships with their SAA; some might even have been characterized as territorial or hostile.  Today, that seems to no longer be the case except in very isolated situations.  When asked to characterize the relationship with their SAA, virtually all of the arts advocacy organizations described it as cooperative and collaborative, and many indicated the relationship was particularly strong.  Only in a few cases was the relationship characterized as strained or less than ideal.

Initiatives and Focus Work Sampling of the States:

Arts Convenings:  A large number of states host Arts Advocacy Days at their state capitols.  Many also convene periodic regional meetings around the state.

Research:  A number of organizations are at least tangentially involved with research and data collection that support making a case for the value of the arts.  The principal focus is on economic development and impact.  Several states are trying to play a larger role in this arena.  The role and place of the arts in the creative economy is a focus for many advocacy campaigns.

Community Development:  Several states are actually reframing their focus to complement the work of state and local Community Development efforts.

Arts Education:  Several states are working jointly with either the Kennedy Center or AFTA on arts education issue advocacy.

Political Climate:  States are divided as to political support (governor / legislature) dependent on politics, though absolute red state / blue state designations and conclusions based thereon are fraught with the potential to over simplify situations, and which conclusions do not really accurately reflect the more complex realities on the ground.  Many, but not a majority of states, have legislative arts caucuses.  Several states are in the midst of stepped up attempts in candidate education efforts.

While the survey did not include a question on whether or not the advocacy organization had a Political Action Committee (PAC), anecdotal responses suggest that virtually no state arts advocacy organization had, or was affiliated with, a local arts PAC.  One or two states indicated they are attempting to launch an Arts PAC. And, at the time of writing, Texas just announced the plan to form of an arts PAC.

Placemaking:  A couple of states are involved with benchmarking positive impacts of placemaking efforts.

Funding:  Several states are spending major energies on increased state funding for the arts campaigns, including investigation / consideration of possible taxes in support of the arts.

IT:  Several states are involved with facilitating increased use of IT, social networking and other tech communications modals.

In terms of which communications platforms state arts advocacy organizations use, most use email, their websites, Facebook and Twitter.  Many communicate via meetings and gatherings.  And many use Americans for the Arts Voter Voice for rallying grassroots support for positions.  A few continue to produce a newsletter (now electronic).  While some issue regular communications, others only reach out when action of some sort is needed.

Advocacy Training:
A large percentage of the organizations hold / host Arts Advocacy Days at the Capitol events to bring arts supporters together with legislators.  These events are also the single biggest opportunity for arts advocacy organizations to hold advocacy trainings for supporters, though most such training consists primarily of providing talking points for the supporters in their meetings with legislators or media, and some simple guidelines for such encounters.  Far fewer states do year round advocacy training, and of those that do, many provide online support, together with trainings at periodic “in the field “ events.

We asked if the state advocacy organization received consistent support (financial or otherwise, including endorsements) in any of the following areas:

Foundations -  Most organizations had only negligible foundation support.

Corporate - But for participation by corporate entities for Governor’s Awards events, most states had only marginal corporate support.

Media - While some arts advocacy organizations report having some media support for their efforts, more often than not, such support, if there at all, is tepid at best.  More common is the situation where the media has little to no interest in the nonprofit arts issues. Some states continue to have, at least, moderate coverage of the arts.  Many no longer do.

Community groups - (e.g., Chambers of Commerce, the Tourism industry, the Economic and Community Development sector, civic groups, business arts councils) et. al.

Over half the advocacy organizations report that they have relationships with segments of their communities and from which they get some support.  Those segments include: 1) the tourism industry; 2) community economic development interests; 3) local Chambers of Commerce; 4) civic groups; 5) the statewide nonprofit umbrella group; and 6) arts service provider organizations.

TRENDS IN ARTS ADVOCACY:   new community support with new possibilities.

An increasing number of the Group I and II Arts Advocacy organizations are moving towards a kind of rebranding of what it is they do, to include a wider portfolio of projects and an agenda that goes beyond traditional advocacy goals and objectives.  These organizations are moving towards a wider vision of promoting the arts, and advocating and lobbying for support of various kinds from various and diverse communities, while at the same time, expanding to projects that complement the enhanced vision.  Thus more organizations are moving into research, more are working closely with economic development agencies, more are embracing the wider creative industries concept, more are positioning themselves to include a wider constituent community beyond their core of nonprofit arts organizations, to include segments of the community that share an interest in the creative economy and community, and more are partnering with economic and community development forces.  This expansion of both purpose and operations has yielded some early impressive victories and resulted in new resource revenue streams, allowing for expanded staffing.


In assessing the current state arts advocacy situation, it is instructive that the Groups I and IV above are nearly equal - that is, there are as many states with non-functioning arts advocacy organizations as there are with fully functioning entities.  Given Tip O’Neil’s admonition that “all politics are local “ it bodes ill for the arts that there is such a large gap.  Not only does the lack of any advocacy mechanism in so many states negatively impact the ability of the arts to influence policy on the state level, it makes cooperation on federal advocacy even harder as well.

Every state should have a fully functioning arts advocacy apparatus - with full time, paid and adequate staffing, reasonable budgets and diverse revenue streams, paid lobbyists and a solid structure.  Despite the impressive and encouraging work of the top tier advocacy organizations, the absence of any viable organization in nearly a third of the states (13), and organizations that are somewhat handicapped in another 6 states leads to the inescapable conclusion that arts advocacy at the state level in America needs serious attention to bring it up to even a minimal national level of competency and readiness.  Given the repeated attacks at all governmental levels on arts funding resulting in continuous cutbacks in numerous jurisdictions, the fragile nature of the state arts advocacy is an enigma.  It may be that the arts continue to erroneously believe that advocacy (and lobbying) isn’t permitted and is ill advised for nonprofits — a belief to which many funders, unfortunately, still subscribe.  Or it may be an absence of leadership or of adequate financial resources.  While it may be a great deal of work to successfully solicit funding for arts advocacy and lobbying, and to reinvent what an arts advocacy organization is, or can be, (let alone to organize effective PACs,)  the stakes are so high, the payoff so potentially meaningful, and the negative impact so potentially damaging, that the arts are not further along in the development of a first rate advocacy system at the state level across the county is a damning indictment of a failure of leadership at some level.

What we have is a two tier advocacy reality - with nearly a third of the states functioning at a positive level, and a third not functioning at all.  We have had remarkable success on some levels given that reality, and that success is due to the extraordinary work of a few champions with superior leadership skills and other segments of our sector that pick up the slack when necessary.  While that reality is better than nothing, given what is needed and required, particularly to be competitive today, the reality is, frankly, in the author’s opinion, wholly inadequate.

We can, and must, do better.   And we can learn from those in the field who are doing the best work.

As the arts community gears up to defend the sector against attacks, it would behoove us to immediately shore up our state advocacy apparatus.  Organization is key to successful lobbying.  Not only is the community facing imminent and near term possible White House and Congressional challenges on a number of issues, including funding, in addition to current efforts, it will be absolutely critical for the field to begin now to organize for the 2018 midterm elections as the next battleground to secure political support.

Have a good week, and please begin to organize at the grassroots level now.

Don't Quit