Sunday, October 1, 2017

WESTAF Symposium on Advocacy Report

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

Last year I conducted a scan of the nation's state arts advocacy organizations for Westaf as preparation for their Symposium on Advocacy.  (See blog post here).

The scan was limited in its scope to determine which states had active general arts advocacy organizations (as opposed to state arts education advocacy organizations - though some of those spent some limited time on general arts advocacy) and the nature and extent of each state's advocacy assets and resources (e.g., paid staff, employed lobbyist, budget size et. al).  

The chief finding was disturbing.  Nearly a third of the states had virtually no functioning general arts advocacy organization.  An additional 15 % had a barely functioning organization.  That's nearly half of all states with only minimal assets and resources to carry on the important work of arts advocacy - at the federal, state and local levels.  This is a major issue for the field, and has been percolating for quite some time.  

Westaf released, last week, its report on its Symposium,  It is one of the best Symposium reports I have seen, and, though long, I urge everyone to download it, read it and share it widely.

Note:  The Symposium was held in October 2016 - a year ago, and prior to the Presidential election.  I suspect most participants anticipated a victory by Hillary Clinton.  I believe the comments, insights, suggestions and questions raised at this Symposium are as germane and relevant today as they were last year.  

There are several key take-aways, among them:  First, a fully functioning state arts advocacy arm requires:

  • Full time paid staff, (which means a budget and sustainable income), 
  • Ideally an engaged lobbyist, 
  • Real leadership (preferably with experience in advocacy and organization at the community level) and familiarity with how politics and the systems work,    
  • Buy-in and support from a substantial portion of the local arts community.  

Those exemplary state and local arts advocacy organizations in our field have substantial budgets, with a minimum in the neighborhood of $100,000.  Those organizations with that minimal (and substantially higher budgets nearing $500,000 or more) have foundation support and an involved local arts organization ecosystem support base.

Second, successful arts advocacy is marked by increasing collaboration and partnership with other sectors of the community - both public and private.

Third, rather than positioning the value of the arts as exclusively intrinsic or economic, incorporating the arts as a factor in solving community issues and making life for the community better is increasingly the benchmark for success.

Fourth, every state and every local community is different, and thus successful models will not all look alike.

Fifth, we haven't yet entirely figured out what our advocacy vision is, including who we are serving and how.

Doubtless you will come away with other take-aways, insights and be left with questions.  I couldn't quote all of the participants, nor do much more than present a surface sample of their discussion.

Here are some random excerpts from the Report to whet your appetite:

In the Symposium's Keynote, Tim Storey, Director of State Services, National Conference of State Legislatures, opined on the future of state arts funding:

"Although fiscal conditions in the states have improved, mandated expenditures in the states have increased at a rate greater than state revenues, thus largely eradicating any net gains states might otherwise experience. In addition, nationwide, the Republicans have control over more houses of state legislatures and governorships than they have had in a very long time. Although Republicans can and have been supportive of public funding for the arts, the party has a strong wing of fiscal conservatives interested in controlling and/or reducing the size of state government. This strong political undercurrent does not bode well for arts advocates who seek to increase state funding for the arts. One way to address the current crop of elected officials is to focus on the job-creating aspects of the arts and to work with state legislators to craft solutions to the evergreen challenge of job creation. Job-creation-oriented arguments are likely to appeal to the current group of state legislators far more than quality-of-life and art for art's sake arguments. The road ahead looks pretty difficult for arts advocates. They will need to be very skilled in order to retain their current budget allocations, let alone grow them in state government."

Matthew Wilson, Executive Director, MassCreative - (Massachusetts' arts advocacy arm).
● "You have to start with what I call the triad of support. You need money.  You also need an effective partnership with the state arts agency. It is imperative that you work hand-in-hand with the arts agency. You do not have to be totally in sync with the agency in terms of your strategies, but you need strong alignment on mission and goals. Finally, you need to build the broad support of the arts and cultural community. These three areas of support are what you need as a base to start.
● You need to create an effective narrative. I get concerned when the focus of advocacy is just on obtaining more money for the arts. That approach comes off as the special interest ask, which is, “Give it to us, give it to us,” and, “It is all about us.” You need to broaden that narrative to justify being the recipient of public money from the city or state. Because we are a public good, we are something that benefits the economy, enriches our education system, and builds livable communities. We have to tell that broader narrative. The work that is currently being done around public will is important to the enrichment and expansion of our narrative. 
● We can’t be shy about power and politics because they are the venue we play in. I find that politicians do things for two reasons. One is because they think something is a good idea. The other reason is because they think that something is a good idea in political terms. They need to know that the public is behind them and that, if they vote to support arts/culture-related items, they are going to get re-elected. We need to build power; we can’t shy away from it.
● We have to run focused issue-advocacy campaigns. We first need goals and a vision from which we can develop pieces of legislation. Then we can provide opportunities for people to engage. When I first took this job, people said, “It is going to be impossible to organize arts supporters or artists because they are all over the place.” That is not the case. People are eager to engage and to tell their stories, they just don’t know when to do it or how to do it. That is why Sofia Klatzker and the work she is doing in Los Angeles is so great. She is giving local folks training on how to tell their story and when to tell their story and providing them with opportunities to tell the story. That is what we try to do. We give them opportunities to tell their stories and engage because they really want to. The symphony of voices that we bring together helps us build our power.
● Also, I believe it is important to use elections. Elections are a time in our country when we talk about priorities, challenges, and the vision of our community. Over the past years, arts and culture have not been showing up at those discussions. As a result, candidates do not talk about arts and culture and, because of that, we are often left out. We must engage in elections in a non-partisan way. 
● Finally, but importantly, we need to hire political people and organizers to lead advocacy efforts. We have to understand that an arts advocacy staff with a political orientation is very important."

Pam Breaux - CEO, National Assembly of State Arts Agencies:

"At NASAA, when we look at advocacy efforts from the national perspective, we have found that the most successful advocacy efforts across the country tend to embody four strategies. I want to remind you that I am talking about advocacy today. The four strategies that tend to lift up the most successful advocacy case-making are:
● A tailored case for government investment in the arts 
● A well-mobilized, popular support effort
● Champions in positions of power and influence
● Programs that embody public value"
Pam also noted the historical reactive approach of arts advocacy:

"Our model is largely responsive, and I think that gets at something Larry Meeker noted. We respond to the current political environment. That is important, and you have to do that. But I think that by doing so, it is easy to lose sight of the bigger picture because you are making all of your work about that––about responding. In doing so to the exclusion of a larger vision, you are not carving out the space for that future-thinking piece, that proactive piece, that long-term piece, that eye-on-the-prize that is the game-changing piece. It is so easy to get lost in responding to the muck that is today. But I think there always has to be space to do both. It is not one or the other, but both."

And Anthony Radich, Westaf's Executive Director, noted some of the challenges facing arts advocacy:

'"State arts agencies, which tend to benefit most from the work of state arts advocacy organizations, could be more helpful to the advocacy effort. Sometimes, leadership in the state arts agency field think that their agency is something like an errant meteorite that has landed by accident on the planet of politics and state government. They find the situation problematic, and they really would rather be a private foundation that is free of government. This anti-government posture places them in a very disadvantaged position when it comes to advocacy. The agency leadership needs to realize that they were born within state government and that, in order to sustain and expand the agency’s position within state government, one needs to engage in government and politics––not be repelled by them.
A manifestation of this posture is an all-too-familiar choice that I observe almost every day. Given the choice of applying the administrative time necessary to support one more dance performance in a state or scheduling a conversation with an ornery but powerful state legislator, the additional dance performance wins more times than not. In a number of states, this balance of choice needs to be reset. State arts agencies are organs of state government, and their governing boards and staff leaders need to proactively engage in the bureaucratic and political games of state government in order to succeed.
One factor related to the relative health of state arts advocacy organizations that has not yet been mentioned is the lack of involvement of large nonprofit arts organizations in them. With some exceptions, many states have completely lost the attention and active participation of large nonprofit arts organizations. I think we all know why. When the state arts agencies were initially established, all arts groups considered them a potential source of significant annual funding. But that vision of significant funds for large arts organizations has, again, with some exceptions, not been realized. Because the original bargain was large group advocacy for potential large funding return, the large groups decided they were no longer going to actively participate in state arts advocacy because it was not worth the time and resources they needed to expend. I think the non-participation of large arts organizations in state arts advocacy is an important issue that we need to discuss further. I think we need to talk about that during the next couple of days. We need these organizations. I understand that they can be difficult partners, even obnoxious. I know; I have worked with them before. But they can be strong allies; they have very deep roots in communities. They also have really good––and often underutilized–– political connections. We need to consider ways to make use of them for state arts advocacy purposes and generally re-engage them. They are involved in this work in some states. However, in many more states, they are totally not in the picture."
In an early summary of the discussion, Virginia Gowski, WESTAF's Chair offered:

"From these presentations, I took away five “haves:” 1) Have a leader with a vision; 2) Have a plan and, ideally, a plan developed in collaboration with your state arts agency; 3) Have a story; 4) Have a champion or three; and 5) Have the courage to go for something big. 
Matt Wilson also made an important point about how we staff these organizations. We tend to staff them with arts lovers––with people who work in the nonprofit field or who are recently retired from the nonprofit arts field. We do not staff them with community activists. We do not staff them with advocates with non-arts experience.

In a discussion that followed:

Sofia Klatzker - Executive Director, Arts for LA, added:
"We need to be more concerted about how we partner with organizations. I partner with the League of Women Voters, the United Way, Community Coalition, and a cluster of other organizations. The first year of a campaign that focuses on, maybe, registering youth to vote, we'll follow their model. But we'll bring what we bring best, which is the attention and the visibility of the arts and artists. Following the first year that we work on a campaign, we are smarter, and we can actually help direct the campaign in ways that we know are more successful. Our organization partners then start to adopt some of the ways that we have been working. But we can all start incorporating the best lessons we have learned from those community-organizing experiences. The iterative learning of campaigns has been really helpful to us."

And Matthew Wilson commented:
"I would agree that it is important to engage and to learn from others. I would also say that there is no replacement for professional training. I was trained for four years to be an organizer. You talk about the lobbyists. They're professionals, and it's a real skill––it's not just something you pick up in a weekend of training. It is a skill; it is a craft.

To the point of playing the political game, Rusty Foley,  Executive Director, Arizona Citizens for the Arts, added:

"The arts community remains resistant to being engaged in the political sphere. This is even the case for those who acknowledge they are working in a political environment. Certainly, in the state of Arizona and many states throughout the West, the political orientation of the arts sector is not in tune with the political environment in most state Houses. Arts folks are very resistant to acknowledging that. One thing you learn as a lobbyist––and certainly as a corporate lobbyist–– is that you have to play the game that is on the table. It doesn't matter if you are a Republican or a Democrat. If the Republicans wield the power in the state House, you better get to know them, and you better learn how to get along with them. And vice versa is true as well.
The real challenge that we have, which is unlike my experience in the utility industry, is that the public interests served by the arts really are less well defined in the minds of policymakers. We have not done a good job of explaining that public interest. Even in the day-to-day, on-the- ground activity in which we engage, very often that interest is very one dimensional. It is about the money: How much funding are we getting for the state arts agency? In this environment, especially in these times of scarcity, it is very problematic that success appears to hinge on how much money you get for the state arts agency."

John White,  InHouse Consultants, Inc.

"The money that you put toward a lobbying effort is only as good as you can direct it. What that means is you, as the constituent, have to understand the big, broad themes playing out in the body you are trying to impact.
It is your job to make sure the lobbyist you hire makes calls. It is your job to make sure that the work is getting done." 

A robust discussion on tactics, strategies, and case making, included some insightful advice to arts advocates, like that from Michael Hillerby, Director of Legislative Affairs, Kaempfer Crowell

"I received some advice early in my career that is still good today: Become valuable to someone. While becoming valuable to the chair of the Appropriations Committee would be great, becoming valuable to nearly anyone in the process who will look out for you is very important. They become like your aunt or uncle who will remind you of some of the details of the process and provide some helpful tips from time to time.

And the sage advice of Sofia Klatzker    

"Success is not just having a lobbyist. I think that point is well taken. Knowing how you are going to use someone and understanding what the value is or what you are trying to do are very important. Assessing the field, assessing leverage, applying leverage gently––I like the term gently there. It's about human relationships. Everything that we're doing is about humanity and that our roles inside that change. Who you're working with today is someone that you're going to need to expand and figure out how to leverage tomorrow."

Added Janet Brown, President and CEO, Grantmakers in the Arts

"I would argue that if we want to be successful moving forward, that it was never about us. It is always about how we do a better job of impacting the community around us. When I think about where we have gone wrong in terms of the public perception of the arts–– about institutionalized arts in our last 40 years––I believe it is because we have become specialists instead of generalists. We have taken the arts out of homes and put them in higher education programs and institutions. All of that has been specializing, specializing, specializing away from the public.
But at the same time, we have to recognize that art making includes arts and education, arts and health, arts and well-being, arts and corrections, arts and economic development. The arts are innate in all of those other activities. We have to learn how to talk about them. It certainly is a trend where funding is going. It's as if we've stepped back 50 years and said, “Oh my gosh–– now we have to be relevant!” We've lost our relevance. We’ve lost how to talk about our relevance."

In a concluding discussion on a future vision, Janet, as well as others, talked about where to focus:

"We talk about the arts, and most of the rest of the world does not know what we are talking about. I think we are talking about artists––from professional artists to the guy and gal who sing in the shower––we all have those creative abilities. We are all artists, and every community is better with artists in it. So we need to talk more about artists and less about organizations because institutions are never true or faithful. Institutions will always betray you. People will not. Artists will not. Let us define ourselves in terms of advocating for artists and arts organizations to make our lives better" 

And as the discussion moved to consider a "movement model" for the future of arts advocacy, and what kind of narrative we might embrace in positioning arts advocacy relative to our communities, Matthew Wilson suggested:

"When we talk about narratives, we talk about three stories we need to tell: The story of self, the story of us, and the story of now. I think we do a pretty good job telling the story of self. We are good at talking about ourselves and self-interests. We need to work on is the story of us. What is our broader interest in the larger community? We need to be able to create that narrative. The story of now is what we want. What is our platform actually asking for? So, for me, those are great discussions to have. The second is structure. I am just a firm believer in the need to increase capacity to do this work. So how do we create and build those models and support them? To me, it is exciting. We have potentially 50 laboratories to try to figure this out. We have 50 different states with 50 different identities. I think it would be great to focus on a few of them and figure it out and focus energy and resources and go. We can actually do this." 

The above excerpts are but a tiny slice of what was as rich and robust a discussion of arts advocacy as I have yet seen in the field.  I strongly urge you to read the report so you can get a better sense of the depth of the complexity of trying to re-envision and reimagine how the field and, in particular, individual states, might improve their advocacy situations and best prepare for future efforts.  From practical and tactical considerations to more lofty questions of vision and purpose, advocacy is a critical area for all of us,  one which is in dire need of more support.

On the practical side, for our advocacy organizations to truly be effective, each state organization needs full time, paid, experienced and trained leadership.  For far too long, arts advocacy has been a volunteer effort and that reality keeps us from being serious players in the game.  And each state needs a lobbyist.  But too often the arts have subscribed to the erroneous notion that the employment of a professional lobbyist absolves the advocacy effort from much of its work.  Turn it over to the lobbyist, and viola, problem solved.  They will do the work.  Lobbyists are only as effective as the support available to them from the client base.  And lobbyists are businesses. They will take your money and try their best for you, but you need to stay on top of them, work with them and manage a field that can support them in their endeavoring to represent your interests.

Mobilization of our own field, to zero in on effective narratives, case making and storytelling requires work - lots of work - and unless there is a paid staff, that work, as often as not, simply won't get done.  It will not perform itself.  And that staff must be experienced in community organizing and politics, as well as in the arts.  Mere passion is not enough.

Then too, mobilization of wider support - be it from other interests aligned with ours, or other agencies of government - requires considerable, time consuming additional work. Again work that takes expertise and will not do itself.

On the visionary side, while every state and every region and every local area is different, and no one cookie cutter approach will work everywhere, we still need to have some consensus and near universal buy-in as to who we serve, why and how.  We need a shared idea of what we want and how to get it.

Finally, I have long held the view that we have become intoxicated with the idea that if we just communicate our value to decision makers, and get them to understand that value, by storytelling and statistical evidence, we will ultimately win the day.  While that approach may have succeeded in maintaining the status quo, it hasn't led to realization of our objectives. It's been like running in place, and never moving forward.  Our efforts in this area are what advocacy is all about.  But politics is also about lobbying - and that is a defined game (and whether we like it or not is irrelevant), with a history, rules and players with skill sets.  Failure to engage in the game has consequences.  Elected decision makers very often base decisions on their perception of potential constituent / voter revolt (consider the NRA).  We must figure out how to develop that tool as part of our arsenal.  We haven't yet even begun to do so.

On that thread, we must ask ourselves why we haven't ponied up the individual contributions to financially establish PACs (Political Action Committees) on the state levels.

We must also ask ourselves why national players in our field, including foundations,  haven't rallied to financially support the creation and sustaining of state arts advocacy.

Too often, symposiums, summit meetings, research studies and other gatherings that try to consider big issues, publish reports that are read by few people, and end up relegated to the shelf.  That's both understandable given the demands on everyone's time, and lamentable because we ought to make the time to, as a field, address major practical and policy issues.   Advocacy ought to be on the table as a priority.  Clearly government funding is not the biggest source of our income, but it is a major piece and it's not the only decisions by government about funding that affect us.

I hope you will read the Westaf report and pass it on in your community.

Have a great week.

Don't Quit