Sunday, January 7, 2018

Interview with Sofia Klatzker - Arts for L.A.

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

Arts for L.A. - the greater Los Angeles area arts advocacy organization - is one of the most successful regional advocacy arms in the county, with broad based local arts support, and an enviable record of success. It is currently expertly led by Sofia Klatzker, who graciously joined me in the following brief interview.

Sofia Klatzker Bio:
Sofia Klatzker is the Executive Director of Arts for LA, a regional advocacy organization dedicated to promoting arts and culture across government, education, business, and community life. Under her leadership, the ACTIVATE advocacy leadership training program more than doubled in size now representing 226 leaders; created a new mobile website connecting Arts for LA’s 60,000 members with local officials; surveyed over 350 candidates across 60 local elections in November 2016; and launched a campaign to register arts and cultural organizations to become polling stations. She has over 16 years experience advocating for and implementing arts policies, arts education, and grant making. Sofia currently serves on the boards of California Arts Advocates and Californians for the Arts, and serves on both the California Alliance for Arts Education’s Policy Council, and the Arts for Incarcerated Youth Network Advisory Council. Sofia received her B.M. in Electronic Music Composition from Oberlin Conservatory and her M.A. in Arts Administration from Goucher College.

Here is the interview:

BARRY:  Arts for LA is one of the most successful urban arts advocacy organizations in the county.  What are the key elements that have made the organization so successful?

SOFIA:  There are six concepts that contribute to our success:
- At our core we are deeply collaborative. We work closely with other nonprofit arts organizations, social service organizations, public partners, funders, individual artists, and our network of action and contributing members. There are also a number of fabulous arts advocacy organizations across the country from whom we continuously learn how to improve our strategies and campaigns.

- We see the region as a unified ecosystem and don't put value on one aspect more than any other. We need big nonprofits, small nonprofits, individual artists, commercial production, private arts, amateur arts, and embrace moments of personal and private creativity that happen in the home.

- Our work operates at the community grassroots level as well as the leadership and policymaking grass tops level. We convene people and connect arts leaders with their policy makers.

- Founded by arts leaders, in our bones we represent the needs of a strong nonprofit cultural arts sector.

- Through programs such as Arts Vote, we make the arts part of larger conversations to ensure that arts questions are asked at candidate forums. Every person running for election is asked their view of the arts.

- We don’t assume sole leadership, we strengthen the leadership of local voices.

BARRY:  While AFTA provides an exemplary framework for federal arts advocacy efforts through its State Arts Action Network and its PAC, the Arts Action Fund, a third of the states lack any real functioning general arts advocacy organization, and there are few solid urban city or regional arts advocacy organizations. Why is that, and what ought to be done to change that reality?

SOFIA:  I wouldn’t presume to tell local communities how to address their advocacy needs. It must be a local response to the representative needs of the whole community. Not every community needs a formal nonprofit advocacy organization that empowers people on the ground to advocate for their interests. You do need a way to connect people on the ground with their policy makers so that they know how much power they have and then ideally there is some central body that is helping either create or track the priorities of that community. But that can happen at the largest performing arts organization, or in partnership with another grassroots community organization, or a cross-sector partnership. I would stress the outcomes over the infrastructure. Ultimately, we’re not looking for more nonprofits, we’re looking for more Arts.

In many states, local advocacy efforts for the most part can be managed and coordinated by a state advocacy agency. However, Los Angeles is enormous and our state  advocacy organization (of which I am a board member) can't possibly serve the variety of needs that we represent: 10 million people spread over 4700 square miles in 88 cities and 81 school districts. That’s the size of Connecticut and the population of Michigan. Yet, we still maintain a focus on building relationships with local policy makers by tracking elections, surveying all candidates running in every race (school boards, city councils, and the County Board of Supervisors).

Our origin may be replicable elsewhere - we started with an ad hoc group of arts leaders, public agencies, and nonprofits. We have found that opportunities emerge when there is a specific plan, group, or vision to coalesce around.

The Arts sector can learn a lot from the 2008 election cycle when a lot of small donors supported a candidate without reliance on one big special interest. A lot of voices came together on a national scale. Sometimes in Arts advocacy we look for that one foundation or donor who will support this work, but our greatest power is within all the small organizations, audience members, and individual artists who collectively have a lot more power than we regularly acknowledge. Giving these individuals a modest level of structured leadership training can result in a strong unified advocacy voice on the ground at a variety of scale.

BARRY:  Generally, even for the most successful arts advocacy organizations, irrespective of the level (federal, state, local), only a small fraction of the total number of arts organizations within the territory are actually involved in advocacy, beyond responding to some annual request to support government budget requests - and even then not so many.  Why don’t more arts organizations actively contribute and participate in arts advocacy efforts?

SOFIA:  We should ask what support organizations need to successfully advocate when there is something on the line for which to take action. When Arts for LA launched ACTIVATE, our leadership fellows program, we found that most people didn't know where to begin, starting with how to define the change they sought. They didn’t know who was in their inner circle that had influence and power to help realize their goals.

As a field we need to move away from reactive advocacy toward aspirational advocacy. Aspirational advocacy means having a joint vision. In broad terms, this could bee broadly “more arts everywhere for everyone”. This vision encompasses arts in every classroom, in hospitals and in-patient treatment plans, using arts in the military for rehabilitation, and in our justice system for reducing recidivism. It is about safe and affordable housing for artists and valuing the sector as it exists, while expanding it to be more representative of the working artists who may not feel included in these discussions. It is about supporting and strengthening the career options for professional artists and the jobs that support creative enterprises. It is a big vision that works across the entire sector.

We must be united in saying that we need more art everywhere for everyone and that there are different ways to achieve that goal. Each nonprofit organization needs to define for themselves what it is that they are doing and that they believe in to move that ideal forward.

A few years ago we launched a simple, yet transformative project asking our nonprofit arts organizations to become polling places. This opened up their relationship with their local community and provides a way to have a non-transactional relationship with their neighbors. It also shows that we are community members who care about the local legislation and policies that affect our lives as individuals and as organizations that serve our neighbors. In many cases it also is an opportunity to expand the audience of who these organizations are reaching. The primary goal is to expand the definition of who the organization is and how do they fit into "more art everywhere".

BARRY:  Despite decades of good information detailing why and how arts organizations can, and should, be active in lobbying (as opposed to just advocating) for the arts, still a large number don’t understand that it is permitted, and more just don’t seem interested.  How can we change that?

SOFIA:  In many cases this is a case of fearing alienating their board, funders, or audiences. In some cases, nonprofits don't know what they can do in terms of lobbying, but often it's more a fear of causing offense, fear of losing tax exempt status, or fear of losing funding that causes organizations lobbying paralysis.

Our nonprofit tax exempt status means we must represent the entire community with our work. Part of that mandate means representing the interests that we as specialists have in representing the arts and culture in the legislative process. We have a right and a duty to be that voice. If nonprofits don’t do it, who will?

BARRY:  Foundations and private philanthropy efforts still tend to shy away from funding advocacy, let alone lobbying, even though both are permitted.  Why, and how do we move those funders towards funding?

SOFIA:  As with all aspects of advocacy, this is a personal relationship building opportunity. If we want to have more foundations and funders provide support for advocacy, then we need to have informed conversations with those foundation executives and board members  - especially those who have recently been changing their giving priorities by removing the arts as a specific giving area. We must remind them that the work is non-partisan, that we do not endorse candidates. Most funders of nonprofits are trying to improve the quality of life for local people in some way. That is impossible to do if there is not some lobbying arm as part of the work. Those of us in the arts sector have our work cut out for us to show that it is possible to be part of lobbying while not being part of partisan or candidate related politics.

BARRY:  Many state and local arts advocacy efforts continue to be volunteer efforts with no paid staffing.  How important is it to have paid leadership for advocacy organizations?

SOFIA:  We fund our values and priorities. That is true in school systems, in neighborhood councils, and in city government. It is also true in our own local advocacy efforts. I serve as a volunteer board member for the California Art Advocates and Californians for the Arts. While hard-working volunteers keep the arts visible, without full-time paid staff, the work ends of being year-by-year, mostly focused on keeping or increase public funding for the arts, and distribution of funding to underserved areas. We need full time staff to implement our long-term vision with a multi-layered strategy. By not having paid staff we perpetuate our triage mentality. We also inadvertently show that as a sector this is not a valued priority – it is very hard to ask for money when we are not willing as a sector to support a formal body who represents the interests of the local arts.

BARRY:  Public valuation of the arts is high on surveys, but not in actions.  Many people still cling to the notion that the arts, while of value, are a frill or luxury, despite decades of talk within the field about moving the public in this belief.  What can we do to make substantive progress that we are not now doing?

SOFIA:  I believe in some ways we have been our own worst enemy when it comes to making too many claims of our power and value. To be certain, I believe we are the heart of humanity, the reflection of who we are as people. But when we claim we are the answer to every problem and social ill, and the people we claim to represent do not identify with these claims, we undermine our message.

It is not enough to identify isolated incidents of arts as solution partners or arts contributing to thriving communities. Instead, we must show that we are embedded and begin to build an identity of arts and creativity for the people who live in our communities. Thankfully this work has started happening over the last few years.

This includes embedding arts voices across all levels of government. We need to remove the false equivalencies of arts versus X (i.e. homelessness, immigration, housing, etc.). Once we have arts representatives embedded within these departments and impacting policies, we will begin to see modest change. We are starting to see this across many different communities, and it is causing advocates like myself to track non-arts budgets in order to calculate current support for arts across larger public systems. That is a terrific change and I think we will see more of this moving forward.

However, until people outside of the art sector identify the arts in their daily lives, the power of creative community or part of the creative economy, then we will not change minds. This is about individual identity and what we value, neighborhood by neighborhood, state-by-state.

BARRY:  If even 25% of arts organizations would each do a benefit for arts advocacy efforts once every two years, we could likely raise millions of dollars annually to help our efforts.  I’ve asked countless artists over the years if they would be willing to do that, and not one has ever said “no”.  Yet arts organizations are reluctant to even consider the idea.  Your comment?

SOFIA:  Similar to the question about nonprofit participation, if they don't know what they're asking for, it is hard to enlist others to help raise money. What are they raising money for? To what end? Are we going to have to fight this again next year?

For instance, I support a modest approach to increase federal funding for the arts. However, advocating for the NEA budget to be increased to represent one dollar per person is shortsighted. We definitely want to increase the NEA budget, but as advocates we are not sharing the total number we *should* be spending on the arts per capita, because we don't know that number. Instead, we set ourselves up to continually need, year after year, to ask for more in the next budget cycle. We are always behind, we are trying to recover or restore past budget cuts, we focus on filling in gaps instead of building a larger vision. These are sweeping generalizations, and there are many examples of tremendous work that is strategic, thoughtful, and pushes the envelope. Ultimately, most arts advocacy comes down to advocating for more public money, more resources, more staffing, more equity. None of this advocacy inspires a vision for future that is well-resourced and stable.

We need to be inspirational! Happily, this is what we as artists do best!

The work I'm most excited about, besides local cultural equity initiatives, is how the arts are now being embedded in other areas of our legislative process and all levels of governing systems such as justice, probation, health and education budgets. Once we are embedded in these ways, then we can showcase the best of who we are no matter the art form. That is the intrinsic value of arts.

BARRY:  Arts advocacy has longed championed making the case for the arts via storytelling and explaining how the arts benefit communities, when the political reality is that it is votes, or the threat of withholding votes, that is most persuasive to elected officials.  Why don’t the arts embrace that reality?

SOFIA:  As a parent and audience member, I’m aware that many of my peers aren’t concerned with the overall economic impact of the arts sector. However, we do care about the options available to us as we raise future participants. Numbers don't sway these patrons. They know what they believe in, they know what they value. Parents and audience members are who we must focus our storytelling and benefits language towards.

But elected officials need to feel justified investing in a sector that shows a positive ROI. They need a different message with a different set of consequences. It is good to remind your representatives that we as a sector vote on higher percentages than the general population. Incidentally, I encourage nonprofit to ask their members and constituents if they are registered to vote and if they voted in the last election. These are number that should be shared with elected officials.

We must speak to many different audiences and interests, and we need to know when to use which message. For our neighbors, this is about embedding the arts into their local identity. Los Angeles is, by numbers, the creative capital of the world. But my neighbors do not all take pride in living in an arts-rich city. They do not talk about the job opportunities of the creative economy, even though 1:6 jobs locally are in the creative arts and related economy. The movement we must cultivate is one where people outside the arts sector take pride in an abundance of arts and culture. The arts are part of what makes this a place they want to call home.


Have a great week.

Don't Quit