Sunday, April 8, 2018

Interview with MASSCreative's Matt Wilson

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

MassCreative is one of the sector's best advocacy organizations, and its Executive Director, Matt Wilson, is one of the sector's best Advocates / Lobbyists; experienced, savvy, smart and focused.    As with January's 
interview with Arts for LA's Sofia Klatzker, I believe this is a major interview on advocacy, and I hope as many people as possible will read Matt's spot on observations and insights.   I've divided it into two parts.  Part I today, and Part II tomorrow.

Matt Wilson Bio:

Hired as MASSCreative’s first Executive Director in March of 2012, Matt directs the advocacy campaigns and organizational development for the organization. For 30 years, he has run campaigns and organized volunteers and communities for the public interest on a local, state, national level.

In 2011, Wilson directed environmentalist and social entrepreneur Bob Massie’s campaign for the U.S. Senate. Previously he coordinated Health Care for All’s campaign to monitor the takeover of the nonprofit Caritas Hospitals by a for profit private equity firm.

As the National Director of the field staff for from 2005-2006, Matt helped develop and implement the strategy behind’s successful 2006 Call for Change, which recruited and trained more than 100,000 volunteers in 60 swing Congressional and Senate districts.

As the Founder and Director of Toxics Action Center from 1989 to 2005, Wilson assisted more than 300 neighborhood groups address toxic pollution issues in their communities. He grew the organization from one staffer working in Massachusetts to a New England-wide organization with 11 staff.

Wilson graduated from Dartmouth College in 1983 and also earned a Masters of Public Administration at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government in 2008.

Here is Part I of the interview:

Barry: MASSCreative—the Massachusetts Arts Advocacy organization you head—has positioned itself as supporting creativity as essential to build “a more vibrant, healthy and equitable Massachusetts.” Was it a conscious decision to emphasize creativity in the name and vision statement and to promote a not necessarily arts specific description? If so, why?

Matt:  This is such a great question, and it gets to the heart of what MASSCreative is all about. The decision to emphasize creativity not just in the name of the organization, but also in its mission was quite deliberate. It was a bold statement that we were going to be much more than a narrow, self-interested advocacy organization working to increase the Massachusetts budget’s line item for our state’s arts and cultural agency.

MASSCreative’s mission is to build a more vibrant, healthy, and equitable Massachusetts by advocating for the support and resources the arts and creative community needs to thrive.

In the six years since we formed, we have indeed done much more than advocate for a greater public investment in the arts (which, it must be said, is still a very important piece of what we do). But we also advocate for changes in state policy on the arts curriculum for grades K-12. We work with political leaders around the state, educating them on how integrating arts and cultural planning into other city initiatives on public health, public safety, economic development, and education can significantly scale impact.

We also partner with other organizations working on social justice initiatives related to racial equity, LGBTQ equality, and anti-violence work. These partnerships and collaborations give us a broader base of political support, expands our ability to impact policy and the sector, and increases our overall effectiveness.

Barry: By all accounts you and MASSCreative have had great success. What are the key elements in that success, or in any arts advocacy success?

Matt:  The keys to succeeding as an arts advocacy organization aren’t all that different from those needed for success around any other issue. But there are some challenges.

First, you need to create and maintain a strong organizational infrastructure led by a talented staff, powerful board, stable and sustainable revenue sources, and a strong administrative foundation. We have a staff of five and a 15-member board of directors and everyone contributes. It would not be possible to do what we do without this organizational stability.

Second, you can’t change anything without political power. So, you need to build your base. Get out in the community and meet people. Hold events. Create an email list so you can communicate directly with people who care about arts advocacy. Be active and engaging on social media. Write blog posts so you can demonstrate knowledge on the issues and propose ideas.

Third, build a deeply knowledgeable group of supporters and advisers. We recruit, train, and engage working artists, educators, and the leaders of nonprofit arts institutions who provide incredibly valuable feedback on our policy initiatives and campaigns. They also act as our ambassadors. When we issue a call to action, they immediately share it with their networks. Our Leadership Council has 54 members. We’ve also recruited 400-member organizations. Our regular base of supporters who participate in advocacy campaigns and events is more than 25,000 people.

Fourth, get media to cover you. Our own channels of communications are great. With Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, YouTube, (we have 14,000+ followers) and our blog, we can share our policy goals, comment on relevant news, and issue calls to action. But mayors, city council and school committee members, and policy makers listen to the radio and read the press. So, it also helps when the state’s media outlets cover our issues. So, we’re always thinking about ways that editorials, letters to the editor, feature coverage, and op-eds can be used to move our agenda forward.

Finally, keep growing. Look for new sources of revenue. Build an individual donor program. This type of work can be the most difficult because it’s hard to ask for money. When you’re asking for money to support creativity, it can even feel doubly uncomfortable compared to other compelling issues like health reform, gun control, racial and gender equity, and climate change. But doing this work will force you to hone your message and make the case that art, culture, and creativity does, in fact, intersect with these other issues.

Barry: You have a practical, political background - having run a Senate campaign, a state health care campaign and involvement with It seems to me that is precisely the kind of practical experience arts advocates need. How critical has that previous experience been for you in effectively advocating and lobbying for the arts in Massachusetts? And how do we recruit more seasoned political veterans to head our arts advocacy efforts?

Matt:  I’ve drawn a lot on my background in politics, community organizing, and running campaigns as MASSCreative’s executive director, and it’s made all the difference. When you’re building a political movement, your first move isn’t to hire an artist or an arts administrator. Your first move is to find a political organizer. To its credit, the local arts community that backed the formation of MASSCreative recognized that it didn’t have the skills or experience to run an advocacy group. While the arts sector certainly saw itself as a public good worthy of public support, it didn’t know how to effectively engage in the public political process which involves making bold asks and sharing compelling stories that demonstrate impact.

I spent 30 years in environmental and social justice organizing before coming to MASSCreative. I spent most of my time at people's kitchen tables hearing their stories about how they’d lost their supply of clean drinking water and how it was harming their health, or how air pollution was trigging asthma attacks in their kids. My job was to figure out how to get these stories out and bring communities together to figure out how to fight polluters and get the government to do its job and protect our health. I also had experience with organizing nationally with to advocate an end to the Iraq War. My whole career has been focused on working with people who are passionate and have a clear vision of how the country should be but lack the political power to get there.

It is so clear to me how art, culture, and creativity intersect with all these issues and how we dramatically improve people’s lives and bring communities together when we invest in creativity. Given the deep divisions in our country now, I really believe that art has the power to open up channels of communication that are otherwise closed. Given the times that we live in, it shouldn’t be at all hard to recruit seasoned political activists to take on arts advocacy work. But the people doing the recruiting and hiring must demonstrate that they understand it takes real craft and skill to organize a movement and be willing to work with other movements to build power.

Barry: If all politics is local, how key is local community organizing to the future of effective arts advocacy? And how is that kind of approach best organized given our limited resources and personnel?

Matt:  I don’t think there is any place in the country where the arts are viewed as a top tier advocacy voice that is both respected and feared. To get there, the sector needs to build its political power and campaign capacity. The old adage tells us that to create political change, you need power. And political power comes from money, people or, better yet, both.

In Massachusetts, MASSCreative has chosen to train and engage a network of people, our Leadership Council which I mentioned above, to build a base of people power. It’s important to note here that historically arts advocacy work in Massachusetts relied on a “grasstops” advocacy model. Grasstops advocacy is a tried and true strategy as its spokespeople are articulate, strong, and well-connected. But supportive statements by powerful leaders in the arts didn’t provide the clout needed to get results. We also needed an army of supporters who would send 25,000 emails to the State House, show up at state education department meetings around the state, meet with their local reps in state government to ask for their support.

When we were trying to figure out how we would bring advocacy to the arts in Massachusetts, we looked to other social movements ton which to model our work. The Sierra Club is a great example. It has talented leadership, but its real strength is in its numbers. The Sierra Club has over two and a half million members. These are people who are passionate about clean air, clean water, and open space. When they cast votes in presidential, Congressional, and local political races, they look at the candidates’ positions on these issues when deciding who to vote for.

We now do that in local campaigns for school committee, city council and mayor. Through our Create the Vote campaigns, we host debates, issue questionnaires, and garner local news coverage that educates voters on candidates’ support for the arts. This work is labor intensive, but it’s not hard to get people involved. Everyone has a story about how the arts has impacted them. Parents care about arts education in the schools. Business owners care about downtown districts that are open and inviting and compel people to get out of their houses to get dinner and see a show or attend a concert. Residents and voters love to live in places that are interesting, and art does this for communities. Our Create the Vote campaigns get candidates on the record about what they’ll do for the arts. These campaigns also teach grasstops leaders not just that they can be arts advocates, but that they must be advocates if the sector is going to get the resources and support it needs to thrive.

Barry: Effective lobbying and playing of the political influence game requires money. You have the support of the major Massachusetts arts supportive foundations. What percentage of your budget comes from those sources vs. from other sources such as memberships or earned income? What options are available to states that do not have the same access to foundation support? Along that line, MASSCreative has a robust membership participation. How was that accomplished and how is it continually sustained?

Matt:  MASSCreative has built a funding base based on three pillars – foundation support, organizational members, and individual giving. The organization believes there are opportunities in corporate giving and earned revenue, but has not yet pursued those areas.

Foundations: The Boston Foundation, the state’s major community foundation, was MASSCreative’s seed funder. They understood the need for advocacy to support the sector and the importance of public investment in the arts. They were an integral part of the founding coalition and have had a sense of ownership from the start. The Barr Foundation came in a year later with additional support for the organization. Barr’s recent strategic plan has advocacy as one of the priorities of its arts and creativity program. Those two foundations and the Klarman Foundation have each funded MASSCreative for multiyear grants and make up 54 percent of the organization’s budget. Having the major foundations in Boston as supporters provides the organization with financial as well as political legitimacy. Other foundations contribute 14 percent of MASSCreative’s budget.

Organizational Members: Over the past five years, MASSCreative has steadily grown its organizational membership to more than 400 groups that contribute on a sliding scale starting from $25 for working artists and institutions with budgets under $100K up to $2,500 for institutions with budgets over $10,000,000. We raise $90,000 a year from our organizational members, which is an average of $225 a group. Organizational membership contributes 15 percent of the budget.

Individual Givers: In its first four years, MASSCreative occasionally asked individuals for money and built up a small list (200+) of donors who gave between $25-$100. The organization made on average of $3-7,000 a year from individuals. Just like organizational members, income from individuals helped build the financial and political capacity of the organization.

This year MASSCreative initiated and developed a major donor program (contributions > than $500). Its first donor drive reached out to $50+ donors and partners of MASSCreative to sit down for personal visits and a fundraising pitch. The organization conducted 40 in person hour-long visits over a 10-day period and raised $36,000, an average of $900 a person. Individual givers make up 17 percent of our budget.

The initial success of the donor drive shows that individual will make contributions to arts advocacy organizations. MASSCreative went into the drive unsure as to whether donors would look beyond their institutional giving to support arts advocacy. There were concerns that other hot button issues such as the environment, health care, civil rights, etc., might overshadow our work. That was not the case.

The support from foundations, organizations, and individuals not only helps MASSCreative financially, but helps the organization build the political capacity to run effective campaigns. That MASSCreative has the support from three major foundations in Boston provides legitimacy. MASSCreative’s 400 members and more than 500 contributors show to decision makers the wide spread support for the organization’s platform and programs.

Barry: In some senses, the arts advocacy wing is only as formidable as the sum of its various constituent parts. If some states or regions have little financial resources, isn’t that a problem for the sector as a whole? How do we address that challenge? A third of the states have virtually no arts advocacy arm. What should / can be done, and where ought the leadership for addressing that challenge come from?

Matt:  The arts sector needs to invest in arts advocacy infrastructure. Just like other advocacy sectors such as the environment, housing, or LGBTQ sectors, the arts and creative sector needs full-time professional staff advocating for the resources and services it needs to thrive. According to recent reports, more than half of the states do not have a staffed arts advocacy organization. The sector cannot build a strong movement for arts advocacy without resources and staffing dedicated to building the political capacity needed to create change.

The arts sector needs to look state by state on how to build powerful advocacy organizations. The formation of MASSCreative emerged out of a strong partnership of three vital stakeholders—funders, the state arts agency, and leadership from the arts and creative community. To have a successful arts advocacy organization, one needs to start with this triad of support.

The Sector. While the whole creative community doesn’t need to be on board from the start, the organization needs to start with a core of leaders on board as a base to work towards a broad-based membership. The formation of the organization needs to be based on the principle that the sector wants to unite and invest in a political organization that will help the community speak as a united and powerful voice

Money. There needs to be initial investment to provide the organization the resources it needs to hire staff and run its programs. MASSCreative received seed money from two foundations to allow it time and resources to develop and an implement a program and build a broader funding base through organizational memberships and individual financial support.

The Arts Agency. It is imperative that the organization works hand-in-hand with the arts agency. While the organization does not have to be totally in sync with the agency in terms of strategies, it needs strong alignment on mission and goals. The advocacy group and arts agency will be the major two games in town and they need to work collaboratively towards the same goal

Nationally the sectors need to develop best practices and models to guide the operations of the organizations. Over the past decades, states like Maryland, Minnesota, New Jersey and Illinois among others, have created effective initiatives, programs and organizational development strategies that need to be captured, packaged and shared with the rest of the nation. Leaders must create model frameworks and offer them as options for advocacy groups to organize themselves and evaluate their success.

With models in place, technical assistance must also be provided to help nascent efforts and organizations get on their feet and do their work.

End of Part I.

Part II tomorrow.

Don't Quit