"And the beat goes on..............."
The Interview with Matt Wilson, Part II
Barry: Storytelling, or data arguments. Where ought the emphasis—or balance if you will—lie to be effective with elected officials? What are the most effective tools you use to make the case to elected officials? Political messaging has become increasingly specialized to specific target audiences. How adept and sophisticated at that are we?
Matt: MASSCreative works to shift the prevailing narrative that political leaders believe that the arts are nice, but not necessary. Our message is that the arts are both nice and necessary. To convey this message and influence decision makers, we use both data and storytelling.
We collect stories in the field about the impact of the arts on individuals, families, schools, businesses, public health, and our broader communities. These stories make the case that art, culture and creativity is a public good deserving of public support. We also rely on economic data. The Americans for Arts Economic Prosperity 5 report provides figures on the impact that the arts has on jobs and the local economy. MASSCreative’s experience has shown that this data is helpful when talking to legislators and political leaders who often think in an economic frame. While data has been helpful in discussions with decision makers, storytelling has been more effective in building support with the field and grassroots advocates.
MASSCreative’s core narrative was adapted from The Arts Ripple Effect, which was written in 2010. Prepared by the Topos Partnership for the Cincinnati Fine Arts Fund, the report focused on telling stories about the impact of arts and creativity as a vital asset to the broader society. This narrative has been further supplemented by the ongoing Creating Connections initiative sponsored by Arts Midwest. This research shows the importance of the connections that creative expression provides for individuals and communities. To build broad-based support of the arts supporters, it is these stories that motivate and engage the public to the sector.
Barry: Successful lobbying is built on public support for the cause. How do we move the needle of public support for our advocacy efforts? And is that a vastly different challenge depending on the territory?
Matt: Politicians determine their priorities from two factors. First, they need to be convinced on the merits of the issue. It’s your job to convince them that the arts matter. Second, political leaders need to be convinced that supporting the arts will help them politically. They need to know that a vote for the arts is supported by the voters and that it will help them come election time. So, it’s also your job to educate arts voters and make sure they get to the polls. The arts sector needs to be loved for its work and feared for its political strength.
One of the clear challenges facing the community is that there is a broad, yet shallow level of support for the arts and creative community. Virtually everyone is an arts supporter, yet very few are champions who are willing to go to the mat for the sector.
Saul Alinsky, one of the great political organizers from the ‘60s and ‘70s, says that to make change, you have got to create a little heat, a little friction, a little uncomfortable-ness. Many in the arts community are uncomfortable with putting pressure on decision makers and creating tension. Leaders need to be able to say, “Yes, I like you, but you have got to do a little bit more? You cannot just say you like us; you have to be a champion.” Through its public education and advocacy, MASSCreative works to create that heat and that friction.
Barry: Besides funding, what are the most critical arts related issues for which the sector ought to be advocating, and what trends do you see over the next few years?
Matt: Policy development is key. Just look at what California has done with the Arts in Corrections program. I think it’s going to be critical for the arts sector to demonstrate how it can contribute solutions to current socioeconomic issues. For example, how can the sector build healthy and vibrant communities with cultural institution and artist as center pieces? How can it drive a strong economy fueled with creative workers? How can it strengthen public education by ensuring arts education is a core part of the system? How can it build a diverse, equitable and inclusive community with arts and creativity as a catalyst?
It also needs to look for opportunities to have a positive impact on healthcare, public safety, veteran services, elder services, youth development, substance use, and other areas of concern.
Looking ahead, the sector also needs to figure out what level of government to focus on. While the chaos in DC needs attention, it is unclear on how much the community can move the needle in the Congress or White House. For MASSCreative, state agencies and municipalities provide better opportunities for real change. Advocacy groups need to look at their states and decide whether a state or local focus is the priority.
Barry: How do we mobilize the millions of artists in the country to join our advocacy efforts? Why has there been so little progress in that area?
Matt: When I first took this job, many folks in the sector warned me that it would be like herding cats. “You’ll never be able to organize artists.” Those predictions have proven false. The passion I see every day from working artists and arts supporters is equal to what I saw working with people trying to clean up the environment or expand access to healthcare. The problem, from the state, has been that many artists and arts supporters don’t know how to engage effectively in the political process. And just like families dealing with health issues related to pollution, they need opportunities and structure, from advocacy organizations, to tell their story to their elected representatives. That is the essence of any advocacy organization – to craft campaigns and provide opportunities for people to tell their stories.
Barry: The arts have long sought effective partnerships with business, the entertainment community and with other government agencies. Arguably, considerable progress has been made in establishing those connections via programs in which the arts are a component - e.g., arts and health, arts and prisons, et. al. How do we expand on that direction and bring it to a larger scale? Again, where can / should the leadership essential to those efforts come from?
Matt: As much as we collaborate with other organizations—the best example would be our work with education organizations who partners with us to push for universal access to sequential arts education from grades K-12—we learned a valuable lesson during last year’s budget campaign: We need strong political partners.
Last year, the Massachusetts governor vetoed the arts budget. It was the third year in a row in which he did so. The campaign to override the veto was successful. But it consisted almost exclusively of member of the arts community. We didn’t have the community-development folks, or the healthcare community, or even the education advocates working on our behalf. It was clear to us that if we want their help, we need to look beyond our own agenda and help them. The arts sector really needs to create partnerships to help create coalitions with mutual interests. By adding the arts sector’s support to other’s causes and initiatives, it is much more likely to receive reciprocal help on its own issues
So, we’re expanding our campaign platform to explore policy initiatives on how arts and creativity must be a key part of our economic and education systems and is a driver to building more vibrant, healthy, connected and equitable communities. An ongoing executive branch “policy audit” will look at existing programs in the current Administration to identify opportunities for the arts and creative sector to be an asset for the government to address issues of concern. Through identifying these opportunities, the sector can partner up with advocates outside the arts sector on campaign work.
Barry: How do we make advocacy training an integral part of the education and preparation of every single upcoming future arts manager? To what extent do you see that kind of professional development integrated into University Arts Management curriculum?
Matt: University Arts Administration programs regularly bring MASSCreative into their classrooms to introduce and engage their students in arts advocacy. The sector needs to make sure that administrators know that public education and advocacy for the arts and creative sector is part of their jobs.
The sector can do more to build a more comprehensive curricula and training for students that helps them better understand the political process, where arts and creativity fits in the governmental structure, and strategies and tactics that can be used to mobilize institutions and individuals as effective advocates for the arts.
The sector also need boards and staff to imbed arts advocacy in the missions of its institutions. For the sector to thrive, artists and institutions need to be thinking and acting about the broader health of the sector. Time and resources need to be dedicated to this work.
Barry: Should arts organizations do more to involve their members, supporters, audiences and volunteers in being political? How best to get over any reluctance by organizations to do that?
Matt: Grassroots movements create change. When ordinary people who have a passion to improve their community come together and a thoughtful and strategic plan for change is implemented, things start to change. It can be seen on a grand level such as the women’s and civil rights movement or the LGBTQ and environmental movements. Or it can be on a more local level, when a neighborhood comes together to put a stop sign at the end of their street.
The arts sector has the capacity to mobilize its leaders, supporters and partners into a powerful voice for change. Cultural institutions need to engage their boards of directors, staff, donors, and the vast audiences that embrace their work in campaigns for change. When in front of live audiences, when emotions are real, and passions are high, institution leaders should provide the opportunity for audiences to act. Why not send a text to the Governor or a state representative to take that vote in favor of the arts? When a vote on the state arts budget is imminent, they should send an email (not to fundraise or recruit for a show) to encourage their supporters to send a quick message to their state senator to support increases in the budget. When a public art project is being proposed down the street, a museum can urge attendees to send a postcard to the Mayor asking her to support the installation.
These actions don’t need to take away from the artistic beauty or essence of the show. It should only add. It will help supporters and audiences realize that the work is part of a broader community and a broader movement to bring more vibrancy and connection to the area. It will show to the organization’s network that not only is the institution’s work important, but that the creative health of the broader community is significant.
A nonprofit institution can engage in advocacy – a 501c3 organization can spend a limited amount of time and resources on advocacy. Not only will it help the broader community, but it will help the institution in the short and long run. The sector needs to dive into political activity. Everything is inherently political, and not only can the sector be engaged in political activity, it has to be. Arts advocacy groups like MASSCreative help train and engage the leaders and supporters of the sector in political action.
Note: For a summary discussion of the differences in definition, and the applicable rules for nonprofits, to advocate and to lobby, click here for a Grantmakers in the Arts Podcast on the subject. Nonprofits can do both, and should.
Barry: In an interview I did recently with Sofia Klatzker, she mentioned that she encourages arts organizations to volunteer as voter polling places on election days. That exposure, while perhaps small, nonetheless helps to expand awareness of the arts by bringing people into the sites. I thought that was brilliant. Do you have any little tricks like that you can pass on?
Matt: Well, one is the curtain speech ask I mentioned above in which audience members are asked to send a text to their state lawmakers urging support for the arts. Another one is to hold an on line virtual Lobby Day. We do it in October as a way for people around the state to participate without having to go to Beacon Hill, where our legislature works. We simply ask people to share why arts matters to them with a video that we share to YouTube and Facebook, or other social media posts. Some people hold mini-Arts Matter Day events in their communities. The point is that all of these stories are shared with lawmakers and makes a huge impact on social media.
Barry: Where would you like to see arts advocacy in five years, and what has to happen to get us to a point that you would like us to get to?
Matt: I’d love to see us get to a place where the policymakers working on criminal justice reforms or opioid epidemic interventions include arts advocates in their work from the beginning. Our sector can and does improve lives.
Also, the people who thrive in the decades to come will need to be creative. They’ll need to be comfortable with innovation. They’ll need to be able to think critically. These are skills that artists have, and that arts education imbues to others who are not artists. The sector has an opportunity to positively influence our economies; our local, state, and national politics; our public health and safety; and all of us as individuals. To reach this potential, the arts sector (arts leaders, supporters, partners, funders, and state arts agencies) needs to commit to advocacy as a part of its mission, job, and responsibility. Specifically, they must:
- Fund arts advocacy organizations so they have the capacity to run effective advocacy campaigns
- Develop bold policy proposals to put before national state and local officials that will bring more resource and support to the community.
- Engage in nonpartisan election work to inject arts and creativity into candidate’s platforms and the minds of voters
- Broadcast the stories of impact that artists and cultural institutions bring to communities that bring vibrancy, health and connections
- Run professional issue campaigns that bring together advocacy, organizing and media tactics that create change.
- Engage institutions’ networks—board staff and audiences in telling their story as one voice to political leaders with passion at the right time.
Thank you Matt.
Have a great week.