This is the sixth installment in a weeklong blogfest on art and political power I’m cohosting with blogger Barry Hessenius, former Director of the California Arts Council; President of the California Assembly of Local Arts Agencies; Executive Director LINES Ballet. Author (Hardball Lobbying for Nonprofits – MacMillan & Co.; Youth Involvement in the Arts – 2 phase study for the Hewlett Foundation; Local Arts Agency Funding Study for the Aspen Institute; City Arts Toolkit), consultant, public speaker.
The series began with a dialogue between Barry and myself and continued with Roberto Bedoya, Executive Director of the Tucson Pima Arts Council, Diane Ragsdale, creator of the “Jumper” blogRa Joy, Executive Director of Arts Alliance Illinois, and Dudley Cocke, Director of Roadside Theater. Tomorrow, I’ll post my final thoughts. To each participant, we posed this question: The way we’ve been doing arts advocacy for the past thirty years isn’t working: the real value of the NEA budget has dropped by well over half, for instance, and state funding has nosedived. We remain timid and unimaginative, acting as if cultural support were a rare privilege instead of a human right. With a blank slate and all your powers of social imagination, redesign it: why and how would artists and arts advocates claim social, economic, and true political power? What would you do for the arts to develop real political clout—and what has to change for us to move down that path?
The series began with a dialogue between Barry and myself and continued with Roberto Bedoya, Executive Director of the Tucson Pima Arts Council, Diane Ragsdale, creator of the “Jumper” blogRa Joy, Executive Director of Arts Alliance Illinois, and Dudley Cocke, Director of Roadside Theater. Tomorrow, I’ll post my final thoughts. To each participant, we posed this question:
The way we’ve been doing arts advocacy for the past thirty years isn’t working: the real value of the NEA budget has dropped by well over half, for instance, and state funding has nosedived. We remain timid and unimaginative, acting as if cultural support were a rare privilege instead of a human right. With a blank slate and all your powers of social imagination, redesign it: why and how would artists and arts advocates claim social, economic, and true political power? What would you do for the arts to develop real political clout—and what has to change for us to move down that path?
While this limited dialogue may not be representative of the whole field, in reviewing the entries by Roberto Bedoya, Diane Ragsdale, Ra Joy and Dudley Cocke, plus the comments from readers here at and Arlene’s blogsite, I am left with several impressions:
1. There simply is no consensus on what approach “advocacy” and the development of real political clout for us ought to take. We are all over the map without focus and a united front. It would seem we remain unable to, or even incapable of, agreeing on a conceptual context for how we ought to approach the development of political power (or even if we should), and how that power might be best obtained, managed and manifested. I suppose it’s hard to agree on how to fight for who and what we are, when we haven’t yet agreed on who and what we are about. Power is about leveraging strengths and consensus.
That’s a problem for us.
2. Within the various threads of what might be the best approach, there seems to be an overarching exclusivity bias. Those who think we ought to take this or that approach, seem not to want to embrace any other approach. While as Roberto pointed out what works in one place at one time, might not work in another place at another time (and one is reminded of former House Speaker Tip O’Neil’s famous maxim: “All politics is local”), what I continue to argue for is a quiver with lots of arrows in it, and we don’t seem to agree on that need. As Arlene pointed out there are two principal means to exercise real clout—either by amassing people power by organizing volunteer, grassroots foot soldiers to carry the message forward and demonstrate an active and concerned constituency (whether the result of a true ‘movement’ or otherwise), or a deep pockets war chest to buy the best lobbying effort one can afford. Most special interest groups don’t have even the potential to develop both people and money. We do. So why does if have to be one or the other? The most powerful and arguably successful group with real political clout in the country is the NRA—and they combine a highly organized and sophisticated army of volunteers ever at the ready to fight for their agenda, with a successful fund raising apparatus to pay for that organization and one of the better federal and state lobbying efforts. It remains a mystery to me why anyone would opt for one at the exclusion of the other.
This too is a problem for us.
3. As several people pointed out, we have thus far failed to develop any successful strategy or process to involve artists in the advocacy matrix. We remain without one of our very likely most promising and powerful assets in the failure to organize and mobilize the vast number of artists in this country. Unquestionably this is a major challenge and obviously (given our lack of progress in this area) one that is daunting.
That is a continuing problem for us.
Some other reactions:
1. If I inadvertently created the impression by echoing Arlene’s Oliver Twist observation that I thought our advocacy work is characterized by the ‘bleakness’ Roberto points out—then I want to correct that. While I am continually disappointed by our advocacy work, and often frustrated by our failure to move towards political power and clout, I don’t consider this work to be ‘bleak.” I am buoyed by and deeply appreciative of the dedication, passion, and hard work of the many who fight the good fight. I heartedly endorse the kind of action Roberto cites in having artists “testify” via their art to secure local City Council support, and equally applaud his efforts at enlisting effective coalitions to support the arts agenda. My position is that we might not have to continually have that fight if we had more effective political clout via the access and power one gets by amassing money, and that all of this goes hand in hand. Many arrows in the quiver—none at the exclusion of any other.
2. Further to Roberto’s analysis of the past and current culture wars, I have a different take on that. In large part what we call the culture wars have little to do with the arts. Rather they were principally a fund raising tool by the radical right. Nothing works so well for that element than to raise the specter of gays and pornography and that is precisely why they zeroed in on Mapplethorpe. We have to be more sophisticated I think in understanding why our enemies attack us. It is a conceit and far too easy to think that we are always actually the target. Often times we are simply the “easy” means to a greater end. Those who ply power in the political arena are almost never one-dimensional, nor are they unsophisticated. We underestimate what we are up against by thinking too simplistic about what our opponents do.
3. I disagree with Diane’s opening two paragraphs. I believe the vast majority of arts organizations do indeed want more government support (and every other kind of support they can get), and that our failure to get it is precisely because we lack the clout necessary to compete in the lobbying marketplace. I do agree with her that we lack the will to do what is necessary to get that power—and the chief problem there is that it takes time, people and money to organize on that level. Yes, we pride ourselves on our resilience and that we are survivors—perhaps fooling ourselves in the process that our ineptitude is a good thing. We are reactive, not proactive. Again, I don’t see that the failure to secure more government support opening other doors necessarily means those doors might not open anyway (with government support), and I honestly believe fundraising too ought to have every arrow in the quiver that might be helpful.
I don’t know if Diane’s postulation that the arts may be consciously (or subconsciously) shunning the tactics I espouse because it is ambivalent about the benefits of public funding is correct or not. My gut tells me she is wrong. But perhaps she is right. If she is, I think that is unfortunate for us. And I think it a mistake to characterize the reason for being political as only related to funding. There are all kinds of government decisions that impact what artists and arts organizations do. I do think she is right in asserting that some of the larger institutions in our field perceive there is little for them to gain outside their efforts to work the system for their own direct advantage. Arlene made the same point. Territoriality and “in it for ourselves.” I have seen this over and over again. I think that situation is also tragic for us. If we can’t somehow see that we are all in this together, then it will very likely always be that we are divided and the development of real political power will remain axiomatically difficult, if not impossible.
4. To Diane’s query: “A different, but perhaps related, question is when will those artists and arts and culture organizations that are not benefitting from the current ‘arts system’ (that is, the large majority of them) take control of and reframe the conversation around culture?” I can only echo: When indeed? (And I would also point out that the overwhelming lion’s share of government support for the arts isn’t at the federal NEA level—it is local money—and so it is a mistake to characterize the need for political clout to be about the endowment. It is only partly about federal funding. It is much more about local funding—that’s where the real money is.)
5. I have long agreed with Bill Ivey’s assessment and analysis and Diane’s thinking that we need to reframe cultural support in terms of “citizenry.” The challenge is how to go about addressing that challenge—and alas it seems to this reporter that we have made precious little progress since Bill’s thoughts first surfaced some years ago. How is the real question that we seem never to get to.
Finally, Diane’s thinking on a new role for federal support and questioning whether or not the NEA might better be reconstituted is something I have wondered myself for a long time. Though I suspect my priorities for the agency (spending more money, time and effort on improving the ability of the field to succeed—the sustainability, capacity-building aims we are all too familiar with by now—in doing such things as convening more national summits to address such issues as the development of a national arts policy, exploring a national data policy, addressing the need of the field for professional development, etc. etc. etc.) is different from hers and likely different from other people’s thinking too. I don’t want to be glib in commenting on Diane’s thinking, so I need more time to think about the very important issues she raises. I had hoped that last year’s multi-week blogfest on the NEA would raise the issue of whether or not the agency ought to be re-thought from top to bottom, but it never did. As 40% of the agency’s budget goes to the states on a per capita basis, I suspect there is an entrenched group that would not want to entertain any rethinking that would threaten that revenue stream unless their interests were protected. There are a host of other problems with reinventing the agency including the reality that in Washington DC it is hard to replace something with something new.
6. With respect to my esteemed colleague (and I personally think one of the best advocates the arts have in America) Ra Joy’s thoughts, again I would argue for both people power and money power to go hand in hand (ala the NRA). Please folks let’s learn something from the NRA: we have the same potential power to raise both a foot soldier citizen army and a huge war chest (as I have previously suggested if every performing arts organization and museum in the country were to hold one benefit performance or exhibit—the proceeds of which went to fund advocacy/lobbying and the development of political clout—every two years (just one), we could raise millions and millions of dollars.) And we can do it within our own resources without recourse to having to necessarily mobilize and incentivize the wider public. We control our own destiny. Again it would take far less than most people think it would take to garner some real political clout. Alas, it would seem Arlene is right—the passion and commitment to do that don’t seem to be there.
7. There is no bigger fan than I for what Bob Lynch, Nina Ozlu Tunceli and the whole AFTA team has done with the Arts Action Fund and building an effective state advocacy network—but I wait patiently for that network to spearhead an effort to create local Action Fund PACs on the state level. And the fact is that once a year arts advocacy days, at either the national or state level, while valuable, are hardly enough. Advocacy is a 24/7/365 job and we need a far more sophisticated network than what we have and the only way to develop that network is to pay for it. It cannot be a wholly volunteer effort. And you don’t build relationships with a once a year visit. Sorry that’s the fact.
I like Ra’s thinking on developing the arts as center hubs for democracy, and I think his specific suggestions are excellent (“We should provide cultural organizations with the training and support they need to register voters, provide easy-to-use voting information, and play a more active role as catalysts for community engagement. By strengthening the connections between cultural organizations, community members, and civic issues, we can bolster the arts and build bridges across sectors”) And I might add we should run arts people for public office.) And as to Ra’s idea that: “We need to invest more time and resources around formulating winnable policy goals. We need to do a better job of sharing best practices and innovative ideas for both the public and private sectors. We need to think about how our policy initiatives can empower individual artists and be meaningful for for-profit arts business.” I can only agree wholeheartedly. But that will cost money. THAT is the kind of thing I think the NEA ought to be doing.
8. Dudley Cocke, I think accurately asks the bigger question when he observes: “in our democracy, the majority of us have become subjugated to a wealthy minority of us. When we talk about the arts gaining political power, I think this is the bigger problem we need to address, and I’m worried that we’ve lost the democratic infrastructure to pursue a solution. After these past 30 years of intense privatization and the rise of a pervasive proprietary culture, we all seem to be living in boxes defined by class, race, age, politics, sexual orientation, religion, etc. Where are the commons (neutral grounds in New Orleans’ parlance) to meet and think together, regardless of difference?”
I don’t know Dudley how the wider society (let alone us) will deal with that issue—which is not new to the world. I only know that in terms of political power and clout those with money carry a big stick, and the daily grind of trying to defend one’s position, let alone move forward, is a slow, laborious step by daily step process fought in the trenches and those that aren’t engaged in those small battles invariably lose the war. We are only peripherally engaged in those battles.
9. Finally, I hope somehow the movement Arlene dreams of takes off. Again, far greater minds than mine will have to weigh in about how to make that happen.
I am very grateful to our four participants in this small experiment of Arlene’s and mine and want to thank them and those who took time to comment for adding to the dialogue. I am humbled to be in their company. I especially want to thank Arlene. I hope somehow we can figure out how to move this discussion forward on a larger stage than the isolated, piecemeal private conversations that pass as our attempt to develop some real policy on political power. And I hope that somehow we can soon begin to answer the question; “How”—specifically how do we make some of these things happen?
Have a great week.