Advice for Arts Advocates Everywhere

Last week, more than 700 arts advocates came together in Washington, DC for the 30th Annual Arts Advocacy Day to share strategies for advocating for pro-arts policies to our congressional leaders. This work is more imperative than ever as President Trump, just days before, released a FY18 budget calling for the zeroing out of funding for the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA), National Endowment for the Humanities, Corporation for Public Broadcasting, and Institute of Museum and Library Services. These cultural agencies are critical to leveraging support for what makes America great—our artistic endeavors help us share our experiences, appreciate our neighbors, build stronger communities, and stimulate economic growth and provide employment for millions of American workers. The budget must still go through the House and Senate. Together, we must fight to save funding for these agencies.

Advocacy is about voicing your hopes and ideas to decision-makers. It is a dialogue and an ongoing part of living in a great society and it is about much more than a single day. The ability to be in it for the long haul is critical. And advocacy changes because the people to whom you’re advocating change all the time. Legislators change, their attitudes change, profiles on constituencies change. We have to constantly freshen our arguments, come up with new thoughts and ideas, in front of new people, to make these elected officials see that supporting the arts makes for a better America, a better world.

I am often asked for advice for advocates. My answer comes down to a few things: of course, be informed and know what you want, stay nimble and stay energized; do not expend all energy early in a dialogue. Your voice is going to be necessary at all stages, from early rumblings all the way to final decisions on the Senate floor. An advocate needs to be a constant presence even if only through the occasional email or call along with those harder to schedule visits, a relentless, clear voice so that congressmen and senators or state or local officials know you care. Contact them again and again…and one more time, for good measure. A flood of calls often count more than one big letter, for instance.

No elected official is an expert on everything; they all need help. Become a trusted advisor, offering your help and vision. You can be the one to guide them on why their constituents would value the arts’ inherent economic value, community development values, and more. That one big letter, if from the right person at the right time, can count a lot too.

Encourage your elected representatives to attend different arts events and activities so that they can see the positive audience reaction of their constituents who will, they hope, vote for them. Recognize them publicly when they are there for you. I learned much of what I know about advocacy a long time ago from a former Massachusetts senate president from Holyoke, Massachusetts. He would always start off by saying, “There’s only one thing you need to remember about an elected official of any kind, and it’s that 60 percent of every day of their life is spent thinking about getting reelected.” Talk to their constituents, their supporters, the people they trust—or become one of those people they trust.

We learned recently that President Trump wants to zero out federal funding for culture in America. But we know that Americans care about the arts and support the arts. We know it because 87 percent of the American public in recent polling said the arts were important to their quality of life, and 89 percent said the arts are part of a well-rounded education. We also know it because national Arts Advocacy Day attracted a higher registration than it’s ever had—more than 700 in-person advocates, representing 50 states and the District of Columbia. We hit every congressional office and every senatorial office with the message of the value of the arts.

At a time of volatile change, we must be relentless in voicing a strong and clear message. Whether we find fun, creative ways of making ourselves heard—or through a seemingly endless grind of phone calls, messages, and time away from other pursuits—learning more about our elected officials and then actively engaging with them will serve to advance pro-arts policies that will impact our society and communities for years to come.

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