Monday, February 14, 2011

Arts Advocacy 101


Contributed by Guest Blogger of the Week, Norma P. Munn.

Arts advocacy is not brain surgery, but amazingly far too many people either think they can’t do it, or that all it requires is telling an elected official how wonderful and economically valuable the arts are.  With the National Endowment for the Arts under attack (again), several state arts councils in danger of complete dissolution, and public funding for the arts in jeopardy almost everywhere, it is past time for this field to stop debating and start doing a lot more. 

The recipe for effective advocacy requires real knowledge of the political process, recognition of the context in which you are working, and strategic thinking.

The reality of the political process is not taught in schools and news reports are only a part of the story.  Read. And listen, but be wary of the easy explanations.  For example, the common complaint about the NYS legislature is that “three men in a room” decide everything  (The three men are the Governor, Speaker of the Assembly and the Senate Majority Leader.)  While one should not underestimate the power of those three, that is simply not the whole story.  Assembly and Senate members have influence. But you need to know who influences whom, and when that influence can be exercised.

Context seems obvious. NY State is facing a serious deficit. This year’s budget is actually projected at less than last years!  Any arts advocate who suggested to NYS Assembly members or Senators, that the arts should get an increase would be considered at best as ill informed; more likely they would be thought a selfish idiot.  Which is why so many of us went to Albany a few days ago to ask for a partial restoration equal to only $2.8 million in grants money for NYSCA.

But that basic awareness of context is only step one. Knowledge about the level of cuts to other similar parts of the state budget, or to the aspects of the budget is essential.  If education is cut 10% and the arts are cut 10%, in Albany that is going to be seen as fair.  (NYSCA has a flat 10% cut in the Cuomo proposed budget; we don’t find any other state agency with an across the board 10% cut.)

The real problem with arts advocacy lies in the strategic thinking, or too often the lack thereof.  The message is not strategy; the tools (social media, email blasts, letters, meetings) and press releases are not strategy.  In fact, without a coherent and long-term strategy underlying the advocacy work, the entire process is completely reactive, builds no coalitions, and always focuses on the short term, like how many emails we generated.

Strategy unifies the various aspects of your work into a logical and coherent plan of action that provides for flexibility, looks past the immediate and avoids pitfalls.  It is not the action plan; it is not the message; it is not a series of activities.  Strategy is the set of underlying principals that guides your choices.  Strategy is the glue that holds your plans together, and allows you to respond quickly to changing events while maintaining the coherence of your own views and needs. 

Strategy keeps you from being diverted into fighting the battle and losing the war, and provides you with the long-range view.  No one in this field can make art, or work at an arts group, and spend a lot of their time on advocacy.  Using that energy and talent wisely is essential, and recognizing that not all efforts will result in the desired outcome, means the long range is critical.

Many people criticize arts advocacy for its lack of allies, or insist that the cultural sector is just not capable of uniting.  Both complaints simplify the reality.

Budget advocacy is not like working on a legislative issue.  A censorship issue is unlike either the budget or legislation. 

A budget has a finite amount of money and one’s allies want their needs met.  The best one can realistically expect under those circumstances is the sharing of information and a quiet agreement not to be played off against one another.  Easier said than done, but it does happen. Also Boards of non-profit arts groups often (regularly, in fact) oppose arts groups forming alliances, as they fear the potential problems for both themselves and the arts group. 

Legislative issues are entirely different and one can often find allies, especially if the issue can, or might, benefit other sectors.  For example, seeking changes in NYS to provide cheaper energy  “as of right” to the non-profit arts sector sounds great – to us.  But only if we broaden that effort to benefit all non-profits are we likely to have allies and ultimately succeed. The same logic applies to real estate tax abatement issues in NYC, housing needs, or environmental problems.  But, again, Boards can be uncomfortable, so individual artists may find these areas easier to work on than most arts groups.  

Finally, confusing “cause” related advocacy with day-to-day work on city, state or federal budget issues, or with most legislation, is a serious mistake.  A lot of people are opposed to censorship; very few listened to Gov Cuomo’s speech on the budget last week.  For “causes” there are lots of bodies, much energy and outrage, and plenty of email blasts.  For the daily slog of the budget or legislation, far fewer people are willing to become involved.  That is unfortunate as it is in the daily slog that you build the long-term relationships that protect and help when the arts are really under attack. 

If you want to participate, find the organization that fits your interests, will accept what you are really able to do, and ask questions.  There are no dumb questions for newcomers to this effort. Every inquiry is valid.  (And, yes, I will answer emails - see email address - albeit sometimes slowly as this is state budget time and the city budget is released on Thursday.) However, there are no miracles.  If you expect instant results, the lottery is a better bet!



  1. Norma, Thanks for sharing important information and insight with us. I'm a little late writing my letters regarding the NYSCA cuts. I don't want to seem foolish or misinformed. In Mr. Weiss's blog, Call Cuomo Now (2/1/11), he lays out a good message. I also checked out Arts NYS Coalition online form, which makes it easy. However, Mr. Weiss also suggests that sending actual letters through the mail is more effective. What is your though on this?

  2. Letters are always better than email blasts. The statewide Arts NYS Coalition has provided one more email opportunity for Cuomo, but I think focusing on the legislators is now essential. A brief letter to your Assembly member and State Senator (can be the same letter, just watch for gender changes) in the next few days is really helpful. You can also check the web site in about ten days for a follow up email blast to legislators. It should also contain any updated news. This a cycle, with steps along the way. Thanks for the help.

  3. But the arts aren't the only ones facing cuts. Every sector has to tighten their belts - education and the police force - and in order to balance a budget, we (City, State, Nation) all have to cut back on spending and find some sort of equilibrium.

    When I am short on funds, the first thing I cut from my personal budget is entertainment - meaning movies, theatre, books, games. I'm sorry to say it, but it's true. I have to have a place to live, utilities, food and transportation. Beyond that I have to conserve.

    How is that different from what is happening with our government right now?

  4. When you say that there needs to be a long term strategy, who is developing that strategy for our community? Is there an organization that is doing that? It seems like that should be a unified effort.

  5. Helene, letters are always best. Right now the statewide coalition ( has an email blast up for the Gov as he does have 30 days in which he can amend his budget, so we are trying. With regard to legislators, you can use the same content to both your Assembly member and your State Senator. (Just watch for any gender changes in salutations,etc.) Brief letters are best. My advice is start with letters and use the site for email blasts as a follow up. If you can get some of your friends together to visit an Assembly or Senate member to make the appeal, that is also great. Bottom line; do what you can, but do it regularly. Thanks for the concern.

  6. To anonymous. The state budget for the arts has been reduced by 30% over the past four years, while growth has been seen in almost every other area. The across the board 10% cut to NYSCA is way out of line with other cuts to state agencies. We asked for a 2% cut, not 10%, which requires a restoration of $2.8 million. That is sharing, and frankly, we in the arts have been "sharing" for years.

    I understand your position that food and shelter come first, but if we are not so poor as a state that we cannot afford books (libraries), nor games (parks & recreational opportunities), nor the arts. Personally i don't equate the arts with entertainment, but that is a personal choice.

    The state budget is $133 Billion. NYSCA is less than $40 million. When I suggested in Albany last week that the state was paying for leased vacant unused property in NYC and probably elsewhere that could easily cover the $2.8 million we wanted, a reporter sneered at the response. One floor in some of the NYC buildings can cost as much as a million per year. Why should we taxpayers continue to pay for unused space -- in some cases for years? It turns out that not only does the state pay for vacant space, but the state also owns numerous buildings and land that it could easily sell, but no one knows the full inventory. (See Ch 7 last Friday evening report).

    The point is that even if we don't see eye to eye on how to deal with a tight budget, I think you would probably prefer that anything you care about in the budget be kept before the states wastes your tax money.

  7. Melissa, I can only respond with regard to those groups and organizations within the arts with which I work regularly. The NYC Arts Coalition is always planning both short and long term and the underlying strategy is there. We also work with networks of groups through out the City to insure that we get a lot of feedback. We are part of the statewide coalition, which was recently formed, so right now a lot of that effort is aimed at the immediate needs in Albany. It is a constant struggle to keep in mind the goal and not get lost in the urgency of the moment. As for unity, after 24 years of directing the NYC Arts Coalition, and sitting with a lot of other advocacy groups (housing, children, seniors, unions, etc.), our efforts are far more unified than we sometimes realize.
    An example of strategy for us is that we fear that the Cuomo plans for streamlining and consolidating agencies, etc. through out the state will threaten NYSCA as a stand alone agency. This is not a new concern for us. I recognized it two years ago and the Arts Coalition's Steering Cmt discussed it at length. That discussion led to a firm position that not only is the independence of NYSCA paramount, but also that the peer panel process is equally essential. We expect efforts in Albany this year to regionalize NYSCA and/or to create formula funding around the state. We have initiated conversations with colleagues around the state on these questions. We also made plans for a response to any and all of these possibilities AND we will not trade restoration of funds to NYSCA for any of those. Most people only began to consider these issues after we brought them up, and many are still unclear about where they stand. Part of our strategy involved making sure that every legislator knows the value of the independence of NYSCA, but especially newly elected members. So, our conversations are not just about restoration, but also about NYSCA as a model for other funders.

    Hope this clarifies both how we think things through and gives you some idea of our role. Check out our Facebook page for the Steering Cmt list and you can see the range of networks within the NYC Arts Coalition.

  8. Only one post for this org'? I've been in this city for over 2 decades, and I have no idea what this service organization does. Now, I still don't.