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!