Uncomfortable Thoughts: Is Shouting About Arts Funding Bad for the Arts?

(I’ve had the pleasure of working with Margy Waller for almost a year now helping her organization, ArtsWave, with its Measuring the Impact InitiativeMargy focuses on strategic communications and creative connections to promote broad support of the arts at ArtsWave and Topos Partnership. Previously she was Visiting Fellow at the Brookings Institution, with a joint appointment in the Economic Studies and Metropolitan Policy programs. Prior to Brookings, she was Senior Advisor on domestic policy in the Clinton-Gore White House. This is the first entry in what I hope will become an occasional series of Uncomfortable Thoughts, exploring questions that no one really wants to ask about the arts, but that need to be asked all the same. I hope you enjoy it. – IDM)

This all started with a throwaway comment I made to Ian when I was dropping him off at the airport. Sharing an idea that you’ve been mulling over for awhile, but never said aloud and aren’t sure you’re ready to discuss, is best done when the sharee is dashing for a flight and won’t really engage. Or so I thought.

Ian said: 1) Now that’s worth discussing. 2) I’m not sure whether I agree with you. 3) Maybe you should write a blog post about it.

Ha.

So – now you know how I ended up here.

The Theory: Shhhhhhh 

Public Art Paris

Shhhhhhhh

Here’s the theory I pitched at Createquity that day: Advocates for the arts might be better off doing their work under the radar than trying so hard to get a lot of media and public attention when fighting for public funding of the arts. 

Createquity readers get regular updates on public funding of the arts. So we all know this was an especially rough year for many state arts councils.

But is this unique? Nope. We all have examples in our catalogue of “can-you-top-this” horror stories about arts advocacy experiences from over the years.

Like this.

When President Obama proposed including funding for the National Endowment for the Arts in the stimulus legislation, the media covered the topic in typical he-said-she-said style with headlines like “Stimulus funding for arts hits nerve: Some doubt it would create jobs.

The arts are often used as a way to politicize and undermine bigger issues (like the stimulus bill), because the public tends to erupt with charges of elitism like this one:

“Why should the working class pay for the leisure of the elite when in fact one of the things the working class likes to do for leisure is go to professional wrestling? And if I suggested we should have federal funds for professional wrestling to lower the cost of the ticket, people would think I’m insane….” — Catholic League President Bill Donohue speaking of an exhibit at the Smithsonian in 2010.

Media coverage like this encourages a debate over the “facts.” Unfortunately, rebutting the doubts with our research findings means that arts supporters have to stay in our opponents’ frame.

They Aren’t Listening Anyway

A debate that lives within the position of a critic (like arts jobs aren’t really jobs or the arts should be supported by the rich) does little to shift the public landscape of a widely-shared belief, such as: the arts are a low priority for public funding.

Unfortunately, facts and research we’ve accumulated to prove the value of the arts as a public matter of concern, and then worked hard to get reporters to cover, are too often dismissed or ignored when seen through the lens of an idea that’s not new and about which people have already made up their minds.

Most people will simply ignore the rest of the story (where all our snappy facts live) once they’ve seen the headline. We all filter the barrage of information in today’s info-heavy world, paying little attention to all but those matters of deepest interest to us. A headline that presents an issue we’ve already decided for ourselves is likely to be read as: “Oh, that again. I know what I know about that. And I don’t need to know anymore.”

Worse Even: The Backfire Effect

But even worse is the possibility that a public debate makes things harder for arts advocates in the long run because, as Chris Mooney explains, “…head-on attempts to persuade can sometimes trigger a backfire effect” where people react by defending their position and holding onto their views “more tenaciously than ever.”

In other words, when we think we’re reasoning, we may instead be rationalizing. Or to use an analogy offered by University of Virginia psychologist Jonathan Haidt: We may think we’re being scientists, but we’re actually being lawyers (PDF). Our “reasoning” is a means to a predetermined end—winning our “case”—and is shot through with biases. They include “confirmation bias,” in which we give greater heed to evidence and arguments that bolster our beliefs, and “disconfirmation bias,” in which we expend disproportionate energy trying to debunk or refute views and arguments that we find uncongenial.

It’s true that in the end, Congress included some funding for the NEA in the stimulus bill. But it took a very heavy lift — well executed by Americans for the Arts — to set up hundreds of conversations between constituents with influence and members of Congress. It’s certainly sometimes possible to overcome bad press and the fear felt by elected officials that they might doom their own careers supporting an unpopular cause. But it’s seriously labor intensive and asks a lot of our supporters — not an ideal way to ensure success year after year. And it forced us to revive an old debate – possibly making things harder for arts supporters next time around.

An Alternative: Don’t Try to Change Minds, Change Perspective

One solution to this dilemma is to craft a new communications strategy —one built on a deeper understanding of the best ways to communicate with the public about the arts—that would increase a sense of shared responsibility and motivate public action in support of the arts. That’s what we’ve done at ArtsWave.

Instead of reviving an old debate, we sought a new way to start the conversation – based on something we can all be for, instead of something we’re defending against an attack. And importantly, we aren’t trying to change people’s minds, but present the arts in a way that changes perspective. Therefore, we held the message accountable to factors such as whether it prompts people to focus on certain aspects of the topic (such as broad benefits) rather than others (such as personal tastes); whether a message is coherent and memorable; whether it promotes the idea of public/collective action; and so on.

After a year of investigation and interviews with hundreds of people in the our region and surrounding states, this research—conducted by the Topos Partnership for ArtsWave (happy disclosure, the writer is affiliated with both) —found that public responsibility for the arts is undermined by deeply entrenched perceptions. Members of the public typically have positive feelings toward the arts, some quite strong. But how they think about the arts is shaped by a number of common default patterns that ultimately obscure a sense of shared responsibility in this area.

For example, it is natural and common for people who are not insiders to think of the arts in terms of entertainment.  In fact, it’s how we want people to think when we are selling tickets or memberships. But, in this view, entertainment is a “luxury,” and the “market” will determine which arts offerings survive, based on people’s tastes as consumers of entertainment. Consequently, public support for the arts makes little sense, particularly when public funds are scarce.

Perceptions like these lead to conclusions that government funding, for instance, is frivolous or inappropriate. Even charitable giving can be undermined by these default perceptions. People who target arts funding, as they did in the stimulus bill, know that these dominant ways of thinking about the arts will work in their favor. Our investigation identified a different approach, one that moves people to a new, more resonant way of thinking about the arts.

What is it? The arts create ripple effects of benefits, such as vibrant, thriving neighborhoods where we all want to live and work.  This is not only compelling, but it also sets an expectation of public responsibility for the arts.

However, even though most people agree with this view already (so we don’t have to change their minds), we know that it will take time, repetition, and many partners across the nation to bring this way of thinking to the forefront of people’s minds.

Stay Off the “Front Page”

So — back to my theory about arts advocacy – until we effect that change, the better strategy, when possible, may be to keep stories about public funding for the arts off the front pages and out of the media.

To some this may seem counter-intuitive. Or at least uncomfortable. If we care about the arts, shouldn’t we be shouting about it? Getting people to pay attention to our facts and our data.

Well – it depends. Is our advocacy goal a widely seen news piece outlining all sides of the issue? Or, do we want a successful budget outcome?

I think it’s the latter. And when it can be achieved with a quiet effort, making sure to begin modeling this new way of thinking about the arts in our meetings with decision-makers, that is preferable to another big public debate. Because the big fight in the default way of viewing the arts is very losable. And in our efforts, we’re forced to expand a precious resource: the time and energy of staff and key supporters who have to work so hard to convince public officials that they won’t suffer consequences in the next election.

Moreover, every time the fight is public, we’re likely to be reinforcing the dominant ways of thinking about the arts that are getting in our way now. When attacked, we rebut with facts, and the media covers the issue as a political fight with two equal sides – both seen through a lens that sets up the arts as a low priority on the public agenda. And as we know, this can have the effect of making people defensive and hardening existing positions. Of course, it should be no surprise that even officials who are friendly to arts funding are reluctant to be in the middle of that kind of coverage.

The Ohio Success Story

This past year, I watched closely as our state arts advocates at Ohio Citizens for the Arts carefully managed what seemed to be a stealth campaign to retain funding for arts and culture through the Ohio Arts Council. Despite an initial proposed cut by the newly elected Governor, the final outcome was an increase in funding over $4 million more than the previous budget.  Each step of the process brought an increase in the proposed funding level — the House vote, the Senate vote, and the reconciled proposal sent to the Governor, resulting in $6.6 million more than the proposed executive budget. And it went forward without fanfare or comment when signed into law.

Compare this scenario with the nightmare that was Kansas.  Of course, the Governor started a fight there — and there’s some evidence that this battle to the death did bring out supporters. But it clearly brought out opponents too.

As a little test, I tried two Google searches: One for blogs mentioning ‘“Ohio Arts Council” budget’ and the other for ‘“Kansas Arts Commission” budget’. In both cases, I limited findings to the first six months in 2011. The Kansas search revealed over 1000 posts, compared to only 42 in Ohio. An even greater disparity than I had imagined.

It appears that the Ohio advocates strategically sought to keep the campaign under the radar. And it worked.

To be sure, I called Donna Collins – the executive director of the Ohio arts advocacy organization. And she confirmed my theory.

“We didn’t want to be in the headlines,” she said. “We didn’t want to see masses of people on the statehouse lawn with signs about funding the arts. We wanted people on message, talking with their own elected officials at home, as well as in Columbus.  Our advocates, from the smallest rural community to the large urban centers, all had compelling stories about the positive impact of the arts.”

Collins credits long-term investment in relationship building with state decision-makers and encouraging a consistent message: the value citizens place on the way arts make places great. She organized a meeting about this message for partners on the morning of a well-attended statewide Arts Advocacy Day in the capitol. There was no big public fight, no need to defend a position in the media, no risk of the opposition hardening in place – and therefore little reason for politicians to fear supporting the increase in funding for the arts.

So…this is a theory, and one deserving of more study. But until we have a new landscape of public understanding, it seems a theory worth testing again.

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13 Comments

  1. Posted October 24th, 2011 at 10:54 am | Permalink

    I agree that this is a discussion worth having. In today’s world, anyone shouting about a need for public funding which isn’t about serious, heartfelt survival and care for the vulnerable, is barking up a bare tree.

    Furthermore, the arts community has been too reliant on an average of more than 50% contributed income for way too long. I was surprised to see so few arts organizations seriously reviewing their business models – thinking about mergers, alliances, or even closing their business. It is time for the arts community to think more about earned revenue – how products and services can be developed for fee; in addition to serving the public good that is so critical to our society.

    This is one of the reasons we have focused on integrating our creative assets into ‘creative industries’ – those businesses, organizations and individuals whose products and services originate in creative, aesthetic or cultural content. This has brought an economic connection to nonprofit arts, forprofit creative businesses, and independent creatives. And now, the regular connections we are fostering are leading to new businesses and new partnerships. After all, we are interested in the same end goal – a more creative, vibrant and dynamic community where all are making and being recognized for their fullest contribution.

    While I believe public investment in the arts remains an important human, civilized activity, it is also true that we need to change its proportion to our bottom line. I agree that much, much more needs to be done around messaging – and targeting that message to each audience to meet their investment needs.

    I advocate for keeping this conversation going, and bravo to you Margy and Ian for the extraordinary work you have done for Arts Wave in Cincinnati.

  2. Posted October 25th, 2011 at 10:32 am | Permalink

    I also agree that this is a worthy point of discussion. As the past Chair of Rhode Island Citizens for the Arts, where we have managed to sustain arts funding over the past two budget cycles despite a state budget with massive deficits, I can attest to the need for and power of quiet advocacy. The challenge with quiet advocacy is less to the end game of advocacy (i.e. impacting the budget for arts funding) but more to the sustaining of the advocacy effort, which also takes money, effort and commitment. It is a delicate balance, and one for which the base foundation is continually shifting.

    The other challenge we face with advocating for public funding at this time is that we are often seen as advocating for a worthy cause but a faulty infrastructure. As one very smart observer in RI put it – “you’ve become very effective at advocating for an ineffective agency.” I don’t think this is a criticism of the smart, hard-working people at our state arts agency, but instead a critique of the infrastructure that was built to support 20th century organizations and issues, and is simply not up to the task to address 21st century organizations and issues. As Andrew Taylor states in his most recent blog post (http://www.artsjournal.com/artfulmanager/main/government-arts-agency.php) all three words in the title government arts agency are in incredible flux right now.

    This is a time of tremendous change in our culture and society. I hope we continue to share these uncomfortable thoughts as it is the only way to create positive change.

  3. Posted October 25th, 2011 at 11:23 am | Permalink

    Let me join the chorus – an important conversation. It reminds me of advocacy efforts around 9/11 in NYC. At the time I was heading the Arts & Business Council Inc. and we developed a campaign called Arts for Hope that was designed to present the arts community as a source of hope and healing for the public during that most difficult time. However we were unable to rally broad support among arts leaders for that effort. They were more focused on creating a fundraising campaign to help arts orgs whose revenue was hurt by 9/11. To this day I believe that strategy was misguided and counterproductive – as much as I felt for the the groups, especially those in Lower Manhattan, that were seriously disrupted by the attack and the aftermath. Should arts groups be seen lining up at the funding trough next to those whose loved ones were vaporized, saying “I am hurting too – I want my share?” That was a time to view ourselves as being of service, and to conduct any restorative fundraising discretely and in private. If we are going to make our case for civic value publicly and aggressively then we have to be prepared to answer, especially in these resource-challenged times, the tough questions about public value. I am not sure most of the filed is equipped to make that case persuasively enough. I also fear that the Occupy movement has the potential (already demonstrated by Occupy Museums in NY) to add a threat to arts funding coming from the “Left” to the well-known threats from the “Right.” I remember when lobbying in Albany, the toughest questioning I ever got was not from upstate Republican legislators, but from legislators representing poor Black and Latino districts in NYC. The recent National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy report, covered by Diane Ragsdale in her blog on ArtsJournal, highlights this inequity issue. We talk about our public value a lot, yet disproportionate funding still goes to large institutions serving mostly white upper-class audiences. Cultural programs for audiences of color are disproportionately funded through support for the outreach efforts of major institutions as opposed to support for culturally-specific organizations in the community. Too much of our media coverage is of black-tie galas, and too often I look out at the audience at cultural events and see a sea of White faces. I know I am rambling a bit, but I do think this is all related to Margy’s premise – that very public advocacy efforts on behalf of the arts are not necessarily always the best strategy, that sometimes working behind the scene can be more effective. I think this also not just about “spin” or case-making, but also changing how we operate…

    • Posted October 27th, 2011 at 10:56 am | Permalink

      I’m glad you bring up the cultural diversity issue, Gary. One of the two key messages of the Ripple Effect research is that the arts produce “a more connected population” where “diverse groups share common experiences, hear new perspectives, understand each other better, etc.” But I question how often this really happens. If audiences are culturally homogeneous in many arts organizations and/or those organizations are not presenting work that presents an outside perspective, then the “ripple” never reaches.

  4. Posted October 25th, 2011 at 11:29 am | Permalink

    I want to reinforce Margy’s point of highlighting community benefits as a key advocacy message, but I also do not want to leave readers thinking that that is where the story ends.

    The best lesson that I have learned in my 20+ years of lobbying for the arts in the trenches, face-to-face with Members of Congress, top adminstration officials, governors, state legislators, mayors, county officials, city council members, school superintendants, and even principals and teachers can be wrapped up in one metaphor: One size does not fit all.

    The key to effective lobbying is knowing your target audience and customizing your messaging to each individual or group. Additionally, lobbying at the federal, state, and local levels incorporate very different strategies. You also have to take into consideration that certain advocacy strategies that work well in New York will not work in South Carolina, and vice versa. There are statewide arts advocacy organizations across the country that Americans for the Arts brings together as the State Arts Action Network, so that they can have a forum to learn these kinds of strategies, then pick and choose what will work for their state. We do the same thing for local arts advocacy organizations at our annual convention and within our council clusters and for national arts organizations through Arts Advocacy Day and partnerships in the Americans for the Arts Action Fund.

    Another important tip that I feel compelled to address is the issue of when to make noise and when not to in advocacy. As a general rule, if you are trying to go for an increase in funding, it’s best to do it quietly. But if you are trying to save arts funding from being eliminated or drastically cut, then you want to make a lot of noise. Kansas may have lost its arts agency this year (by the way I firmly believe that this action will be reversed within a couple of years), but South Carolina retained theirs. It’s also important to note that Kansas arts advocates did attempt a strategy of “quietly” trying to overturn Governor Brownback’s dissolution of the Kansas Arts Commission, but it didn’t work. While many legislators were sympathetic, the public outcry demanding that there be an arts agency within the state happened too late. The majority of the media noise that Margy refers to happened after the veto override failed, not during the fight when it could have actually made an impact. There are actually many success stories that happened this year where a little bit a noise went a long way.

  5. Posted October 26th, 2011 at 9:46 am | Permalink

    I appreciate this debate, and it’s wonderful to see this level of strategy talk among people in the know. I want to come at it from a different angle that expands the field of communications we’re examining.

    Advocacy messages often dominate our thinking around communications in the arts, but that not the only way that arts show up in headlines. Business magazines are full of messages that shape the view of the creative and cultural sectors, as are feature magazines that dictate taste and popularity. Artists are often profiled as leaders in their communities, and of course we all know the emphasis that’s been placed on marketing messages in the past 20+ years.

    Advocacy arguments sit in this mix and largely don’t conflict with these other communication aims, until one gets to the inevitable public art controversy. When the communication aim is to support a necessary public dialogue that has coalesced around the arts community, then the impulse to do our work quietly may be at odds with the important role the arts play in airing society’s dirty laundry.

    Erika Doss has captured this question well in the Americans for the Arts monograph,
    Public Art Controversy: Cultural Expression and Civic Debate along with the reasons why these discussions are not top priorities for either elected officials and advocates. Reasonable politicians don’t want to take stands on issues in which the public interests are truly complex. Advocates don’t want the headache that unreasonable politicians cause.

    The problem is that these debates are good for democracy, particularly in times like these when the powerful have abused the discretion they command. My guess is that no one in Washington and New York art circles really wants to consider the questions of the Occupy Museums initiative, but we probably should. (To be fair, someone in the arts is always considering something.)

    I don’t disagree with the notion of quiet advocacy as a strategy. It’s one of the many tactics of master advocates like Donna Collins. But when that inclination to be quiet about things has a dampening effect on the debates that fuel social change, then I think advocates should be equally adept at raising the stakes and shaping the forum so that citizens can productively work through our damage together. You know, race, class, sexuality, mortality… fun stuff. It may be inconvenient for our funding agendas but essential for our social well-being.

    The idea of weathering a budget challenge for the greater good leads me to that pervasive notion that we’re weak and can’t afford that threat, which I think is malarkey. But that’s the topic of another post…

  6. Posted October 26th, 2011 at 11:31 am | Permalink

    While I agree that it is usually counter productive to wage a highly visibility campaign that essentially asks for a handout from the government, I believe that it is still essential for all of us to find more effective ways to inform citizens about what they get in return for their investment in the arts (whether that be through their taxes, donations or ticket purchases.)

  7. Edward O.
    Posted October 26th, 2011 at 2:53 pm | Permalink

    I don’t entirely agree with this view. As a reporter in city where funding for the arts is languishing there is nothing worse than silence. I do agree that the “he said-she said” approach to an arts advocacy story is not one that will suit any arts advocate when a story hits page one. Comment-wise it is turns into an opportunity to attack what arts advocates are battling for… so you are giving a lot of people a forum for to plug the opposite view. I believe that such stories, when written by a reporter who is deeply experienced in covering the arts and arts issues, both as hard news and as feature, can be beneficial to a dialogue about arts advocacy and arts ed. Sadly, too many newspapers assign reporters that care little about the arts, or do not have the experience to reporting well on their respective communities to write that story – and there is where the problem lies.

  8. Posted October 26th, 2011 at 10:57 pm | Permalink

    I don’t normally weigh in on guest posts on my own blog, but since (as Margy reports) I confessed at the airport that I wasn’t sure if I agreed, I thought readers might be interested to get an update on my thinking now that I’ve had an opportunity to hear her argument out more fully. So here’s my take. I think Margy definitely has a point, and a very interesting one, about the irrationality inherent in the way that people approach political issues. And I could not possibly agree more with the assertion that traditional “shouting”-style advocacy campaigns are extremely taxing for everyone involved. I also like Margy’s description of the battle for arts funding as traditionally defined as “very losable.” In fact, we have seen that description brought to life in state arts budgets for over a decade now. Even when an arts council is saved from extinction but at a cost of 50% of its budget, that is hardly a victory in my book. Any new strategy has a low bar to prove itself more effective than whatever we’re doing now.

    That said, as Margy herself admits at the end, the empirical question — of whether a “stealth” campaign is, all else being equal, better positioned for success than an “out and proud” campaign — is far from settled. It seems to me like the situation of a governor or other official publicly picking the fight with arts funding is a very different one from Ohio’s, where the arts council was initially pegged for a cut but was (apparently) not singled out relative to other agencies. As Nina points out, there’s not much evidence to suggest that a stealth campaign in Kansas would have ultimately done any better.

    More to the point, however, I would suggest that we don’t need to wait to find out the answer to this question. I would put forth the following challenge to any enterprising researcher who is reading this and wants to know whether to shout or whisper. We’ve been seeing declining trends in state arts funding for over a decade, which means there have been many opportunities for these kinds of defensive advocacy campaigns. The National Assembly of State Arts Agencies has been keeping records on arts funding outcomes in each state during that entire time. Meanwhile, the State Arts Action Network members most likely have historical records on how each year’s campaign was conducted, how many people were reached/activated, and what the particulars of the situation were each year (e.g., which party was in power, whether budget cuts were proposed upfront or introduced by amendment, etc.). A Google News search or newslibrary.com can reveal how often a budget battle surfaced in the media. Folks, this is a multivariate regression analysis waiting to happen. Who’s up for it?

  9. Margy Waller
    Posted October 27th, 2011 at 5:44 pm | Permalink

    These comments are terrific — and helpful. Thanks to all for reading and engaging.

    Ian’s proposal for a research project is promising – here’s hoping someone takes him up on it. I’m ready to help think about the research design choices.

    Meanwhile – there are other ways to look at this issue that I want to underscore.

    In no way did I mean to suggest that the research findings about the limitations of arts advocacy in the dominant organizing frame indicate that supporters should be silent.

    That’s exactly why ArtsWave and Topos invested significant resources and time to identify a NEW way of starting the conversation — one that is designed to avoid the problematic and dominant ways of thinking about the arts that get in the way of building broad support.

    Whatever we might uncover about the relative results of previous battles over funding, there’s still a long-term downside to reinforcing the existing way of thinking about public funding of the arts.

    Thus, it’s worth weighing the value of having the public fight, even when we can reduce the damage or “win” a particular funding battle. Let’s seek to develop an advocacy and communications plan within the context of a long-term goal to change the landscape of public understanding.

    We want to win in the long run. And the Ripple Effects research shows that to do this we need to turn on and build up the new way of thinking about public responsibility for the arts — among all citizens, not just our current consumers.

    So, it’s not whether we engage, so much as how and when we do. I’m proposing that rather than trying to fight our way out of the corner our opponents have pushed us into — let’s pivot, and start a new conversation about the value of the arts.

    The Ripple Effects research methodology is specifically designed to identify a compelling argument for widely shared responsibility for the arts. A new argument, or lens, on the issue is useful to the extent it can move people to shared action in support of the arts.

    We learned that people already believe in the the ripple effect of benefits like vibrancy and connection. Even if they don’t experience these things in their own neighborhoods or at events they attend, people understand that having (more of) these benefits are good for everyone in the region.

    We want to win in the long run, and not fight the same old battle for smaller and smaller results. So we’re putting time and energy into this promising way of talking about the arts–getting reporters and community leaders to use words that work for us, not words that will be ignored. (Or worse, words that will serve to harden problematic positions.)

    While nuances and emphases will vary from context to context, the essence of a public conversation is that the same themes echo from a variety of sources, in a variety of voices. When legislators, business leaders, community leaders and so forth all take in the same core messages – and in turn repeat them to their own constituencies – the resulting echo chamber can begin to transform the accepted common sense on the issue.

    That’s why we use the new lens for everything — our website, our videos and photos, written materials like our annual community report, our advocacy, and so on. We’ve been using the research to shape our public conversation for over a year now — and it’s working.

    We need lots of partners to change the perspective on the arts and build the broad support we seek. So–we welcome the dialogue.

  10. Julie Hawkins
    Posted November 4th, 2011 at 2:14 pm | Permalink

    Great conversation. I think that too often we debate an “either/or” that’s really a “both/and.” I believe that’s part of what Nina’s response is about. My past experience leading advocacy initiatives at the Greater Philadelphia Cultural Alliance gave me an understanding that the real trick is knowing when you need a broad public strategy, when you need a narrow, quiet, behind-the-scenes strategy, and when you need some elements of both. It’s always a situationally-based analysis, and never a one-sized-fits-all approach. The political context of any given situation varies, and successful advocacy strategy varies accordingly.

    The same is true not just for the strategies of what to do, but for the arguments to make while doing it as well. I find there is a tendency in our field to search for a silver bullet, “the one message” that resonates everywhere — with the public, with the media, with the arts community itself, and with every legislator at every level of government. Witness our collective waves of fascination and then dissatisfaction with prevailing theories about how best to “make the case” for the arts over time. Is it economic impact? Community impact? Educational benefits? Workforce development? Intrinsic impacts? Creative industries data? I think it’s all of the above and then some, because the truth is that for any one issue there are multiple targets. This means that you need an overall objective, within which you have to tailor every strategy and message for its specific target and current context if you want to be successful. Those multiple targets don’t always hang together, and context is ever-changing, thus the need to have multiple strategies and messages at our disposal for any given issue.

    Let me give one quick example. In the Fall of 2009 Pennsylvania’s budget was 3 months late. At a Friday evening press conference, six key legislators announced a budget plan to be adopted within the next two weeks in order to end the fiscal crisis. The plan hinged in part on raising $120 million through an expansion of the state’s sales tax to for-profit and non-profit arts and entertainment events. The tax proposal was successfully defeated by employing a range of strategies that included encouraging broad public support, engaging in media debate, working with other industries and issue groups impacted by the proposal and the delayed budget, and working with a smaller group of arts advocates who met with legislators. Just as the strategies were varied, the messages were as well. The media messages focused primarily on the aspects of the issue that resonated with the general public. Talks with other industries and issue groups were largely about how not to get caught in the trap of attacking each other. The legislative discussions had a different focus, discussing more of the technical aspects of the proposal including research questioning the ability of the proposed revenue structure to reach the necessary goal. The combination of all of these factors and messages — urgency created by the initial announcement (two weeks), broad public support and outcry (there were two public rallies), media engagement, collaboration with other issue groups, legislative meetings, and others — is what led to success. Would we have been successful if we had only engaged in public and media outcry? I don’t know. Would we have been successful if we had only engaged in discussions with legislators? I don’t know. What I do know is that we approached the issue from all angles and ultimately succeeded in overturning a proposal that we were told from the start we couldn’t defeat. It took both types of strategy (public and private), and the use of many different messages, to make it happen in this situation. Do I think that means we need to use public and private strategies for every advocacy issue? No. What it reinforced for me is that we need a toolbox — filled with lots of strategies, messages, data, and stories — that we can draw on in any given advocacy situation, whether it’s proactive or reactive in nature. Sometimes, public strategies are the way to go. Sometimes private ones are best. And sometimes, we need both.

    The real “shhhhhh” here to me is the assumption that everyone — the public, the arts community, the media, the legislative folks — values the arts in the same way for the same reasons, and wants the same outcomes from our advocacy. That’s where I think some of our potential “mismatches” of advocacy strategy and messaging come from — an issue erupts, we choose a message, and then we deliver that same message to everyone in the same way, regardless of context. To me, it’s not about public vs. private, but about public and private, and what strategies and messaging are appropriate and successful for each. I think it’s OK that legislators and the public may value the arts for different reasons. It’s like dinner with my five-year old — the reasons I want her to eat broccoli and the reasons she eats it are probably different, but in the end if she eats that broccoli we’re both happy. In PA’s state sales tax issue, different legislators were against the tax for different reasons, and that’s OK, too. What we don’t talk as much about is the idea that different values among different audiences might sometimes lend themselves to different goals for arts advocacy, goals that might sometimes be in conflict with one another. That’s another “shhhhhhh” to consider.

    Generally, knowing that different messages and strategies appeal to different audiences is actually a good thing, as most of us do believe that the arts have myriad values. Why not use that knowledge more to our advantage? In the end, I agree with the premise of ArtsWave’s research. It actually dovetails nicely (though there are some differences) with work the Cultural Alliance has done over the last few years with the Neimand Collaborative, leading to a change in its overall messaging and strategic framework which you can learn more about here – http://www.philaculture.org/grow. It’s a structure that presents a common theme yet allows for the use of different aspects of messaging within it, tailored to the context at hand.

    I think that all of the comments posted on this thread bring up valid points of discussion on this issue. I just hope the end result is that it leads us to embrace the idea that what’s needed is not a silver bullet, but the knowledge to know when and what types of bullets are necessary in any given situation, and how best to then take aim and fire. (The goals, of course, are another discussion….)

  11. Posted November 5th, 2011 at 11:37 am | Permalink

    Let me offer a POV that hasn’t been expressed thus far. I am an amateur artist. I also work full-time in the behavioral health field. Art, to me is a wonderful gift and I find that it promotes the kind of emotional healing that little else can provide. My dream is to hold creative workshops for the elderly – not training or classes, just a chance to let low-income elderly people try this wonderful thing called art and to experience their own creativity.

    I understand how art can be great for the community. Having said that, I was hit with a huge gas bill last spring and now am sitting here without heat. I’m paying it off slowly, but winter is here. Several of my clients are in the same boat. In other words, I love to buy art, but I have more important things to worry about right now. I think the same holds true for our national economy.

    Funding for the arts is great, and in different circumstances I would be all for it. My circumstances have given me a new outlook on this matter, however. The truth is that there is only so much money to go around, and I know where my vote will be spent. Art is wonderful, but survival is paramount.

  12. Posted August 22nd, 2014 at 5:18 pm | Permalink

    Over the last few years, I’ve spent a lot of time on the front lines of this issue, and I’m convinced it’s “both/and.”

    Different situations require different approaches. If you are attacked directly and publicly (like Kansas and South Carolina), attention is going to come to you whether you seek it or not, and you’d better be ready with some punchy arguments, backed up by a lot of people who will talk to their legislators on your behalf.

    On the other hand, if you have an advocacy goal–more money for your budget, for example–and you’ve invested the time and effort to develop relationships with decision-makers, it’s often better to work very quietly, at least until you need advocates to ask their legislators to vote for your proposition.

    The South Carolina Arts Commission’s fiscal year 2013 is a good example. We began that year locked out of our offices by a gubernatorial veto, and there was lots of press coverage and some demonstrating on the statehouse lawn. There was also a lot of targeted contact with legislators by arts supporters in their districts. Meanwhile, by the end of that year’s legislative session, we had quietly secured a $1 million increase for grantmaking. Ironically, I think that high volume episodes have actually helped us build the relationships that we’ve needed for the quiet work. But consistent and carefully orchestrated grassroots advocacy has been crucial in both situations.

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