(One of Createquity’s hallmarks has been its willingness to entertain questions that many cheerleaders for the arts would prefer not to touch with a ten-foot pole: questions about the effectiveness and relevance of arts programming or advocacy strategies, about the appropriateness of the ways in which we amass knowledge, even about whether the arts really matter all that much after all. In honor of that propensity for navel-gazing, Uncomfortable Thoughts week begins here with a 2011 guest post from Margy Waller, who focuses on strategic communications and creative connections to promote broad support of the arts at Topos Partnership. -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.