This fourth installment in a weeklong blogfest on art and political power I’m cohosting with blogger Barry Hessenius was authored by Ra Joy, Executive Director of Arts Alliance Illinois, an artist and arts advocate with extensive experience in public policy and the congressional arena. Prior to joining the Alliance, Mr. Joy served for six years as a senior staffer for U.S. Representative Jan Schakowsky (IL-9). Motivated by the belief that democracy is a verb and the instinct to be creative is universal, Mr. Joy serves as Chair of the Evanston Ethnic Arts Festival and is a member of the board of directors for Mikva Challenge.
The series began with a dialogue between Barry and myself and continued with Roberto Bedoya, Executive Director of the Tucson Pima Arts Council, and Diane Ragsdale, creator of the “Jumper” blog. Subsequent entries will be authored by Dudley Cocke, director of Roadside Theater; and Barry Hessenius and myself. To each, we posed this question:
The way we’ve been doing arts advocacy for the past thirty years isn’t working: the real value of the NEA budget has dropped by well over half, for instance, and state funding has nosedived. We remain timid and unimaginative, acting as if cultural support were a rare privilege instead of a human right. With a blank slate and all your powers of social imagination, redesign it: why and how would artists and arts advocates claim social, economic, and true political power? What would you do for the arts to develop real political clout—and what has to change for us to move down that path?
Please read, forward, and comment. The entire series can be accessed here.
Dear Barry and Arlene,
Thanks for inviting me to your blog fest party. The question of the week: How can artists and arts advocates claim social, economic, and real political power? For those of us who work in the arts advocacy field, finding the answer to this question is what keeps us up at night.
All too often, conversations about the arts advocacy movement get bogged down by hand-wringing about how we make the case (intrinsic vs. instrumental value) or how we talk about the sector. I welcomed your charge of creating a blank slate and imagining a pathway forward for the arts to develop political clout. So here’s my three-point plan for the arts sector to think bigger, act faster, and advocate smarter.
#1 Grow the Base
I agree with you both that a massive, sustained grassroots movement is the best way to achieve real power. But where Barry focuses on “money power,” I’m more focused on “people power” as the route to clout.
I’m from Chicago—the home of community organizing, made famous by folks like Saul Alinsky, Jane Addams, Jan Schakowsky, Harold Washington, and Barack Obama. Community organizing has been a central strategy for almost every successful social change movement in world history. From civil rights to women’s right, from the Arab Spring to the People Power Revolution in the Philippines, an organized people can create real and lasting change.
The quality challenge arts advocates face is tapping into and fully leveraging the widespread public support for the arts that Barry describes.
As a sector, the arts are uniquely positioned to excel at coalition-building and alliance politics. Cultural organizations have direct access to broad networks that often include staff, board, audience members, and community partners. And today’s technology and social media tools enable us to reach more people with less money than ever before. If hundreds of arts organizations stand firmly behind a common cause, they can collectively engage and mobilize hundreds of thousands of people. That’s power.
The best way to move the needle on arts policy issues (whether it’s Barry’s NEA budget or Arlene’s WPA 2.0 idea) is to create strong grassroots and grasstops networks that transcend age, race, ethnicity, geography, and other factors. I give credit to Bob Lynch and our friends at Americans for the Arts for working to create an arts advocacy network that’s built to last. An empowered and informed network enables the arts sector to appropriately “thank” or “spank” policymakers based on their actions and our priorities. In the end, the stronger our network—and the better our organizing tactics become—the more policy wins will be achieved.
Here in Illinois, building our network of arts advocates is strategic direction number one for Arts Alliance Illinois. Some of the network building goals we’ve established include:
- Increase our e-list subscribers to 50,000
- Increase online followers on Facebook to 25,000 and Twitter to 5,000
- Engage 15% percent of network in advocacy action
Last month the National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy released a report titled “Cultivating the Grassroots.” While the report is geared to environment and climate funders, it offers best practices in grassroots organizing relevant to advocates in any field.
#2 Occupy Democracy
My second recommendation for building political power for the arts is to position cultural organizations as centers of democracy. I believe deeply that democracy is a verb—it’s not something we have, it’s something we do. And I think more artists and cultural organizations should “do” democracy.
Barry described a disconnect that some arts stakeholders have with the political process and the civic life of their communities. This strategy would help close the gap. But instead of partisan politics or PAC contributions, another important point-of-engagement is around civic discourse and expanding voter participation.
We should provide cultural organizations with the training and support they need to register voters, provide easy-to-use voting information, and play a more active role as catalysts for community engagement. By strengthening the connections between cultural organizations, community members, and civic issues, we can bolster the arts and build bridges across sectors.
Nonprofit Vote has good resources to help nonprofits effectively encourage participation.
#3 New Policy Agenda
Generally speaking, for a sector that represents human creativity we have been pretty unimaginative when it comes to developing new policy solutions.
Ben Cameron, Arts Program Director at the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation, often tells the story about the great hockey player Wayne Gretzky and the value of anticipating the future. What made Wayne such a good player? He skated to where the puck would be, not where it has been. From an arts policy perspective, instead of skating to where the puck will be, many advocacy groups have been frozen in time.
If we’re serious about strengthening the operating environment for artists and cultural organizations, we need to think beyond our traditional sources of support for the arts. In addition to fighting hard for state arts agency appropriations, we should look for policy levers in economic development, neighborhood revitalization, cultural tourism, and national and community service.
We need to invest more time and resources around formulating winnable policy goals. We need to do a better job of sharing best practices and innovative ideas for both the public and private sectors. We need to think about how our policy initiatives can empower individual artists and be meaningful for for-profit arts business.