As we sat down with our Congressmen this past March during National Arts Advocacy Day, one message kept coming out of my mouth, “In my community, we don't just 'fund' the arts, we use the arts.” I didn't arrive in Washington with that phrase in my mind. I didn't even think about it until after our “advocacy sessions,” the day before we visited Capitol Hill.
What alarms me the most about our annual trek to Capitol Hill is that our ask never seems to change— “We would like our Representative/Senator to support funding the NEA/Arts Education at this specific level.” We mention the ability to leverage the arts for economic impact, improve education, and make our lives more fulfilling, but at the end of the day we ask for money—either from the federal government or private citizens via tax policy shifts.
We need to stop asking for money and instead ask for a new vantage point.
Our communities are changing at a rapid pace. Spurred by technology, an entrepreneurial spirit (the by-product of the Great Recession), and a need and ability to stay closer to home, the “local movement” (as I call it) has changed how we define our community. Your zip code doesn't matter, your art/culture/historic/technology/business “district” does; the roar of your engine doesn't matter, the sound of your pedals does; your submission to the monthly magazine doesn't matter, your twitter account does. Partnerships have become the cornerstone of private development and public investment. Green spaces, farmers markets, Main Streets, boutique shops and sidewalks are a signature of community—not merely an entrance sign and a road. Communities are no longer defined by location only; they are defined by the culture, function, and livability of a place.
It is with this spirit in which we should advocate for the important role the arts play in our lives. Yes, economic impact is important, and of course arts education is vital to our nation, but to fit our changing world, our conversation has to change. The two ideas of economic impact and education should not exist separate from each other, let alone separate from the rest of the spectrum of government issues.
I told every member of Congress I met with just a few weeks ago that we need to start seeing the arts as something our nation can use and not simply fund. Government has at its disposal a litany of tools to make our country, state, and community better. Zoning, regulations, taxes, permits, infrastructure, public safety—all of these things are tools used by our governments that allow us to freely create our own future. For too long, many of us arts advocates have assumed that policy makers simply did not acknowledge the arts as a useful tool. I beg to differ and offer that they simply did not know how to use the arts; they simply left it in their toolbox.
In order to demonstrate a need for government support, we need to show them how to use the arts.
Use us to recruit a restaurant and guarantee a crowd every night after a performance. Use us to lure a large employer and guarantee that their employees will have something to do after work. Use us to educate children and build a more innovative future. Use us to educate adults and help cultivate a more creative workforce today. Use us to make your downtown beautiful. Use us to give you an “anchor” for your community. Use us to put your community on the map.
We are an integral part of the modern community. We are the reason people drive past the county line. We are the reason our green spaces are not simply patches of grass. We are the reason property values increase. We are the reason the creative class exists. We are the heartbeat of a community.
We are a tool in your toolbox, and we should be used.
Interested in hearing more about the future of the arts from emerging arts leaders? Check out our preconference session on Arts Leadership at this year’s Annual Convention in Nashville, TN.
This Emerging Leaders Blog Salon on Charting the Future is generously sponsored by Patron Technology.