The Passion of Arts Advocates Driving Change: Kennedy, U.S. Lawmakers, and You
Earlier this month I was in Cambridge, Massachusetts, giving a lecture on arts and public policy at the Harvard Kennedy School’s Institute of Policy. In lieu of standard hotel accommodations, I was offered the chance to stay in John F. Kennedy's senior year suite in Winthrop House—and of course I jumped at it. Sitting down at Kennedy’s desk—complete with an Underwood portable typewriter—I was profoundly moved. I thought of his inspiring words and they resonated with the event and work of the week to come, Arts Advocacy Day, when citizen advocates take to Capitol Hill to make the case for federal support for the arts and arts education.
I am certain that after the dust of centuries has passed over our cities, we, too, will be remembered not for victories or defeats in battle or in politics, but for our contribution to the human spirit.
President Kennedy was a lifelong supporter and advocate of the arts. His four-year curriculum framed on the wall included “fine arts,” “literature,” and other humanities. He placed his administration firmly behind focusing national attention on the role of the arts in America. He took the lead in raising funds for the new National Cultural Center—renamed the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in the months following his assassination. He created the position of Special Consultant on the Arts to the President to advise in the areas where public policy had an artistic dimension, and established the President’s Advisory Council on the Arts. Today, the Kennedy Center is a leader in arts education and fulfills its namesake’s vision by hosting performances of all kinds.
During my career, I have been lucky to meet and work with doers like Kennedy, including his brother Senator Ted Kennedy, working tirelessly and fighting valiantly for a cause, and there is no better time to witness this spirit than during Arts Advocacy Day. This year more than 500 arts supporters dedicated time and resources to come to Washington so the voices of arts advocates could be heard on Capitol Hill. The Congressional Arts Kick Off event brought together entertainment, arts, education, and policy leaders to reinforce the importance of maintaining federal support for the arts and arts education. The room was abuzz, energy levels high, and I marveled at the sheer number of doers that packed the Kennedy Caucus Room of the Senate.
Equipped with our 2016 Congressional Arts Handbook and brimming with newfound knowledge and messages of hope and inspiration, advocates dispersed across Capitol Hill. Their messages to their members of Congress were clear—economic prosperity and the health of our communities rest on the development of strong public policies for the arts, increased public funding for the arts, and access to the arts as part of a complete, well-rounded education.
We know that when it comes to making change happen at the federal level, it takes congressional arts leadership and evidence-based data to make our case. Newly released public opinion survey findings on attitudes towards arts education and arts funding highlighted that, of more than 3,000 American adults surveyed in December 2015, a whopping 89 percent believe that the arts are key to a well-rounded education. For advocates committed to sparking change, this data packed a punch.
Arts Advocacy Day—which is part of the National Arts Action Summit, now spanning five days of activities—is a powerful signal to lawmakers that the arts and arts education are issues the American people, constituents, and voters care about. Advocacy has led to big wins in the past year, including fending off budget cuts and helping get a $2 million increase for the National Endowment for the Arts, as well as enhancing arts education provisions within the newly rewritten K-12 federal education law, the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA). All of these victories would have been beyond our grasp if it weren’t for committed arts advocates.
And today’s lawmakers are also proving to be doers, supporting and advocating for the arts by introducing related bills and other measures. Senator Tom Udall (D-NM) knows that while the arts are a significant contributor to New Mexico’s vibrant arts and cultural tourism economy, artists and artistic entrepreneurs often face significant barriers when trying to secure loans and get small business assistance.
On Arts Advocacy Day, Sen. Udall introduced a bill—the Comprehensive Resources for Entrepreneurs in the Arts to Transform the Economy (CREATE) Act—that will help artists, entrepreneurs, and workers employed in cultural education and tourism better access federal programs and resources, allowing them to grow their businesses and share their artwork with local communities. This support will have far-reaching, positive effects on communities and the economy in New Mexico and across the country.
Elected officials can feel secure about supporting efforts to increase funding for the arts. The government funding piece of the public opinion survey revealed that 54 percent of the respondents support an increase in federal arts investment from the current 46 cents per capita, to $1.00 per person. American voters want their government involved in arts support, and in fact they want more of it. The public also makes clear that those running for federal elected office will be supported at the polls if they deliver on the arts.
No matter who you are, as an American citizen, you have the right and responsibility to help elected officials and fellow citizens understand the many ways that the arts enrich our lives and contribute to the health of our nation. Take advantage of advocacy opportunities. Seek out interest groups and organizations. Pay attention to the news and use opposing views to sharpen your arguments. Look for trusted sources of data, and share your information with others. Write to your House and Senate members. If you value the arts, be a doer.
Sitting in Kennedy’s suite that evening, I felt the drive and determination of the remarkable young man whose later contributions to the arts would prove immeasurable—transforming the spirit of the nation that remains with us today. As long as I continue my advocacy work, I will remember the words of Kennedy, inspiring me to push on:
I look forward to an America which will reward achievement in the arts as we reward achievement in business or statecraft. I look forward to an America which will steadily raise the standards of artistic accomplishment and which will steadily enlarge cultural opportunities for all of our citizens. And I look forward to an America which commands respect throughout the world not only for its strength but for its civilization as well.
President John F. Kennedy, remarks at Amherst College, October 26, 1963
This blog was also posted on The Huffington Post.