There’s No “I” in “Arts Advocacy”

Posted by Ms. Najean Lee, Mar 03, 2017 0 comments

“A rising tide lifts all boats.” “It takes a village.” “Many hands make light work.” “Live together, die alone.” Okay, that last saying actually comes from the TV show Lost—but all of these expressions speak to the power of common cause and working together. For arts advocates, that unity plays out powerfully every spring on Arts Advocacy Day in the form of hundreds of participants who trek to our nation’s capital and thousands more who take part from home. 

While a presidential election season is the most intense time of political engagement for most citizens, advocates who dedicate themselves to a particular issue or set of issues know that there is seldom a defined starting or stopping point to our work. This is especially true for the arts, which encompass a wide range of policies in addition to federal funding (for example, improving the visa process for foreign guest artists to perform in the U.S., or protecting the ability of musicians to travel across international borders with instruments that contain protected species material).

Happily, speaking up for the arts and our many policy concerns is easier to manage thanks to the work of coalitions such as the ad hoc Cultural Advocacy Group, which my organization—the League of American Orchestras—has been a part of for decades. This particular group comprises government affairs staff from numerous national arts organizations, meeting monthly to compare notes and intelligence about how to advance the goals of the larger arts community in Congress and before federal agencies. We adjust our strategies as larger policy winds shift, in response to feedback from our various members who create and present art throughout the country, and on the guidance of trusted policymakers who are just as invested as we are in making progress for the arts. Our group also divvies up assignments to schedule meetings with key Congressional offices throughout the year, and we coordinate with each other so our collective members are prepared to deliver a unified message and are activated at critical moments when grassroots activity will have the greatest impact.

There are times when we need to turn up the volume, and that time will likely be coming soon, but in the meantime there is plenty to do. Making the case for the arts may take on greater urgency when there is a threat, but whether the arts community is experiencing a funding high or a low, the most effective advocates need to remember to keep one eye fixed on the bigger picture and stay plugged in all year round—with their elected officials, with their member service organizations, and with their local community coalitions. If you’re already plugged in, you know what steps to take: get to know your elected officials with the goal of building or strengthening that relationship now so that you’re not reaching out in the eleventh hour. Prepare yourself with effective stories that show how you as an artist, or an arts organization that you care about, contribute to and strengthen your community. Be able to articulate why you believe public access to the arts is necessary, and why the arts are a key part of a civil society. Know what the opposition believes, and arm yourself with good information that might compel them to think again. Figure out what they care about, and try to create a bridge from that interest to a better understanding of what the experience of the arts can offer to so many people.

We will continue to experience a mix of progress and setbacks—this is the nature of fighting on behalf of pretty much any cause. But you can’t allow the moments of low tide to discourage you. Instead, when those times come, look for your partners in advocacy, encourage and amplify each other’s efforts, and above all, remember that the greatest inspiration comes from the very thing we are all championing. Anchor your advocacy in the positivity that drew you to the arts to begin with, because at the end of the day, what you’re doing is simply sharing your enthusiasm about the tremendous benefits the arts offer, and trying to help more people experience them. Let’s advocate together, and thrive.

This post is part of a series of advocacy blogs leading up to Arts Advocacy Day 2017. Read more advocacy blogs here.

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