Leading from the Front: Arts Advocacy Strategies for the Public Sector
What does adaptive leadership and effective advocacy look like for those working in the public sector? Over the course of the past year, I began seriously wondering how public employees might be able to take an active role in raising political support for cultural agencies and state arts councils, within the legal restrictions that apply to their self-advocacy. My independent research included an examination of the leaders of 56 state arts agencies, and included six one-hour phone interviews with the Executive Directors of the Oklahoma Arts Council, Arizona Commission on the Arts, Oregon Cultural Trust/Oregon Arts Commission, State of Michigan Council for Arts & Cultural Affairs, Maine Arts Commission, and the Maryland State Arts Council. I wanted to find out how each of these leaders were steering their agencies to serve many diverse publics within their state in spite of significant political and economic challenges—and in some cases, a lingering threat of elimination.
It quickly became apparent that the unique geographic and cultural qualities of each state were significant factors in assessing the resilience of a state arts council’s leader. Though a common mold of an adaptive leader did not emerge from my sample group or from my overall research, some universal traits did. Specifically: the ability to cultivate personal relationships with key stakeholders and elected officials, visionary thinking and decisiveness, and a knack for coalition-building were paramount qualities of adaptive leadership in each state surveyed.
It is no surprise that a capacity for building a strong network of allies within a state legislature is crucial to sustaining arts support throughout election cycles. Nowhere is that more evident than in Oklahoma, where new legislation has placed term limits on elected officials throughout the state, resulting in a younger legislative body that will be constantly refreshing itself, and therefore requiring arts leaders to prioritize the establishment of new relationships with those in state government alongside existing efforts to build a system of support with current elected officials. Oklahoma’s example highlights the ongoing critical need to demonstrate the value of the arts within each legislative district during session, with those running for office, and when elected officials return to their home districts.
The absence of usable data presents a potential shortfall in the public arts sector, in some states. While signing up for every email list for every state arts council, I was rarely asked for anything more than my name, mailing address, and email address. With greater specificity in the required fields of each mailing list sign-up form, a public art leader could develop effective cross-filters and deliver relevant content that is based on the traits of the individual (as opposed to a large monthly newsletter with large blocks of content but targeted to no one). Wouldn’t it be more practical to be able to distinguish elected officials from teachers, and self-identified artists from grants managers? Wouldn’t it be more meaningful to someone who has indicated that they want to know what’s happening with the arts in their school district to receive a quarterly reader-friendly update with a focus on arts education? If we wish to diminish the perception that public funding for the arts only reaches the wealthy elite in urban neighborhoods, wouldn’t it behoove us to send a rural arts supporter more content about the council-funded arts events scheduled to take place in their region, with a lesser emphasis on what is happening in far-away major cities? Data sets must vary by state, lest we ignore the differences in arts access and participation across socio-economic and racial lines and made more difficult by expansive geographic challenges.
I am not currently working in the public sector, and am all too aware of the many challenges that our public arts leaders face without the pressure to advocate for their agencies. Certainly, today’s political climate has raised new questions about how best government employees can operate effectively. To this end, I would encourage my colleagues to embrace this challenge as an artist would: with empathy for one’s community, with a desire to reach others on the ground on which they stand, with a sense of civic urgency, and with hope for the country that we have yet to build.
Ryan Antony Nicotra is a member of Americans for the Arts.