Considering Arts Advocacy Around the World

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A hat tip the size of a homburg — heck, make it a stovepipe — goes out to Judith H. Dobrzynski of the Real Clear Arts blog for writing about a study from the International Federation of Arts Council and Culture Agencies (IFACCA). The study is titled National Arts Advocacy Campaigns: Overview of Case Studies and Good Practice (but IFACCA — not an organization I knew of until Dobrzynski’s post, whose mission is to “consolidate and maximise the expertise of the world’s arts councils and ministries of culture” — keeps the title mostly lowercase. Well, at least they’re writing actual reports like this, right?)

Like Dobrzynski, I too am fascinated by some of the report’s findings and conclusions. Rather than a dry front-to-back read, I recommend that you click on the aforementioned link, scroll down and pick out a section that intrigues you, like opening a dictionary to a random page, waving your finger in the air and seeing where it lands. It’s a bit more challenging to do with a PDF, I know, but I started with the third case study, which concerns the National Endowment for the Arts’ Big Read.

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Maybe this sounds provincial, but the sense I got from this section was that, to the rest of the world, the NEA is rather an anomaly. I may be projecting. But then again, maybe I’m not: we know the NEA is grossly underfunded and we also know it’s easy, so easy, too easy for the enemies of progress to politicize the daylights out of the agency, seemingly at will. All you have to do is reflect on the Courrielche fiasco of fall 2009.

At the same time — and I apologize for the lengthy digression — what we have in the phenomenal hands of current NEA chair, Rocco Landesman, is an attempt to define, if not expand, the NEA’s current boundaries and limitations, which is one way that arts advocates can actually prepare for any future assault on the agency.

Another way is simply to be canny, which is why Landesman’s “Art Works” tour was such a tactical masterstroke. After all, art does work, art means work and art is work. Yet the need to even discuss all of this underscores how very much the NEA differs from some of other, less politicized organizations affiliated with IFACCA.

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So back to the report, which finds the Big Read to have been successful:

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Data shows that the decline in reading rates was halted, and was reversed, between 2002 and 2008. The original objective of the program, whether attributable to the program or not, has therefore been achieved.

The report naturally includes the NEA’s own assessment, too:

…’although one cannot attempt to show a causal relationship between The Big Read program and the positive findings of Reading on the Rise, it is a plausible hypothesis that the public spotlight on declining reading rates – as well as the countless new literary and reading programs and the parents, teachers, and librarians nationwide who responded to the problem – may have played a decisive factor’.

The NEA also notes, however, that ‘although the findings were positive where literary reading is concerned, it is noteworthy that reading in the genres of poetry and drama continued to flag. Similarly, the rates for book-reading of any type (including non-fiction) declined, albeit to a smaller extent than in previous years’.

So, good reading, everyone. Dip in, tool around and think about what’s there.

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Oh — one other point, actually. I scrolled through the report as a whole — so much for my finger in the air idea — and my sense was that the case studies were mostly successful. That doesn’t mean they couldn’t be instructive, of course. For example, the first case study, Americans for the Arts’ “The Arts. Ask For More” (pages 14 to 20), and the second case study, concerning Arts=Jobs, a different effort by Americans for the Arts, are examples of smart people figuring out how to overcome adversity. Where I wish there was a little more, well, critical evaluation, was when I came to the last graphs of the second case study. It reads:

The objectives of the campaign were achieved when final legislation was signed into law that included $50 million funding to save jobs in the non-profit arts, as well as maintaining arts eligibility of funding for all other stimulus funds (education, transportation, community development block grants, etc). Reconciliation of the two different bills ultimately resulted in the Obama Administration keeping the House’s bill intact with regards to the arts funding. Of special note, was the public reaction of many grassroots arts advocates who were outraged at their senator’s vote to preclude stimulus funds going to the arts. Several high-profile senators in arts-rich states had to publicly and contritely explain their vote in the face of mounting criticism.

However, the most important outcome was to validate the integral connection between the role of non-profit jobs in the arts and the overall economic policy agenda for the entire country.

Why would I wish for something more in-depth than this? Because I’m not at all sure the “most important outcome” was what the report says it was. The anger from the right, encapsulated by the Courrielche mess, seems a tad overlooked.

But the fourth case study really went there, as they say. Architecture Week, a decade-long effort to popularize modern architecture (in the U.K., no less!), is judged “a victim of its own success, in the sense that the program’s growth led to a proliferation of objectives, and therefore a lack of clarity about the program’s aims.”

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There are two items singled out for what the program did well:

  1. Created a central brand, umbrella, or focal point for raising public awareness
  2. Used high profile figures effectively.

And there are 10 items singled out for what the program, despite its length, did not do well:

  1. Marketing and publicity were not well coordinated. Marketing and PR needed to be decentralised to the regions.
  2. Regional coordination and communication between partners was considered poor.
  3. Lack of certainty over funding and last minute funding decisions.
  4. A week was considered too short.
  5. Too many objectives, which caused confusion among stakeholders.
  6. Did not engage or embrace potential complementary events, so these events ended up as competition.
  7. Uneven delivery of program across regions.
  8. ‘Novelty’ events ‘trivialised architecture’.
  9. Too ‘inward looking’, did not engage people outside design-related professions.
  10. Timing of the week did not fit well within the school timetable.

Let’s learn.

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