Advocacy: How You Can Save Arts and Culture for America

The author and fellow advocates from the IL and VA delegations at Arts Advocacy Day 2017 participating in a danced demonstration at the White House. Photo: Magnus Hunter.

Civil rights legend and Congressman John Lewis stepped up to the podium inside a room in a Capitol Hill building with chandeliers and thick curtains. I stood in the front row behind a velvet rope and cried as he said:

The arts inspired me to get in trouble. Good trouble. And I’ve been getting in trouble ever since. We need the arts in America now more than ever. Speak up. Speak out. Get in some trouble.

I had never seen him speak before. This moment was everything.

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Arts Advocacy Day was something I had wanted to do for many years. I had participated in Dance Advocacy days twice, but now I wanted to be in on the sector-wide conversation and national action. With the Trump administration’s messaging and proposed FY18 budget cutting arts and culture, I was compelled to go this time around. The registration fee was $160 to Americans for the Arts (AFTA); to successfully get meetings with my representatives after striking out for weeks on my own, I had to pay another fee of $75 to Arts Alliance Illinois (who are amazing, FYI). I wasn’t sure if my wallet could take this double hit, but I made it work. After attending the event — and without one whiff of doubt — I can say the cost was well worth it and more.

More than 700 arts leaders coalesced in Washington, DC to lobby for the arts on March 20 and 21, 2017 (that’s right: Arts Advocacy Day is actually two days). The lack of diversity in the large forum on the first morning was striking and disappointing: most folks appeared to be white women like me. The hotel ballroom was packed with energy and persistence, to be sure, but the apparent homogeneity left me uncomfortable. Then, as hundreds of us broke into smaller groups, I began to observe demographic differences. Diversity felt present, and good, by the afternoon. I still felt guilty for attending something so important that was inaccessible to others who wanted to be there. Either time or money had kept them away. I took it upon myself to note what I experienced and learned so I could share it.

What follows is your condensed resource for standing up and fighting for arts and culture in America in 2017. In increasingly nationalistic societies, arts and culture remain critical. Both domestic as well as diplomatic efforts must be made to fund it and prioritize it. While this CFR column is called Global Spitfire and often has a more global scope for international readers, this post is directed toward my American peers and their interest in arts advocacy.

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Choose Your Issue
Decide your specific Congressional request. Seek a commitment from members of Congress on one or two actions at a time. This may differ by legislator or audience depending on specific factors at play in each district and state. Lean toward an alignment of your interests and theirs; press their capacity for change. The following are the kinds of “asks” that AFTA helps with; they provide both issue briefs and detailed legislation pages on each topic, including data and examples. Also, check out materials offered by your state and regional arts councils, and discipline-specific professional associations, for issues that are pertinent to you, your industry and your geographic area.

So, what could you ask a member of Congress to do for the arts?

  • #SavetheNEA: Support and vote to fund $148M to $155M in the FY18 Interior Appropriations bill for the National Endowment for the Arts, which maintains a cultural infrastructure in every US state and territory — especially rural areas and districts without a philanthropic network. Sign the “Dear Colleague” letters to members of the Senate and the House — Mike Enzi (R-WY) and Tom Udall (D-NM) in the former, Louise Slaughter (D-NY) and Leonard Lance (R-NJ) in the latter. At Arts Advocacy Day, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi talked about the arts budget being “just a hair on my head.” It’s scant. Pelosi also declared, “You can never dance too much.”
  • Caucuses: Join the Congressional Arts Caucus, currently co-chaired by Slaughter and Lance. Join the Congressional STEAM Caucus, co-chaired by Rep. Suzanne Bonamici (D-OR) and Rep. Elise Stefanik (R-NY). Join the Senate Cultural Caucus co-chaired by Enzi and Udall.
  • Cultural Exchange: Support and vote to appropriate $110M to the Office of Citizen Exchanges within the State Department’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs. Recognize that arts and culture, historically, has been one of our most fruitful diplomatic and national security strategies. Work to improve the visa process for foreign guest artists by enacting the Arts Require Timely Service (ARTS) provision.
  • Military: Support H.R. 102, Expanding Care for Veterans Act, including creative arts therapies.
  • Arts Education: Support $30M for the Assistance for Arts Education programs and equal access to the arts provisions under Title IV of the Every Child Succeeds Act, which will be part of FY18 appropriations for the departments of Labor, Health and Human Services, and Education.
  • Workforce/Economy: Co-sponsor the CREATE Act to invest in the country’s creative workforce and economy. AFTA’s data show more than four million Americans working in arts and culture; it is an awesome jobs creator.
  • Tax Policy: Preserve incentives for charitable giving — more giving by more Americans — within any proposed policies for tax reform.
  • Health: Support access to creative arts therapies in treatments and services under Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) Programs.
  • Infrastructure: Provide flexibility within infrastructure legislation to state transit authorities to permit arts projects in federally-funded transit facilities.
  • Other Areas of Concern: Network neutrality, Access to affordable healthcare for the artist community, Fair compensation for music creators, and Protecting wireless technology for the arts & media.
  • Value Arts and Culture: You can’t spell bipartisan without the arts.

Get Creative, Organized and Active
I blur the lines between arts advocacy and arts activism. While both done with respect and openness, the energy is given toward social progress. I pursue positive change rather than resistance. A Carl Jung archetype test told me:

You’re the Rebel! You see injustice everywhere and you want to shake up the entire system. You’re deeply principled but you’re a free spirit with few boundaries. You have the potential to really change things.

A friend once told me, “Shawn, you put the active in activism.”

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Everyone has their own advocacy and activism aesthetic. Go with the strategies that you find are not only effective, but are the most personally fulfilling to you. Here is a brief list of optional activities:

  • Make, see, experience, produce, sponsor, facilitate or teach the arts.
  • Organize weekly political action gatherings as neighbors and citizens.
  • Request meetings with local, state and federal policymakers and legislative staff.
  • Call! Call! Call! Call! Call! Call! Call! Call! Call! Call! Call!
  • Attend Town Halls.
  • Advocate at your state capital.
  • Create or help distribute advocacy videos such as this one by Artists for the Arts.
  • Send postcards or personalized letters.
  • Send personalized emails. Let them know you’re an artist and you vote!
  • Send auto-emails.
  • Sign petitions.
  • Organize or participate in an artistic demonstration.
  • Make public art.
  • Protest. (FYI: Chicago has a lending library of handmade protest banners.)
  • Boycott.
  • Sit-in or hold an occupation.
  • Join a committee or board.
  • Contribute to the research, collect evidence.
  • Invite policymakers to artistic events.
  • Offer artistic contributions to political events (find the ethical and political alignment first, get commitment from the legislator).
  • Run for office.

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Doors to the office of Rep. Barbara Lee. Photo: Shawn Lent.

Know Your Audience
Look up members of Congress for the districts you live in, work in, have family in or went to school in. Find out their arts support records, active committees and caucuses, what types of events they attend most often, issues mentioned on their social media and websites, biography and family/personal life.

Some legislators are making bold stances against the new administration. Some are in a purple zone of Republicanism combined with a declared disdain for Trump. For example, the office of one IL Republican, which had a large portrait of Ronald Reagan and a garbage bin full of Women’s March postcards, has stated that no agency should be zeroed out of the FY18 budget.

Prep Your Pitch
AFTA started our arts advocacy summit with some brief training on the art of storytelling. Preparing us for in-person meetings with legislators and legislative staff, they advised:

Begin with the end in mind, set the stage and establish the stakes, paint the picture with an example, describe the fight, surprise the legislator, introduce the potential for success, and finish with a hook (mic drop, ask for their commitment). All in 2 minutes.

They also suggested we combine a real-life examples from our district or state with research and data. Present no story without a number, no number without a story. AFTA provides arts facts and figures to help you backup your case on multiple issues: from preparing students better for the workplace, to the arts and culture as a $24.1B export industry, from economic impact of the arts by district to millions of arts jobs; from shorter hospital stays to how the arts are unifying communities. Several other arts and culture associations also provide statistics and advocacy resources with more detail for certain districts and disciplines.

Shawn Lent, Ben Vereen and Eva Cristina (L-R) at Arts Advocacy Day 2017. Photo: Karen Kohn Bradley.

Bring Your Passion and Humility
During Arts Advocacy Day 2017, I was honored by having five great meetings with legislative staff and had a good time running around the Hill. Special thanks go to the friends who housed me on their guest beds, and to Jonathan VanderBrug and the entire IL delegation for their hard work and camaraderie. I loved how we pursued for Secretary of State Madeleine Albright down a hallway in order for me to shake her hand and talk to her about arts and cultural exchange with Egypt. She lit up with a genuine smile, but we weren’t able to catch a picture. Life in real time is not always a documentary.

The last thing I will leave you with is a lesson learned. Don’t have the minute when you meet Ben Vereen be while you are finishing a donut.