Both houses of Congress are back in session and their work on budget resolutions will determine whether and how much federal funding will go to important American arts institutions, including the National Endowment for the Arts, PBS, and National Public Radio. At the state level, arts agencies are up against a rapidly devolving scenario of proposed measures that would radically restructure or eliminate them. All of us who care deeply about sustaining arts and culture in America are looking for the best ways and means of advocating for government support. The need for ever-better practices will not end with the current threat of cuts or this round of budget debate. Making the case for public funding for the arts has become an ongoing imperative.
In late January, I attended the Biennial Conference of The Broadway League, the trade organization that represents the interests of those engaged in the business of theatre. The primary topic for this Washington, DC conference was advocacy. The immediate League goal was to meet with the very members of the United States Senate and House of Representatives who now are determining the fate of funding for America’s arts and culture.
Over the years I’ve sat in on countess national service organization meetings talking about need of improved advocacy programs. I must say that this Broadway League meeting was the best I’ve ever seen – period. The focus on specific outcomes, the member training before making the trips to Capitol Hill and the explanation of the specific issues were first rate. Perhaps our best session was a meeting with a Broadway-friendly panel of senators and U.S. representatives, who discussed with League members the finer points of successful advocacy and the practice of real politics today. Key points that hit home with me in January now feel even more urgent, given the current debate:
Power in the national legislature is incredibly diffused. Long gone are the days when a handful of elected officials could exercise influence over the legislation that makes it to the floor for consideration. Advocacy today must be broader and specific to individual lawmakers because it takes many more of them to make anything happen.
The need is critical for a clear message, delivered well, and with validation from sources outside the arts and culture industry. It was surprising what this excellent panel assumed – incorrectly – about seemingly clear facts such as the differences of mission between commercial and nonprofit arts. However, there was no mistaking that any message – particularly a politically difficult one like maintaining public funding for the arts – is best voiced by passionately interested third-parties – VOTERS, that is, who can both articulate and endorse a value message.
Elected officials don’t buy the argument that the arts are good for us. Privately, individual legislators may believe in the value of arts and culture. But, the politics of the moment make government support of the arts, as one senator unambiguously stated, “not popular.” Arts and culture organizations are critical local businesses that collectively employ and engage large numbers of VOTERS.
Against this backdrop, advocacy efforts in Pennsylvania by the Greater Philadelphia Cultural Alliance (GCPA) and its statewide colleagues are a beacon of hope.
Eighteen months ago, our firm played a small role in helping to defeat a proposed sales tax in Pennsylvania on arts tickets -- not tickets to sporting events, mind you – just arts tickets! I posted a blog on that success last May (21st Century Tools for Arts Advocacy). Having rallied to stop the tax initiative, the collective leadership of the Pennsylvania’s arts community decided that the better course going forward was to become proactive in telling their story. This plan included an effort to identify and inform arts patrons across the state. The goal: start immediately to win the next debate.
Again, our firm provided data analysis – this time gleaning information from matching voter records from primary and general, municipal, state, and Presidential elections in 2006-2008 with arts and culture patrons of member organizations in the GPCA List Co-op. Our objectives: identify the proportion of voting population that are arts buyers, and leverage that information in two ways: Educate elected officials about the proportion of their districts’ voters who are arts patrons, and notify politically active or “tuned in” arts patrons about upcoming arts policy decisions.
The Pennsylvania Secretary of State’s office was the source for voter records. GPCA’s research and advocacy team developed the criteria for measuring levels of voter activity, ranging from those who voted only in the 2008 general (Presidential) election to those who voted in every primary and general contest during the study period. The key finding?
Highly engaged arts and culture patrons also are highly engaged voters.
We found that arts and culture patrons in Greater Philadelphia:
Make up a substantial proportion of the voter base –
One Third of voters in the 2008 Presidential Election were arts patrons
One Half of voters participating in ALL elections (Municipal, Primary, and General) between 2006 and 2008 were arts patrons
Vote and patronize the arts frequently: Two-thirds of Greater Philadelphia’s Arts Patrons/Voters attend programs at more than one arts organization. In most communities only 25% or less of all arts patrons are active with multiple organizations. In Philadelphia, a huge proportion of the voters are those multi-organization supporters.
The findings in Philadelphia and the Broadway League meeting with lawmakers suggest a new playing field for advocacy. Arts and culture patrons are a formidable “third party” force to be reckoned with in the ongoing public funding debate. Patrons support our organizations, and, as voters, they can determine the future of the elected officials who now are deliberating our industry’s. Whenever we can inform patrons – directly and individually – and direct them toward specific elected decision-makers, contending for public funding of arts and culture will be a whole new ballgame.