TRG blog: 21st Century Tools for Arts Advocacy

21st Century Tools for Arts Advocacy

For the past decade, TRG has partnered with arts and culture communities to develop and manage shared patron data services. These community databases, often called cooperatives or coops for short, are typically built to help organizations save money through shared services. Coops also develop new patronage and revenues using smarter and more efficient communication tools. This new generation of community databases has become America’s largest single repository of information about arts and culture consumers and their behavior. Savvy arts leaders across the country are learning new ways to use coops as a resource to advance the arts agenda in their communities. Specifically, they want to match arts consumers with voter registration files. Why? Facts win cases when advocating before public officials and voters. In this post, we offer our thoughts to the current online dialog on advocacy nationwide, including on the Americans for the Arts blog and its green paper, The Future of the Public Voice in Arts Advocacy.

The mid-term elections in the U.S. are only six months away, but already forces of all sorts are lining up to make the case for the candidates they want – or, this year especially, don’t want. Points of view on must-win issues at the federal, state and local level vary wildly among Democrats, the GOP, Tea Party, incumbents and those positioning themselves as government “outsiders” Making a case that will win over politicians and voters is a lot like direct marketing success. It requires putting the right message in front of the right person at the right time.

What about the case for supporting arts and culture?

Can we find any reason to hope that a successful arts message can cut through the “clutter” of a national discourse dominated by war and peace, terrorism and financial upheaval? How can we possibly make our case amid the most toxic political environment in decades? Recently, I’ve found reason for optimism. Why? In preparation for a recent conference presentation we compiled a small list of new ways that smart community organizers are using TRG’s data coop information. The outcomes we’ve witnessed are pretty remarkable, particularly given the current national mood.

Anyone working in the arts knows that arts patrons are a very diverse group – they come in many shapes and sizes. This is always a surprise to our critics and detractors. While not as diverse as the total population of most cities, the number of organizations and their diverse target markets creates a surprisingly varied group of patrons. (I’m planning a post on this topic in the near future.). Demographic and psychographic diversity aside, there is one immediately important attribute that arts patrons have in common - arts patrons vote. They vote regularly and often. They vote in off-year elections, primaries and special elections. This common behavioral thread creates power for those who take the time to look. This fact is what is driving an entirely new use for community database resources - Advocacy.

Take, for example, the Greater Philadelphia Cultural Alliance and their colleagues’ successful (emergency) campaign to fight back a proposed new state sales tax on arts and culture tickets. Legislators assumed that the proposed tax would only impact a narrow slice of Pennsylvania’s wealthiest consumers. The facts residing in GPCA’s community database proved otherwise. Two-thirds of ticket buyers TRG studied for this case had annual household income under $70,000, and only about 8% fit the preconception lawmakers had about arts consumers. Presenting that point was helpful, but why should a state representative or senator care? Well, GPCA used their database information to show each legislator exactly where those ticket-buying arts lovers lived – on a map. There’s nothing subtle about politicians seeing “arts consumers” as registered voters living in their district. Were these district maps the case cincher in this advocacy campaign? It’s arguable, I suppose. What isn’t arguable is: there is no tax on arts and culture tickets in Pennsylvania.

[Another big Pennsylvania database, the Cultural Data Project, also weighed in on this effort. They were able to prove that the state’s estimated revenues from the new tax were wildly optimistic. Again, a fact-based argument made the art case compelling and unambiguous.]

A very large TRG arts consumer map hangs in the offices of the Cultural Affairs Division of Santa Monica, California. In this case, TRG helped the city develop the map to support their case for the location of a new art museum that Santa Monica is vying for. Using patron data from a Los Angeles market segmentation study, Santa Monica found that 67% of its residents were active attendees and donors to local arts and cultural organizations, representing the highest concentration of arts consumers of any LA County municipality. The Santa Monica patron map shows where arts and cultural patrons live in proximity to the prospective museum site and in comparison to other location’s resident pool of arts patrons. The map also shows each city council member how many of their constituents/voters are also arts patrons! The map is tangible evidence that Santa Monica is uniquely well located for the new museum, and has the additional benefit of informing other city decisions such as where its arts events should be staged.

Over the past decade, arts patron coop data has helped Denver’s Scientific and Cultural Facilities District win reauthorization of tax funding. It has helped organizations in Philadelphia convince local authorities to expand public transportation options for patrons attending post-rush hour evening events. More recently, we’ve joined an effort with several organizations in Pennsylvania to build a statewide case resource to advocate for public policy on the arts.

At TRG, we’ve begun to think about how data coops can play a greater role in influencing public policy on issues related to the arts. Increasingly, we see our data coops as providing Census-type information that can prove the case, rather than hoping that the “arts is good for us” message will ever find traction with our elected officials. As each new data coop comes online, we learn more about the power that arts and cultural patrons can have in our communities and our society. By illuminating the very presence this huge force - arts patrons who vote – we can be a positive force for influence in the political arena.

Posted May 12, 2010

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