It’s the late 70s and I’m standing in the rotunda of the Massachusetts State House with a 10-foot-wide Boston cream pie. The traditional chocolate frosting is spread thickly across the round top and a whole cherry pie sits in the center where a single cherry would go on a normal-sized pie.
A pencil-thin line of white frosting drawn from the center outward like the minute hand of a watch is punctuated by a tall cardboard flag that says, “A piece of the pie for the arts.” This might get us some curious onlookers, maybe some pictures, I think, mentally preparing to transport the pie to a charity after our annual state arts advocacy day is done. But before I know it, every elected official and staff member in the entire statehouse is drawn to the spectacle and descends into the rotunda not only to view it, but to get a piece. My fellow advocates and I served a lot of pie that day … and we also got an increase to our arts budget. It wasn’t a conventional strategy, but it was certainly successful. After months of advocacy, putting inspirational artists and arts organizations in front of elected decision-makers, plus a little baking—actually, a whole lot of baking—our voices were heard.
This past January, just steps from where the “powerful” 10-foot pie made its grand appearance, I was surprised and honored to receive the inaugural John F. Kennedy Commonwealth Award for my work in public policy and advocacy from the Massachusetts Cultural Council and the JFK Library Foundation. Stephen Kennedy Smith, member of the Board of the JFK Library Foundation and nephew of President Kennedy, presented the award. This connection to the former president and his tireless work to champion the arts in America (eventually inspiring the creation of the National Endowment for the Arts) drove the point home for me that advocacy doesn’t end with one victory, or certainly one loss.
In President Trump’s recent budget proposal, we learned that he wants to zero out federal funding for culture in America including eliminating the NEA, National Endowment for the Humanities, Institute of Museum and Library Sciences, and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. This is despite the fact that Americans care about, and show up for the arts. In fact, during last month’s annual Arts Advocacy Day, more than 700 advocates representing 50 states and the District of Columbia showed up for the arts, and hit every congressional and senatorial office with messages of the value of the arts.
The fact is that the budget process is long and complex, with numerous opportunities along the way to affect and influence the process. Work is being done on the continuing resolution for FY17 one week, to the appropriations committee markups for FY18 in the House and Senate, to floor consideration in both the House and the Senate, to the final “conference” work between the House and Senate in order to iron out differences between their competing bills so all can arrive at a final bill that can be signed into law. Advocates have numerous opportunities to make our voices heard about the inherent and enhancing values of the arts.
Last month, I gave advice to advocates on how to best voice hopes and ideas to decision-makers. With this full-force effort, through the fall we can make the case that federal cultural funding, the NEA, and other federal cultural agencies, make our nation’s economy and communities better, that it transforms lives for the better, that it heals neighborhoods, improves education and learning, and is a tool for diplomacy, recovery, and discovery.
This short personal story is just one example of arts advocacy being a life-long, often rewarding, sometimes fun effort which never ends and should not end now. All of us must rise to the occasion, ramp up our efforts, mobilize, and get creative with our advocacy, and we must stay vigilant.
I am sure President Kennedy would have approved of the 10-foot-wide Boston cream pie for the arts and would have sampled a piece himself. As he said, “I see little of more importance to the future of our country and civilization than the full recognition of the place of the artist.” There is always something more to be done.
This blog also was posted on The Huffington Post.