Our field collectively high-fived recently when Congress passed the long-delayed budget for fiscal year 2018. Together we beat back the Trump Administration’s proposals to terminate the National Endowment for the Arts and National Endowment for the Humanities, funded now through September 30. Each will receive a total of $152.8 million, $3 million more a piece than last year. Congresswoman Louise Slaughter, who passed away last month, was a fierce champion for the arts for decades, and this win is a very fitting tribute to her longtime leadership. It took the unified, tireless, and persistent work of the arts community and grassroots advocates nationwide to achieve this win. Strong activism resulted in a powerful bipartisan message that arts and humanities funding strengthens and enriches our communities and grows local economies.
On March 16, 2018, a dear friend, tireless advocate, and arts leader passed away, U.S. Representative Louise M. Slaughter. I have known Louise for 32 years. We’ve partnered in nearly that many Arts Advocacy Days. It has always been my honor to stand with Louise. I’ve stood with her on over 100 occasions in the last 23 years while she co-chaired the Congressional Arts Caucus. Americans for the Arts and the nation’s arts community owe a debt of gratitude to Louise Slaughter. There has never been an arts advocate with more tenacity, fight, humor, and spirit of generosity. May she rest in peace knowing that she made the world a better place through the arts, and may her trailblazing pave the way to more arts leaders recognizing the transformational power of the arts on our lives, communities, economy, and nation.
Advocacy promoting arts and arts education funding and policy doesn’t just exist at the federal level. While the federal government funds the NEA at $152.3 million, state governments invest $357.5 million into state arts agencies. However, like the NEA, state arts agencies cannot lobby regarding appropriations, law, legislation, or policy, in their official capacity. Enter the State Arts Action Network—a professional development network of Americans for the Arts comprised of 53 state arts advocacy and service organizations from 42 states. SAAN members work around the clock advocating for pro-arts and pro-arts education funding and policies in their home states. Here’s just a sample of the great work happening at the state level! Here’s just a sample of the great work happening at the state level!
The arts are fundamental to our humanity. They ennoble and inspire us—fostering creativity, goodness, and beauty. The arts bring us joy, help us express our values, and build bridges between cultures. The arts are also a fundamental component of a healthy community—strengthening them socially, educationally, and economically—benefits that persist even in difficult social and economic times. The arts are all about stories—often small, always meaningful. This advocacy season, find your stories and pair them with the research-based findings in the “10 Reasons to Support the Arts.” Yours will be an advocacy visit that is not soon forgotten.
Over the first quarter of 2018 I’ve had the great opportunity to spend time listening to the wisdom of my colleagues in the field. From these gatherings, I continue to see first-hand the spectacular array of work and service offered by the non-profit arts community in our country. It is a vibrant, effective, optimistic, inciteful, and growing field that uplifts our communities across the country. Despite challenges in funding and support, the creativity of our arts field surges forward. There are new benchmarks to celebrate and new obstacles to overcome, all leading I hope to new opportunities for the arts. Here are eight observations for 2018.
I was excited to enter Randolph High School back in 1980, mostly because of its thriving music program. I couldn’t wait to sing in the different choruses, and to audition for the competitive show choir. Yet when I arrived at school, I learned that, as a result of Proposition 2 ½, music had been cut from the high school curriculum—along with other reductions to busing, foreign languages, sports, and library staff. I was devastated. My arts education came to a sudden end, but my education as an arts advocate was just beginning. Along with other students and parents, I wrote letters and attended meetings, imploring administrators not to abandon the music program. And our efforts began to pay off.
On February 14, 2018, seventeen people, including students and adults, were killed in a shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida. Since this tragedy, the voices of young people from the community have been lifted through their dynamic advocacy to call for reform to national, state, and local gun- and mental health-related policies. Many of the strong skills that they are using for their advocacy came from their immersion and studies in arts education. As the school re-opens and our lawmakers continue important discussions as a result of this tragedy, I hope that young people in every community across our nation continue to embrace the arts to inspire change in their communities, in states, and in Washington, DC. While nothing can lessen this tragedy, the arts are one way for people to find solace and strength.
Every day at work, I am reminded that the intersection between art and government continues grow in importance. Funding, allocation, and government spending is essential to developing our education system. I intern for Americans for the Arts because advocating for equitable access to art and arts education vastly improves our education system. Research shows that marginalized communities consistently have little to no access to arts education in schools. Some of the most diverse voices are being shut out of conversations and art creation. We are left with an education system that refuses to elevate some of the most integral voices in diversity for our dialogue and our art. I had the privilege of art shaping my entire childhood, but there are some places youth have no access to art at all due to systemic inequality in our education system.
Talking with voters, framing issues, raising money. What’s happening to me and how can it feel so natural? For the past 20+ years I’ve been an arts administrator. For the past three, I’ve led our state’s arts advocacy organization, Oklahomans for the Arts. Now, I am running for State Senate in Oklahoma’s District 30. We focus so much attention on elected officials in arts advocacy. Now I’m striving to become one and it feels like just the right conclusion. I felt pushed off the sidelines into running for office from my experiences advocating for arts and education. We’ve led the nation in state cuts to education, and arts funding has been cut almost 50% in the past eight years. Marking this more-than-year-long marathon transition, here are some ways I’m finding that advocacy compares to and differs from running for office.
Sitting down for a documentary interview the day before the unveiling of a monument to Maggie L. Walker in Richmond, community leader Melvin Jones Jr. was bubbling with joy in anticipation of seeing a project he had fought so tirelessly for finally come to fruition. A humble man in his early sixties, Jones felt familial to me. Never taking too much credit for accomplishments and always speaking with a smile, he wore his passion on his sleeve for all to see and had an arsenal of Maggie L. Walker wisdom that could supersede any textbook. His energy was contagious and he carried a binder full of documents he had collected. What I assumed would be a nuts and bolts interview about process turned into a conversation around history, legacy, and the diligence of a man who would go from a concerned citizen with an idea to public art proponent over the course of a decade.
Above the door of my theatre teacher’s classroom is the saying, “Step into the fear.” This saying has become a motivation of mine during this turbulent environment where support for arts education is more important than ever before. As a theatre student, history and human behavior jump off the page and come alive, forming an ensemble of different perspectives from a wide range of characters. These characters help me better understand the evolving world in which I live and inspire me to make a difference. Theatre has taught me to speak up, and this skill is not lost on me as an advocate. As I learn more and more about the world through plays, art, and music, I find myself with a greater efficacy and understanding of the value of arts advocacy.
In advocacy, there’s enormous value in the large numbers of voices coming together, unified around an issue. Arts Advocacy Day brings together more than 500 individuals who are passionate about the policies that support artists and audiences in their communities. Those who visit Washington, DC each spring roam the halls of Congress, meet with Congressional members or their staff, and follow up with thank you letters and stories. We bombard lawmakers with a lot of information, facts, and anecdotes, bringing a wave of enthusiasm for pro-arts policy-making. But what happens throughout the rest of the year in DC?
Although years may really just be a number, in its 31 years, Arts Advocacy Day has seen six different U.S. presidents spanning both political parties. It’s witnessed sixteen different congressional sessions and eight different Speakers of the U.S. House. Through it all, every year, attendees hear that “the arts are bipARTtisan.” Because, no matter who’s in office, arts advocacy matters. Funding decisions are made every year. Who’s deciding this year may not be deciding next year. Who’s to remember what happened before? Who’s to know why it matters? Who’s to learn from each other? The answer is us. All of us. All of us together.