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Tuesday, May 11, 2010

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Executive Director's Column

What Effective Arts Constituencies Do

NASAA Executive Director Jonathan Katz

Between last November and this month, each of the six regional arts organizations has cordially provided me the opportunity to address NASAA members at one of its meetings. Given turnover in Congress, in NEA leadership, and in the NASAA membership itself, the board of directors had suggested this method of updating members on the communication priorities of our association. In the process, I have been observing how state arts agencies are addressing the challenges they face and I have been looking in particular at the factors that influence how they are faring. One factor that has impressed me as absolutely critical in determining whether state government will treat its arts agency relatively well, in a similar way as other agencies, or worse than other agencies is the degree to which the state's arts community functions as a constituency for its state agency.

It's useful to think of a constituency as a group committed to representing a cause to government decision makers. Any government agency's ability to align its level of resources with the level of benefits it is capable of providing depends heavily on the effectiveness of its constituency. It is in the nature of government by the people and for the people that effective programs and services are a great asset, but insufficient to achieve that alignment. It is not my purpose here to minimize the importance of the work an agency's staff does to provide leadership and to design and deliver quality programs. It is my purpose to point out that whether times are good or bad, the lowest level of resources will go to agencies, regardless of their field, whose stakeholders did not take responsibility in an organized way for communicating the agency's value proposition and cultivating supporters in key decision-making positions.

The most effective constituencies inform and support champions in key decision-making positions. They communicate that they are an organized group and that their support—contributions, votes, endorsement, influence—is connected to specific action on their issue. They introduce themselves and establish relationships before decisions have to be made, they invite decision makers throughout the year to experience the benefits they have to offer, and they create occasions to say thank you and bring recognition to those who come through for them.

A community that behaves like a constituency develops clear, focused goals. It crafts messages that link its goals with broadly supported public priorities. It comes to consensus on the programs and services that will best advance its goals, and it agrees on the package of resources it will request. It resolves factional differences among its members and it presents a united front to decision makers.

Decision makers are pressing constituencies to provide solid evidence of the public benefits their agency's programs and services deliver. They increasingly request explanation of the performance measures that will be used to determine the success or failure of activities in each goal area. In the current environment, however, making the case that an agency's programs are effective and efficient is not enough. Decision makers view it as the responsibility of a constituency to explain why public money should go to their cause instead of other high-priority areas. Seeking to balance budgets, pressured by entitlements and mandates, decision makers are leery of agency expenditures for which they don't see a connection to revenues.

Arts and cultural constituencies must be adept at linking their leadership activities, grants and services to sales transactions, economic impact, property value, tax revenues, jobs, work-force competitiveness, tourism, community revitalization and other "creative economy" revenues and benefits. Over and over at my meetings with the regional arts organizations, I heard stories of budget officers and legislators asking why the arts should be funded when students, the poor, the hospitalized, the incarcerated and the disabled have needs—as if the arts did not benefit all these groups.

In state after state, we are seeing arts constituencies organize, rally and respond to budget crises. As the effects of recession continue, as arts participation patterns change and as elections bring new decision makers to positions of power, only those constituencies that adapt, organize and engage purposefully in public decision making will see their agencies get the resources merited by the benefits they are capable of providing.