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Friday, July 8, 2011

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Executive Director's Column

South Carolina: An Advocacy Success Story

Guest Author: Ken May, executive director, South Carolina Arts Commission

Arts supporters in South Carolina achieved a big victory on June 29, when Governor Nikki Haley's veto of the South Carolina Arts Commission's fiscal year 2012 budget was defeated by a resounding legislative override. NASAA interviewed South Carolina Arts Commission (SCAC) Executive Director Ken May to learn how advocates and legislators attained this success and to get Ken's thoughts on mobilizing arts advocacy in a politically volatile climate. Jonathan Katz, NASAA CEO

SCAC survived a budget veto last year, too. What did you learn during the 2010 session that helped you this time around? We learned the amazing power of social media to reach and mobilize arts supporters very rapidly. The ability to connect with supporters directly and immediately has helped us polish and amplify our communications process. We also learned that arts supporters do appreciate what we do and that they would speak up in large numbers. It gave us more confidence.

How did your agency respond when Governor Haley initially proposed zeroing out your budget during her State of the State address in January? The governor made her speech on January 19, and the South Carolina Arts Alliance went into full-alert mode the next day. Our House budget hearing was January 26, so advocates had about one week to contact key members of the House Ways and Means Committee. We distributed a press release reacting to the governor's address, and prepared talking points (drawing liberally from material on the NASAA website) that addressed such questions as How can we afford an arts commission during this economy? and Why can't the private sector just fund the arts? We received several media inquiries, and I gave a number of interviews for print, radio and TV. As things got rolling, we were encouraged to see our talking points appearing in news coverage and being shared by advocates on social media. The governor's challenge to our existence gave us the opportunity to talk about why we should exist—rather than just why we need money. In a difficult budget year, I think that was an advantage.

What about your legislature? How did you secure their support during their budget debates? In addition to advocates continuing the drumbeat throughout months of budget debate, we reached out to key legislators whom we believed were on the fence regarding support for the arts. (We studied voting records to identify these individuals.) We made contact through leaders with influence in the legislators' communities (members of arts organization boards, etc.). Our commission members and key advocates assisted us in identifying and meeting with those leaders. Some of these meetings were "town hall" style events in key communities, and these generated additional press coverage as well. At each stage of the budget process, we were able to gain and/or hold funding and fend off damaging amendments, thanks to steady pressure from advocates and regular communication with our legislative allies, led by the cochairs of the House and Senate arts caucuses.

What is the nature of your relationship with your arts advocacy organization, the South Carolina Arts Alliance, and how did you work together? We work closely with Betty Plumb, the executive director of the Arts Alliance, and her board members to ensure that our messages are consistent, and that the Arts Alliance has facts and data that they need to present a case for supporting the arts. During the legislative session, communication with Betty is almost daily (and sometimes hourly).

Were there other constituencies whose support was critical? How did you get them engaged? The statewide network of Arts in Basic Curriculum schools was very active in advocacy; they have been encouraged to form local advocacy committees this year, and these were easily mobilized for the state-level fight. The South Carolina Chamber of Commerce agreed to support us (through their lobbyist), and we got assistance from the South Carolina chapter of the American Institute for Architects as well.

You armed your advocates with a lot of facts, figures and talking points. Which ones worked the best? The "equity and access" argument seems to connect with a lot of people—the fact that the Arts Commission's unique role is to ensure that all citizens statewide have the opportunity to benefit from the arts. And we can back up that argument with lots of examples of our work in arts education, rural arts development, and the broad statewide coverage of our programs, grants, and services.

New creative economy impact numbers ($9.2 billion generated by cultural industries, providing 78,000 jobs and $570 million in state tax revenue) also got a lot of attention, as did the return on the state's investment (about 40:1 in grant matching). The tiny fraction of the state budget that our budget represents—now 3/100 of 1%—also helped people understand that the attack on the arts was not really about money, but ideology.

There was one big negative argument that we were able to turn positive during the course of the legislative session. Critics (including the governor) frequently pointed out that 77% or our state appropriation was being used for salary and operating costs, leaving only 23% for grants. Of course, they ignored the fact that almost all of our federal and other funds have been going into grants. So, we supported a Senate proviso that required 70% of our state funds to be spent on grants. When the budget returned to the House after Senate passage, we arranged for our actual budget numbers to be amended to reflect the 70% grants requirement. This gave both the Senate and the House ownership of this "correction," and I'm convinced that is why we were able to override the veto by such a large margin—that, and the fact that the governor reneged on her promise not to veto the funding "fix" for ETV (the state's public educational broadcasting network), which made legislators furious.

How did you ultimately mobilize for an override? What tactics helped you to get citizens and advocates to speak up and contact their legislators? On June 22, our board approved $1.1 million in FY2012 grant awards, which we posted on our website with the disclaimer that the awards were contingent on our receiving state funding. We then distributed a special edition of our e-newsletter notifying nearly 4,000 people, including grantees, of where we stood in the budget process, and that the governor's expected veto would have to be overridden to ensure grant funding. We also delivered letters to House and Senate members detailing pending grants for their constituents. We made the key decision not to wait until the governor's vetoes were announced, but instead to mobilize advocates through the South Carolina Arts Alliance on the same day we made the grants announcement. Facebook and Twitter were key in spreading the word for us and for the Arts Alliance.

Also, a group of South Carolina artists, many of whom are well known nationally, signed a letter asking legislators to protect arts funding. The letter quickly went viral, and appeared everywhere from artists' blogs to Facebook to newspaper articles.

Now that your 2012 budget is secure, what's next on your agenda? Right now, there's a whole lot of thanking going on—legislators, advocates, allies, Facebook and Twitter fans and followers, etc. When that is done, we plan to use the higher visibility we have right now to launch our new long-range plan for the arts in South Carolina. We also plan to talk more about how the combination of public and private funding actually works for the arts—and to debunk the notion that a privately funded state arts agency is a realistic possibility. This summer we will also begin conversations with key legislative leaders about new funding for FY2013.

Do you have any advice for other state arts agencies facing budget threats? If you have an arts advocacy organization, do everything you can to support it and to maintain a good relationship with it. If you don't have one, try to build one. Cultivate close relationships with legislative insiders, both members and key staff. You need members who will be champions, to sponsor amendments and speak on your behalf. But you also need people who will let you know what is coming at critical moments in the budget process, for example, when amendments are pending during floor debates. Sometimes this will give you an extra couple of hours or an extra day to mobilize advocates. Finally, if you're not using Facebook and Twitter, start. Through social media, you will find hundreds or even thousands of new advocates with whom you would never have had contact otherwise.