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Wednesday, September 14, 2011

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Executive Director's Column

Continuing the State Arts Agency "Movement"

NASAA Executive Director Jonathan Katz

From time to time, it is valuable to look outside one's field to examine how other sectors have shaped public perceptions, altered public policy or countered resistance to their agendas. With that in mind, I'd like to share some observations about the success of movements for causes outside of the arts that might offer insights for communicating the value of public support for the arts to a broad audience. Looking across causes as diverse as racial equality, the Moral Majority, environmental protection, seatbelt use, and smoke and tobacco sanctions, I found a number of common denominators that seem to determine whether a movement succeeds or fails. We'll examine this topic further in sessions at the Leadership Institute, coming up October 19-21 in Charleston, West Virginia.

1. Clarity of Goals and Indicators

The success of a cause is linked to defining clearly what "winning" means, identifying observable indicators of progress toward winning (such as changes in beliefs, attitudes, behaviors, decisions and networks), and designing actions that influence those indicators. The state arts agency movement, which began spontaneously in various states and was fostered very purposefully by Congress through National Endowment for the Arts incentive grants, established public support for the arts as an integral part of every state and jurisdictional government. Now, state and national policymakers must determine the next steps that will continue that movement.

When indicators have been clarified, programs and messages fall into place as a brand. What strengths do "A Better State through the Arts," "Ideas Happen Here!" "Connecting Communities with Art," and "Changing Lives!" represent for their arts agencies? As a movement, what is public support for the arts trying to accomplish and what communication strategy will help the most?

2. Sensory Impact

Images of "earthrise" and the blue, cloud-adorned earth from the 1968 Apollo 8 and 1969 Apollo 10 voyages changed human perceptions of the planet and opened the way for the environmental protection movement. The visionary words of Martin Luther King, Jr., were viscerally connected to families of all races by the memorable images of men in suits and uniforms blocking school doorways and by images of fire hoses pummeling peaceful protesters. What Vince and Larry, the crash-test dummies, did in 1985 to increase the rate of seatbelt use by automobile riders has never been matched by campaigns for similar causes.

Other constituencies have used images—which are the vocabulary of artists and journalists—with far greater success than have the arts themselves. Philanthropists and the foundation community have yet to play their appropriate role in fostering the kind of sustained campaign—media components included—that could move the needle on general perceptions and attitudes toward the public benefits and public support of the arts.

3. Dominating Coalition

The social, political and religious right—diverse constituencies at the time of Barry Goldwater's defeat in 1964—were united by Jerry Falwell and Paul Weyrich as the "Moral Majority" to shape notions of "family values" and "American values" that have been influential ever since. In the most recent states to repeal capital punishment, including New Mexico and Illinois, civil libertarians were joined in common cause by representatives of religious, racial and law enforcement constituencies. The environmental causes that have the best chance of success in terms of getting legislation passed and having enforcement sustained are those that create coalitions with business interests.

Advocates of public support for the arts have become adept at "policy entrepreneurship": they can document that the arts provide educational, economic, health, youth asset and community development benefits. Real coalitions, in which major stakeholder groups representing these benefits include resources for the arts in their agendas, are rare. Arts communities face a need to invest more human and financial resources in systematic coalition-building. Furthermore, to make themselves more attractive as a coalition partner, they have to re-engineer off-putting perceptions of "the arts" as material objects, frivolous pastimes and social exercises for the well-off.

4. Exposure of the Opposition

Many movements take the form of a battle on two fronts: to define their cause as the moderate, common-sense position, a provider of benefit to the average person; and to define the opposition as extreme, risky and a threat to the average person. Whichever side is successful in this characterization battle advances its movement. Ultimately, for example, voters will decide whether they perceive protectors of the environment as stewards of their land, health and economic well-being and the opposing business interests as profit-motivated, short-sighted and dangerous; or they will decide that protectors of the environment are job-killing, naive, academic wasters of wealth and the opposing business interests are employers who create jobs, capital and energy independence.

A proposal opposing public support for the arts minimizes or denies public benefits. What is the most effective way to expose what a threat to these benefits means? What are the measurable and observable losses when a community reduces its public investment in the arts? What does the damage to the child who grows up in that community look like?

5. Universality

Causes win when their stewards successfully make the case that everyone benefits. H.R. 504 and the Americans with Disabilities Act are sustained because people who never thought of themselves as a party to these laws have come to understand that everyone is disabled or develops disabilities just by living. The movement to restrict smoking on a plane, in a restaurant and in a workplace succeeded not because smoking was linked to cancer in a court of law, but because people came to perceive the issue as about the ability of everyone to breathe clean, healthy air. Enforcement and investment, which sustain the accomplishments of a movement, are not assured by legal victory alone.

Movements win when their value comes to be understood as a public good, meaning a benefit to everyone, or, more powerfully, as a human right. Advocates of public support for the arts need to prepare the case—the evidence and the language—that conveys why the arts are a public good and to what extent the benefits they provide are human rights.*

6. Winning Organization and Infrastructure

As anyone who has engaged in advocacy for a cause learns, evidence and language are essential but are not sufficient. Organization, networks, and administrative resources are critical. Product Red, founded by Bono and by Bobby Shriver in 2006, had raised $148 million by May of 2010, according to Forbes, from fees paid by major corporations on sales of Red product lines. Philanthropic consumers are aware that all of the portion of each sale that goes to Red supports The Global Fund to fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria, which has grown enormously in reach and impact. Congress is now debating whether it will block the ability of the Environmental Protection Agency to determine independently whether or not the behavior of carbon monoxide as a greenhouse gas defines it as a "pollutant." As a pollutant, it can be regulated in the ways that sulfur dioxide and hydrogen sulfide have been. The cause of free-market capitalism or the cause of environmental regulation will advance. Can any factor be more important to the outcome than the organization and infrastructure of the opposing coalitions?

In the early 1990s, a coalition of nine national arts and humanities associations organized the first cultural community partnership with the Ad Council, raised a million dollars from the philanthropic community, and conducted a media campaign that produced 100,000 contacts by constituents with their congressional representatives. This achievement balanced the mail campaigns of interest groups bent on the abolition of the National Endowment for the Arts and National Endowment for the Humanities and was a major factor in the survival of those agencies. From this campaign evolved National Arts and Humanities Month and the Cultural Advocacy Group, which continues to coalesce a national agenda for the support of the federal cultural agencies. In the movement for public support of the arts, what evolution of organization and infrastructure is now necessary?

The Challenge Ahead

Other factors make and break movements, including values that resonate with large constituent groups, creation of a networked community of committed people, a unifying action agenda, the ability to attract support from commercial interests, and coordination of mega-events. Incremental strategies that align mission, messages, programs and budget requests from one budget period and election to the next are necessary, but are not sufficient. Those committed to the value of public support for the arts might find that thinking of it as a movement, benchmarking it with other movements, assessing its needs and its assets, considering its history and its prospects are helpful in deciding what they want to accomplish and what leadership role they will play.

 

*Article 27 of the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights asserts, "Everyone has the right to participate in the cultural life of the community, to enjoy the arts, and to share in scientific advancement and its benefits." The Cultural Bill of Rights suggested by former National Endowment for the Arts Chair Bill Ivey includes the "rights" to "our heritage," to "the prominent presence of artists in public life," to artistic knowledge and skills, to "healthy arts enterprises," and "to know about and explore art of the highest quality," among others.