Fighting for the Arts: Some Tips From The Trenches

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Even when you live in the belly of the beast of politics, complacency is possible. Until now.

by Erica Ginsberg
Executive Director, Docs In Progress

Arts_Advocate_Erica.jpgAs an almost life-long Washingtonian, I have never had the luxury of being able to remain oblivious to what is going on in politics. I used to joke that you can tell what the capstones of a local place's culture are by seeing what is playing on the TV in a bar. In Pittsburgh, that was invariably football. Once in L.A, I was amused to see bar patrons ssssshing each other while the Screen Actor's Guild Awards was on. Here in DC, if there's a presidential debate, political convention, or state of the union address, you'll find Washingtonians of all political persuasions gathered at the neighborhood watering hole to watch.

While I have participated in my fair share of marches, petitions, and online discussions about politics, I must admit I had never really worried much about the arts. Wearing many different hats at a small nonprofit, I rarely had much time to be an advocate beyond joining my arts organization colleagues once a year for a potluck where our county council members would stop by for a nosh and conversation before they would go back to vote on a budget which always was relatively generous for the arts. Being based in Maryland -- and Montgomery County, more specifically -- we may have reason to take arts funding for granted. Our state is in the top 10 of states in terms of spending per capita on the arts (as is Washington DC). We also buck the presumption that support for the arts is necessarily party-aligned; our current Governor is a Republican who has proposed more in arts funding than any of his predecessors of either party. This may be in part because his wife is an artist. Or it may be in part because he knows how much the creative economy is essential to the state's overall fiscal health -- in terms of jobs, tourism, and dollars spent in adjacent industries.  

My relative complacency about public support for the arts changed the day before the Presidential Inauguration when The Hill reported what later turned out to be accurate -- the new administration was proposing to eliminate the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities, and to privatize the Corporation for Public Broadcasting in next year's budget. Later the administration also proposed to cut back the NEA and NEH budgets for the current fiscal year by $15 million. (For those outside of the wonkbelt, the current fiscal year actually began back in October with a budget proposed by the previous administration, but the federal government has been operating on a series of continuing resolutions since Congress had not yet voted on the proposed budget; this has been a fairly common reality since 1994).

Full disclosure: Docs In Progress has received three NEA grants in our history. They have helped us deepen our artist services (including the Fellowship, Peer Pitch, and Filmmaker Residencies). They have helped us provide master classes on producing, directing, and editing. We have also received funding indirectly from the NEA and NEH through their respective support for the Maryland State Arts Council and the Maryland Humanities Council. Filmmakers in our community who have received support directly from NEH and NEA or indirectly through support from ITVS and the Minority Consortia are also beneficiaries of federal support. Federal funding has made a difference to the Docs In Progress community and the broader documentary community.

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I knew I could be complacent no longer.

I immediately signed up to attend Arts Advocacy Day, an annual event organized by Americans for the Arts. It combined advocacy training sessions and inspirational talks and performances with a day on Capitol Hill where we all got inspired some more by hearing from various Representatives and Senators of both parties. They expected about 500 artists, arts educators, and arts leaders to attend the event. More than 700 showed up!. I should note though that the media arts was pitifully represented, something I hope will be rectified next year. Half the battle is just showing up.

The next day, we hit the halls to meet with our own congressional representatives. I met with staff from the offices of Rep. Jamie Raskin (the just-elected representative of the district where Docs In Progress is based) and Rep. Steny Hoyer (who represents the district where I live). While it felt a bit like preaching to the choir, it also felt good to know that there was so much support for the arts.

Raskin even wrote back.

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In spite of this fired up attitude from an elected representative who gets it, I knew that he was only one of 435. One of his fellow Marylanders, Rep. Andy Harris, represents very different opinions about the value of the arts. During a hearing on funding for CPB, he even singled out Kumu Hina, a film produced by several Docs In Progress community members. 

There is a long road ahead. And, in spite of the promising news this week that Congress not only voted against the FY2017 cutbacks for the NEA and NEH, but actually increased their budgets, we know that this was thanks largely to the tireless efforts of arts advocates across the country. 

Now is not the time to be complacent, so I wanted to share with you a few tips I picked up at Arts Advocacy Day.

  • Data, storytelling, and persistence are the three elements of effective advocacy. These should be quite familiar to filmmakers; just as you might use your character's stories to convey a deeper theme about a statistic or social issue, any piece of data should be underscored by a story which makes that data personal. Facts and figures are good but they aren't what will be remembered.
  • E-mails DO matter. If you use canned language provided by advocacy organizations (Americans for the Arts is very good at this), you will likely get counted in a yea or nay tickmark count by the interns going through the e-mails (but these counts are still valuable, especially if you live in the representative's district). Personal notes which show the passion behind the call to action are more likely to be read by the representative or a senior staffer, and are more likely to receive a personal response. 
  • Meetings are even more effective. Try to meet with your representative or his/her staff in the district office.
  • Staffers matter. When people joke that Washington is really run by 20-somethings, they are not far from the mark. You may not get a meeting with a representative if they are on the floor for a vote, in a committee hearing, or meeting with others from a caucus. Even in the home district, the representative's schedule may be very busy. Don't think of meeting with staff as a consolation prize. In fact, you may get more time and a deeper conversation. Representatives cannot be expected to be experts on all matters of policy, so they rely heavily on staff to become the experts and advisors. Invite staff to your screenings. Form relationships with them in the same way you do with other gatekeepers in our field.
  • Use time wisely. Even when meeting with a staffer, you may only have 10 minutes. Be concise. A couple of facts and figures. A one or two minute personal impact story. A specific ask (vote yes on X, support the proposed budget increase, defeat bill Y, etc.)  
  • Don't preach to the choir, but encourage them to get in front of the pulpit. Even if your representatives are already in agreement with your position, you should still make yourself heard. Thank them for their support and ask them how you can work together to help other forces move in more favorable direction. Remember that the arts is very much a bi-partisan issue -- based on voting records, the Senate only needs three Republicans to support the NEA, the House only needs 22. Encourage them to join arts caucuses if they are not already a member.
  • NEA and NEH funding may be the most visible issues for our field, but they are not the only ones. Net neutrality, censorship, arts exchanges and visas, charitable donations, and healthcare access are all issues surrounding our field.
  • Pick your battles. I have talked to so many people who are weary of fighting so many battles all at once. You may need to pick the ones where you feel strongest and feel you have the loudest voice. I feel strongly about the NEA and international exchange programs, so those are what I have chosen to spend my energies on in terms of being an active participant. While there are many other concerns I have, I only have so much energy, so on other issues, I will let others lead the fight for those battles.
  • Find your allies across party lines. Next time you encounter someone who may have different political beliefs than you, there could be something you have in common, and it just might be documentaries. Maybe they enjoyed Ken Burns' The War. Oh, you mean the one funded by NEH. Why yes.  

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