2016 Arts Advocacy Day Reflection

By Blaire Townshend

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SAA meets Americans for the Arts President Bob Lynch

It has been quite the busy month for Student Advocates for the Arts. Those of us in our first year with the group have gone through a graduation of sorts—we have been transformed from arts enthusiasts to true arts advocates with practical experience under our belts. When we hosted a lobbying workshop with Ann Marie Miller of ArtPride at the beginning of the month, our questions ranged from “how do you make an effective ask?” to “what are the buzzwords that legislators pay attention to?” This was a crash course of sorts, and Ann Marie was wonderfully patient with us as we attempted to sort out the building blocks of arts advocacy.

Only a week later, we were headed to Washington to put those building blocks to use. Our delegation boasted 13 members, many of whom had never practiced arts advocacy before. On our first day, we attended the Emerging Arts Leaders Symposium (EALS) hosted by American University, where we met arts leaders such as Americans for the Arts President Bob Lynch and Kennedy Center head Deborah Rutter. The theme of the symposium was “Arts And…”, which seemed particularly appropriate given the recent passage of the S.T.E.A.M. bill and the national discussion of its implications. Many of the discussions we participated in and lectures we attended discussed the value of the arts as a tool for other pursuits—cultural placemaking, economic revitalization, educational rehabilitation, and social healing. On top of this, access to arts programming was a recurring subject of debate. Several of our number attended a social justice workshop, during which it was argued that accessible programming can only be genuinely accessible if the populations such programming is meant to serve have a stake in its planning and implementation.

After a long day of lectures, we were treated to drinks by the ARAD Alumni Committee at Founding Farmers, a venue at which SAA members and alumni have previously met to reflect on advocacy experiences and discuss issues relevant to the field. We had the chance to share our experiences as a group and take stock of the information we had compiled. In all, EALS and our evening with the Alumni Committee provided us with a useful context and framework with which to approach our upcoming arts advocacy practicum.

The following day was spent training for our time on the hill—we were given facts and figures that would help us in our advocacy efforts, updated ourselves on the current political climate and its effects on the arts, and planned our specific advocacy strategies with our state teams. We each represented our home states in an effort to spread our influence as widely as possible—Alabama, California, Illinois, Massachusetts, Mississippi, New Jersey, New York, and Pennsylvania. Much of what was discussed during the day’s sessions focused on arts education and a vested interest in increased funding to the National Endowment for the Arts. That evening, we all congregated at the Kennedy Center to hear former RISD president and venture capitalist John Maeda speak about S.T.E.A.M.—a lecture that we all found to be incredibly engaging and inspiring. He stressed the mutually beneficial relationship possible between the arts and sciences, and how the marriage of such disciplines encourages innovation and creative problem solving.

Our final day gave us the chance to put all of this learning to practical use, as we spent it in meetings with our respective Congressmen, Congresswomen, and Senators. For some, this meant attending meetings with a large cohort of students and experts, and serving in a more supportive and observational capacity. For others from smaller state delegations, much of the actual business of advocacy was on our shoulders, as our state captains were busy holding other meetings or in some cases unable to attend at all. As it happened, I attended four meetings, and was a primary advocate for three. Having the opportunity to update staffers on the concerns of the arts community and make specific asks for support was an incredibly valuable experience.

In retrospect, I believe that our time in Washington was an important launching point for our personal journeys as arts advocates. I can only speak for myself on the matter, but I felt strongly that being forced to articulate not only that I value the arts, but WHY I value the arts and why others should, as well was an important lesson for me. I am used to surrounding myself with people who automatically agree with me on this point, and thus rarely have to back up my statements with explanations and proofs. Being thrown into an environment in which the arts are not necessarily the priority was both sobering and educational. It made me realize how much work we arts enthusiasts have ahead of us, and that this work will never be “done.” What interested me most, however, was that I did not in fact find this daunting, but rather found it a welcome challenge and inspiring call to action. I had already planned to support the arts as best I could throughout my future career. Adding advocacy to this plan seems a natural and fitting amendment.

Challenge accepted.

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