What Does Arts Advocacy Look Like in Washington?

Chorus America communications manager Mike Rowan represented our organization and the choral field at Arts Advocacy Day 2018, and came back with some insider tips on how the process works in our nation’s capital.

As a resident of the DC area for almost 10 years now, I’ve known plenty of friends who have worked in government or politics, including staffers on Capitol Hill, and even some who we would call lobbyists. Still, I’ve never had much insight into this world of lobbying, lawmaking, and meeting with our elected officials that takes place in the halls of Congress.

I got a glimpse of what that world is like at this year’s Arts Advocacy Day, a summit organized annually by Americans for the Arts (AFTA) that draws advocates from across the country to meet with their members of Congress and encourage support for arts funding. In 2018, Arts Advocacy Day was held on March 13 (along with a day of training on March 12), and was attended by over 550 grassroots advocates representing all 50 states.

What Did I Do?

To set the record straight, “Arts Advocacy Day” is a slight misnomer—the full scope of activities span two days. One day to gear up and get prepared, and another day for the face-to-face meetings and advocacy.

The opening day is much like a conference. Advocates gathered by state and attended a series of training sessions organized by AFTA that provide background on the wide range of federal arts funding issues. The National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) is the most well-known, though other visible issues (out of almost a dozen listed) include arts education, tax policy (charitable giving and small business deductions), and arts and health (including arts for veterans and the military). The trainings also summarized the specific legislative priorities which we are asking members of Congress to support. Explicit requests regarding which bills to vote for (or against) or which measures to support are crucial in order to be effective. During the training, the elected official’s perspective on the process was very helpfully provided by Massachusetts State Senator Stan Rosenberg—his appearance even included a role-playing example.

WPA GospelThe Nancy Hanks Lecture at Arts Advocacy Day featured a choral element this year - the program opened with a musical performance by Washington Performing Arts’ Men, Women, and Children of the Gospel Choir, one the treasures of the choral field right here in our backyard.

The day closed with the Nancy Hanks Lecture on Arts and Public Policy (named for the former NEA chair), a special program at the Kennedy Center headlined each year by a prominent arts leader. This year’s Hanks Lecture was particularly historic, tracing the journey of opening the long-anticipated Smithsonian African American History Museum. The conversation—with the museum’s founding director Lonnie Bunch and board member Richard Parsons—was led by Carla Hayden, the first African-American Librarian of Congress. The way in which the discussion brought forth lessons on executive-board partnerships felt much like a Chorus America Conference session!

Day two is when advocates visited Capitol Hill to meet with our representatives. The morning kicked off with a breakfast to present the Congressional Arts Leadership Award, this year honoring Rep. Leonard Lance (R-NJ). Then it was off to find our representatives’ offices and assemble with our state teams.

DC Delegation AAD 2018A delegation of 15 DC-based arts advocates, led by Lissa Rosenthal-Youffe, executive director of the DC Collaborative (standing, left of podium), met with Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton's legislative associate Noelle Jones (standing, far right).

As a DC resident, my situation is a bit unique, so I participated in a couple meetings. I joined the delegation of 15 DC-based advocates to meet with a legislative associate for Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton, who represents the District of Columbia (and therefore serves Chorus America). However, Rep. Norton—a respected long-serving member of the House and a steadfast arts supporter—does not have a vote in Congress. So, in the hopes that I could extend my impact further, I joined another meeting to support one of Arts Advocacy Day’s less-represented states—Maine. Along with Julie Richard of the Maine Arts Commission, I met with staff members in the office of Sen. Susan Collins, who is the Republican co-chair of the Senate Arts Caucus, and spoke on behalf of our member choruses in the state of Maine.

What Did I Learn?

Can nonprofits lobby? Absolutely! (To some extent.) This point is often a source of confusion. Two definitions help to sort this out: issues vs. candidates, and advocacy vs. lobbying. Nonprofits with 501(c)(3) status (most Chorus America members) cannot support or oppose political candidates. That does not prevent nonprofits from taking a stand on issues in a non-partisan manner. The difference between advocacy and lobbying is slightly more subtle. Advocacy focuses on general education surrounding an issue, while lobbying refers to attempting to influence specific legislation.

The law states that 501(c)(3)s can spend up to 20% of their time on lobbying without jeopardizing their status. That’s one day of every work week; it might be more time than you’d think. Beyond that, if you’re not referencing specific legislation, you can conduct all the advocacy you like.

Collegiality is key. Every lawmaker is constantly tracking a boggling number of issues and relationships. The reality is that anyone who is less than courteous or does not respect an elected official’s time will probably find it very difficult to gain access to their office again. A cardinal rule of working with your representatives is that you never burn bridges. Politics are complicated, and there are often many things on which we disagree—but your opponent on one issue can be a key ally on another.

A good strategy is to position yourself as a resource. Members of Congress want reliable sources of information. If you can be someone that your member of Congress or Senator turns to when they need information or an opinion on a relevant piece of legislation, that’s a good spot to be in. It is also important to realize that if your representative is not available, a meeting with a member of their staff is not a slight. Representatives deeply trust their staff, and staff members will be one of the last people consulted before a member of Congress decides on a vote.

The arts are truly a bipartisan issue. This is not a new lesson, but it’s always helpful to have fresh facts and figures to support this established knowledge. According to AFTA, 82% of Americans believe that the arts are important to business and the economy (and 87% say the arts are important in general). Those are numbers that anyone on either side of the aisle will pay attention to.

I was fascinated by some of the research surrounding arts and health outcomes. I never knew that playing live music during surgery has been found to reduce the amount of anesthesia needed for patients, which reduces side effects and recovery times. Infants in the NICU gain weight faster and go home sooner when exposed to music. These are just a couple examples of how the arts cut across different facets of our lives and provide so many benefits that we are starting to be able to measure.

Localization and personalization stand out. Sen. Rosenberg drove home the point that elected officials pay attention to voters in their districts—if you can’t vote for or against them the next time they run, your advocacy efforts won’t make an impact. Further, he shared that personal calls, letters, and emails matter most. Copy-and-paste petitions are easily spotted, and often draw a form response, but constituents who explain how an issue affects them personally are the ones who spur action.

Meeting with your representatives when they are home in your district is also a prime opportunity to get their attention. When Congress is in recess, look for opportunities to set up a meeting or invite them to a performance.

Use some numbers, but tell your personal story. Lawmakers pay attention to evidence and statistics—this is very much true. But keep in mind—Americans for the Arts provides great “leave behind” materials that make the case for the arts with all those numbers. Sen. Rosenberg stressed that what he wants to hear most is the passion and real-life stories from the people he represents.

I found it helpful to lead with a couple statistics, and follow up with anecdotes. With Sen. Collins’ staff, I shared that over 42 million people in the US sing, in more than 270,000 choruses. They were immediately jotting down notes. Once I had their ears, I was comfortable talking from the heart about wonderful work that our members in Maine are doing—including ChoralArt of Portland, the Oratorio Chorale in Brunswick, and Rockport’s Midcoast Community Chorus.

The current federal funding outlook is optimistic. If arts supporters know only one thing about the arts funding climate, they remember that the White House’s first budget proposed eliminating the NEA. However, the White House only makes recommendations; Congress actually sets the budget. And the recommendation to zero out arts funding was soundly rejected.

In fact, a major milestone was released just yesterday. After many delays and short-term measures to keep the government running, Congress released the details of its FY2018 Omnibus spending bill—the bill that finalizes allocations for the remainder of the budget year. The Omnibus allocates an increase in funding for the NEA and the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) to $152.849 million each (up from the Senate’s proposal of $150 million each).

There are reasons to be optimistic that NEA funding could also increase for the upcoming FY2019 as well. AFTA is suggesting that this is an appropriate time to be bold with our funding asks. On March 16, a record-number 166 members of Congress signed a “Dear Colleague” letter requesting an increase in NEA funding to $155 million for FY2019.

Even with this week’s extremely positive news, there are no clear-cut storybook endings in the world of arts advocacy—the work plays out as a series ups and downs, highs and lows, as the political environment shifts back and forth with each Congress. It is easy, especially upon jumping into the arts community, to want to push for immediate tangible outcomes—and those goals are important to spur action and keep us motivated. At the same time, it is always smart to play the long game. In the way that we all continually invest in the future of our own choruses, it’s helpful to think in similar terms about steadily building support for the arts community on the local and national levels.

Mike Rowan is communications manager at Chorus America.

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