National Arts Advocacy Day, 2014

{notes from the Director, Silagh White}

This is the first time in nine years I didn’t travel to Washington, D.C. to participate in the annual National Arts Advocacy Day. This pilgrimage is an incredible experience. It is where I first understood the appropriations process in a way that made much more sense than trying to follow polarized media sources. Here is were I learned that I really did understand the process at an early age. I am of the generation that watched School House Rock during the Saturday morning cartoon and cold breakfast cereal rituals.

The lyrics and images of this 3 minute video planted knowledge that stayed with me like a pair of Ruby Slippers. I only needed to make the shift that the Federal Budget is a law and BOOM – I learned how I could start making an impact on the value of the arts.

The annual affair in Washington DC comes complete with all of the pomp and ceremony of a walk through history and the awe of the process. The first of two days (Monday) is spent in a lovely conference room at the Omni Shoreham hotel. Yes, the one where a few presidential inaugural balls are held, and where a few notable movies where shot. If the event is scheduled late enough, the weather is in peak Spring season. One might even see the Cherry Blossoms. Obviously, this year was not the case, so missing the trip to DC had at least one advantage. I didn’t have to battle another snow event.

The training sessions offered on the first day cover the appropriations process, the numbers of the annual allocation request for the National Endowment for the Arts, some policy issues, and a ton of advocacy training. A big difference is to note the difference between actions of advocacy and lobbying. Most artists and arts organizations are non-profit and not permitted to lobby. Instead, we inform the elected officials on the impact of arts funding in our community. We localize the results of tax dollars allocated to our community and the resulting economic impact, the improved lives for our citizenry, and the quality of our shared living spaces. We participate in some role playing, to rehearse our five minutes with either a congressman or a senator, making sure our shared message has a localized spin and that someone in the room is an actual constituent from the official’s district. We also learn that staff members are our new BFFs – and that we need to build relationships with them.

At the end of the first day, a few celebrities join the pep rally for hundreds of constituents. There’s a fund raiser for the organization that is permitted to lobby (The Arts Action Fund). This is where the celebrities join in. One can get all caught up in the energy of rubbing elbows with the likes of Kerry Washington, Alec Baldwin, Kevin Spacey, Josh Groban, Ben Folds, etc., but the real vitamin shot comes at the evening Nancy Hanks lecture presented at the Kennedy Center.

Over the past nine years, I have heard some amazing speeches. They inspire not only the advocacy work, but also the daily grind of audience building. These speeches come from a wide perspective of talent and expertise. Take a look at the list of previous speakers here. (Did you see what I did there? I actually took you to the page where you could view previous speeches, or order transcripts.)

Monday night’s speaker was NY Times columnist and Pulitzer Prize winner, Maureen Dowd. As with most speakers, she shared her personal relationship with art and connected her path to all of ours. Her speech is full of motivational quotes. I’ll share just one section of her speech here, and hope it’s enough to entice you to listen to the whole program:

“Without the arts, people would have underdeveloped imaginations. With underdeveloped imaginations, they would not lead either meaningful lives, or moral lives. Because without the representations of ‘otherness’ in art, you cannot imagine the pain or poverty that someone else is feeling. Nobody experiences everything. Everybody needs supplements. Everybody starts out too small for certain purposes and we need to be shone what’s possible. You can’t be a fully formed human being based only on your own experiences. We need to see other lives.

Art is precisely such a long and deep and disquieting tutorial for the individual imagination. You will not act to relieve suffering unless you understand it. And if you are not experiencing it yourself, as I hope you are not. The only way you can understand it by seeing depictions of it in movies and elsewhere in the culture.”

~ Maureen Dowd

The second day of the event is the actual work on the hill. This experience is both daunting and empowering. Five to ten minutes of a congressman or senator’s time can be a huge opportunity to inform them of the importance of the arts for their constituency. Their support of budget, policy and programs has long impacts. It is in that moment when you have to choose which story will support the evidence and the data expertly gathered by the the Americans for the Arts.

A few years ago, I had a profound conversation with our PA (15th district) Congressman, Charles Dent. Since then, he’s been kind enough to remember me when we walk parades together in Bethlehem. He asks me how the arts are doing at Lehigh University, his alma mater. I’m happy to share, “The students are busy blowing my mind, as always. And as always, there’s so much more we could do to inspire other.” I share other arts stories in his district. Congressman Dent is supportive of the arts, and his voting record reflects that.

The experiences I’ve had with the Annual Arts Advocacy Day have given me the tools to localize the work year round. Everyone needs a little boost to their work form time to time. Especially students. There are leadership and advocacy opportunities for students who share the value of the arts for our campus.

Zoellner is starting to gather students who have an interest in building more support for the arts on campus. If you or someone you know is interested in learning more, the next meeting will be this Friday at 4:30pm in Zoellner Arts Center. Contact Candi Staurinos for details.