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Arts Advocacy: It’s Worth More Than Dollars & Cents

Julie Hawkins

Julie Hawkins

Why advocate for public funding of the arts?

It’s a question I’ve never really asked myself, because it’s always been valuable to me.

I grew up in North Carolina during the height of the “Culture Wars.” The summer after my junior year of college I interned in the budget office of the National Endowment for the Arts. One of the highlights of the internship program was a meeting with your U.S. Senators.

Thus it was that in 1993, at the ripe old age of 21 and full of piss* and vinegar, I got to meet the Hon. Jesse Helms and his staff to make my case for government support of the arts. I learned a lot about government and the arts that summer, and some of that piss and vinegar still fuels my passion for arts advocacy today.

I know that answering the question of why we should advocate for public funding is not easy, though, because if it were we’d see many more people engaging in it every hour of every day.

And to be perfectly honest, though arts advocacy and public funding are deeply held values of mine, I’ve still encountered moments where I wonder if it’s working and if it’s worth it, particularly in a period of time when we’ve experienced some substantial reductions to public funding for the arts.  

I temper those thoughts by remembering lessons from “The Elusive Craft of Evaluating Advocacy” (Teles and Schmitt 2011), one of which suggests that the successful outcomes of advocacy shouldn’t be measured by direct effects alone (Did the bill pass? Was the funding increased?).

With that in mind, let’s consider why else we should advocate for public funding of the arts. The most common reasons I hear in this regard are two that you are no doubt quite familiar with. Maybe you’ve used them yourself:

1. Public funding is one of the few available sources of general operating support.

2. Public funding leverages other sources of support by functioning as a ‘seal of approval,’ demonstrating to others the value and excellence of our work.

While I think these statements are good ones, I don’t think they are why we should advocate for public funding of the arts. They take into account some benefits of public funding, but don’t recognize the broader impact of advocacy beyond financial support for any single organization or artist.

When we widen the perspective of what constitutes success, thinking about what successful advocacy means not just for single organizations or artists but for our field, our communities, and our country, other benefits that matter emerge, too.

It’s been suggested to me that a cost-benefit analysis of advocacy for public funding simply doesn’t work, because we invest far more time and energy in advocacy than we see returned in actual dollars and cents, given that public funding is such a small part of the current funding mix, at nearly 7% of an arts organization’s annual revenue (NEA 2012).

So why does it matter that we engage consistently and for the long haul in advocacy for public funding of the arts? Through my experiences I’ve come to recognize three reasons beyond the value of the dollar.

First, engaging in advocacy builds stronger organizations. I know frustrated arts employees whose supervisors don’t allow them to participate in advocacy during work hours, because it’s not a part of their job description and there are more immediate, pressing demands. I have even spoken with people who have to use vacation time to support their vocation.

Yet, we also know that the highest-performing nonprofits are those who engage in a dual role of advocacy and program delivery (Crutchfield and Grant 2007), because their work on the ground informs the policy changes needed to make that work more successful, and their advocacy enables those policy changes to occur.

If we don’t encourage—even require—our own workforce to participate in advocacy, then, we’re short-changing both the field and the communities in which we work by failing to create and leverage opportunities to change policy in ways that would enable our practices to further deepen their impact.

Engaging in advocacy for public funding isn’t just about balancing a budget. It’s about what a grant enables in terms of an organization’s impact in its community, and about what other policy changes we advocate for as a result of that work.

Second, those of us who already believe in the value of the arts are often frustrated by what we see as a lack of support for the arts among the general public. How can we change this attitude? The same way other issue groups do—through advocacy.

We should consider events like National Arts Advocacy Day to not only be an effort to increase NEA or other government funding, but to be a moment, once a year, that we all come together to change the broader public perception and understanding of the value and impact of the arts.

I don’t have room to share the whole story here, but I encourage you to check out the Artistic Rebuttal Project for a great example of this.

Third, other countries that previously enjoyed strong government support for the arts have in recent years been rocked by deep cuts to government arts funding, the Netherlands, England, and Portugal among them. In my former role at the Greater Philadelphia Cultural Alliance, we were approached by a group in England looking to us for models of how to make the case and advocate for restoring government funding. What kind of signal are we sending to our international peers if we don’t do everything we can to advance arts advocacy here in America?

In sum, I believe we should take the bigger picture into account when considering why we advocate for public funding of the arts. When we do, it becomes clear that doing so enables us to advance important efforts like building higher-impact organizations, changing public perception of the value of the arts, and supporting international efforts to advance the arts.

Do any of these reasons strike a chord for you? I’d love to know, and to learn about other benefits you see resulting from advocacy for public funding of the arts, too. Leave a note below, or better yet, come see me if you’re in D.C. for Arts Advocacy Day.

(*pun intended)


Crutchfield, Leslie and Heather McLeod Grant. “Advocate and Serve.” Forces for Good: The Six Practices of High-Impact Nonprofits. Jossey-Bass (2007). Chapter 2: 30-54.

National Endowment for the Arts (NEA). How the United States Funds the Arts. Third Edition, November 2012.

Teles, Stephen and Mark Schmitt. The Elusive Craft of Evaluating Advocacy.Stanford Social Innovation Review. (May 2011)

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