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Association of Elected Officials. Huh?

In Washington DC, there is an association for every group. I have a book that is about 3 inches thick that lists all of them. But, I am going to focus on six: the National Governors Association (NGA), the National Lt. Governors Association (NLGA), the National Conference of State Legislators (NCSL), the National Association of Counties (NACo), the United States Conference of Mayors (USCM), and the National League of Cities (NLC). Collectively, Americans for the Arts refers to these organizations as our public partnerships.

Erie County, PA Commissioner Joe Giles receives the 2011 Public Leadership In the Arts Award. L-R Joe Giles, Supervisor Linda Langston, Linn County, IA (NACo 2nd Vice President) and Jay Dick

While you might have heard about the NGA, I bet you might not have given thought about, or even knew about, the NLGA and the rest. You might even be thinking, why is Americans for the Arts bothering with these groups? Let me tell you why and give you a little history.

Almost twenty years ago, Americans for the Arts began working with the USCM. A few years later, we started working with NACo. About seven years ago, we added the other partnerships. Each year our organization presents an award that recognizes the work of an elected official at every level of government. We speak at their conferences, help identify other speakers, provide research, answer questions from individual elected officials, and write articles in their weekly or monthly newspapers.  Through our work, the staff and leadership of the various associations have come to understand the importance of art and arts education.

For example, USCM released a 10 Point Plan for the president and it specifically included the arts. And after working with Americans for the Arts, NLGA passed several resolutions on encouraging lieutenant governors to actively promote the arts. Another partner, NACo, boasts an Arts Commission which hosts an annual awards dinner for NACo conference attendees.

Through this work, Americans for the Arts has become a trusted source of information for these groups and has built a strong working relationship with the staff and elected leadership. Elected officials are bombarded with information, but they often don’t know what to believe or even spend time reading. But one source of information they are very likely to trust and seek out is their own association to which they pay dues.
Because Americans for the Arts regularly provides information to these groups, the likelihood of elected officials reading, believing, and accepting our arguments is much stronger than if I tried to hand it to them directly in some hallway of a state capitol. It is this trust and strong relationships that Fortune 500 companies often employ an army of lobbyists and millions of dollars to try to build.

In my travels around the country, I am sometimes asked why we work with these groups and NLGA in particular. My response is to say that approximately 25% of all governors were lieutenant governors. At the NLGA meetings, which are very small, you get to know the lieutenant governors, their family and staff. When they become governor, you still have that cell phone number, the private email, and that direct access when the budget discussions are taking place. Once I explain the long term value of working with our public partnerships, people shake their head in agreement and understand it’s a smart move.

I just returned from three annual conferences (NLGA, USCM, and NACo) where I presented annual awards. Because of our long history with these associations, we present these awards at general sessions in front of large groups of people. Last week I had the privilege, on behalf of Americans for the Arts, to stand in front of 3,000 state legislators and staff and present our arts award. I talked a few minutes about Americans for the Arts and what we do, in addition to what the great work of the recipient. A week before that, I stood before the Governor of Puerto Rico and the nation’s lieutenant governors at an arts dinner at the historic Governor’s mansion. Other than the welcome, brief remarks by the Governor, and a performance by local dancers, our arts award was the only thing on the agenda—a night focused on arts and culture and something the lieutenant governors will remember.

These award events are important on a number of levels. One, attendees see and hear firsthand the arts in action. And two, we have the opportunity to use a few minutes on stage to discuss Americans for the Arts, our arts message and positions. What have become typical partnerships for our organization are the very things other groups are desperate to cultivate. It is through our strong working relationships that we are on that stage year after year, building our brand and educating key decision makers about the importance of arts and arts education.

Will our work ever be done? No. But, these public partnerships are a way to reach a large number of key decision makers without an army of lobbyists and millions of dollars to spend.

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