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Do You Have to Support Public Funding To Be an Arts Advocate?

Thinking ManSome questions take on a strength and resolve in my mind that it’s like all the events I experience and all the facts and stories I acquire point back to the question.

All roads lately lead to this: “What makes an advocate an arts advocate?” A simple question, but does it have a simple answer?

How do you define an arts advocate? What are the denominators that all arts advocates share? Is it about stances on specific issues — a belief in public funding for the arts and arts education? Is it about actions — supporting museums, theatres, orchestras, dance companies, etc., with your own money? Is it about motivations — a conviction that culture makes communities better places to live, work, and raise a family?

As I’ve been trying to answer the question, November 2 has come, but it hasn’t gone. Here in Illinois, the race for governor was won by about a half percent. We will have to wait months to know the meaning and impact of Election Day, the changes it championed and the things it left the same.

So, I’m still stuck on the question, but in some new ways:

What will National Arts Advocacy Day be like in 2011?

This spring, I’ll be in Washington, DC for National Arts Advocacy Day. There are 5 newcomers to the Illinois congressional delegation (technically, one of the 5 races isn’t called, but it looks like Republican Joe Walsh will oust Democratic incumbent Melissa Bean by a few hundred votes).

All 5 freshmen pledged as candidates to cut spending significantly, and 2 earned endorsements from National Taxpayers United of Illinois, an advocacy group that calls for the elimination of the Illinois Arts Council. 4 of the 5 incoming representatives will replace Congressional Arts Caucus members. For several, their service in the U.S. House will be their first time in public office at any level of government. 3 won with significant majorities.

To be fair, these freshmen haven’t stated one way or the other where they stand on the arts and arts education, but my guess is the National Endowments for the Arts and the Humanities are not the places to start the relationship-building. Can these fiscal and social conservatives still be arts advocates?

Which is better for the arts: government funding or tax breaks?

If support for the NEA and NEH are requirements of arts advocacy, our ranks in Congress will go down in the coming years. But what if they’re not?

You’ve Cott Mail featured a fascinating read from Culture Future on November 3. It basically came down to this: “Lately, Republicans have become the party of tax breaks, and the Democrats have become the party of monetary support, and the American people on both sides have become very frigid towards monetary support, while not treating tax breaks as equivalent. I wonder how these two approaches stack up in their effectiveness.”

Me too! Subsidy through government grants or through tax relief: which is of higher value to an arts organization?

Without a definitive answer, can someone be an authentic arts advocate and favor the reduction or elimination of government grants for our sector?

At my own organization, in light of the Great Recession and Illinois’ $13 billion budget hole, we’re working to expand our agenda beyond the appropriation to our state arts agency. We were founded out of a philosophical belief in public funding for the arts and arts education (and it will always be part of our platform), but in today’s times, a single appropriation can’t cut it for our sector. The amount of money available is too small, and it doesn’t penetrate through all the layers of the arts (not just nonprofit, but commercial, unincorporated, and individual artists).

Earlier this week, I wondered here on ARTSblog whether arts advocates owe it to our communities to care about more than the arts and arts education. We ask allies in other sectors, like education and parks and open space, to take a stand on our issues, so should we return the favor? Does this belong on the agenda?

What do you think? How do you define an arts advocate? Leave a comment and share your classification of the species arts advocate.

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