Advocacy in “Interesting” Times

Anne Katz, Executive Director, Arts Wisconsin

This article was originally published in January 2016 bartsday2011-artsmarch2y CultureWork: A Periodic Broadside for Arts and Culture Workers, a publication of The Center for Community Arts and Cultural Policy at the University of Oregon, and on Americans for the Arts’ ArtsBlog on February 12, 2016.

The idea that advocacy should be a daily activity, and not just something that is reserved for once-a-year visits to the State Capitol, hit home for me a few years ago. An enthusiastic constituent made the trek to Madison from a small town on the Mississippi River, a trip of at least four hours each way, to attend Arts Day. At the end of the day, she told me that she had had a great time, hearing new ideas and meeting people from all over the state, but didn’t get a chance to visit with her legislator. She said, “I’ll come back to Madison one of these days to meet with him.” My response was, “Well, he’ll be home this weekend, and every weekend, so why don’t you just call him up and meet for coffee at a local café sometime soon?” That’s when I realized…there’s a misconception out there that advocacy is something separate from life, that you have to make a special effort and get dressed up and drive a long way to meet with your legislator to be part of the civic discourse.

That story illustrates Arts Wisconsin’s mantra that advocacy is a process, a mindset, a way of life, and deeply rooted in human relationships, opportunities, and ongoing activism. True, effective advocacy is an everyday activity, and it’s most effective when it comes from the local level and from the heart. Wisconsin is pretty good at this, with our progressive traditions and collaborative history. Since elected officials usually rise through the ranks, starting as members of the village board or city council, they are people we know from way back. (And that means we know ALL about them, of course.) Getting to know people as fellow humans, getting to know what’s important to them, and getting to a point of mutual benefit, is key to successful advocacy.

Arts Wisconsin is Wisconsin’s independent statewide community cultural development organization that analyzes and advances the arts in economic, educational, and civic infrastructure systems. We are guided by Wisconsin’s progressive traditions and the Wisconsin Idea, the century-old philosophy that the benefits and resources of the great University of Wisconsin should be available to all in the state. The arts have been as much a part of that heritage as any other sector. Wisconsin is proud of its incredibly creative people, exemplary arts institutions in communities of all sizes, and a history of involvement in the arts on the local level. Wisconsinites are resourceful and resilient. No budget cuts can stop the creative process, although at times the local and global forces of change do seem to get in the way.

Arts Wisconsin helps people involved in the arts, business, education, government, political, and civic worlds lead and speak up or their work, their organizations and businesses, and their communities. We do our work in many way, from producing major conferences such as the annual statewide legislative day at the State Capitol, attended by hundreds of people from around the state, local and regional meetings such as Creative Summits in communities throughout Wisconsin; provide research to help define the power and benefits of the arts and creativity statewide; and provide information, resources, trainings, and encouragement to empower people as advocates every day.

Of course, the fundamental reason that the arts are important and worthy of attention and support is because the arts make us human. Without creativity, we’d be robots. But in our rapidly changing 21st century world, the arts and creativity are also an increasingly important pathway for economic, educational and civic success. The trends and shifts in the United States and global economies—let’s all agree that we’re not in a recession any longer, we’re in a new economy—have brought systemic change that affects us all. It makes for some anxiety personally and in our civic life, to be sure. But here’s the good news for Wisconsin: in response to those changes, what’s happening on the local level in arts and cultural development, with myriad possibilities on the state level, is profound and exciting. Everyone–arts leaders, business people, elected officials, educators–cares about their community well being and seeks for new ideas and new methods. The arts–bringing creativity, imagination, innovation, and entrepreneurship—are what we are all looking for.

Finding common ground and continuing to move forward in a complicated civic and political environment is critical. There’s good news and bad news in Wisconsin, where the successes and failures of the global shifts are intermingled in equal measure. State politics seems to have become a blood sport in the past few years, and debate and action around important issues have become more partisan, not only in the halls of the Capitol, but for families, friends, and neighbors. Our state’s historic major industries— manufacturing and agriculture—have been hit hard by forces outside our borders; our population is diversifying and aging; our communities are looking for ways to remain vibrant and healthy. There are stark financial and racial disparities, and fundamental philosophical disagreements about how to steward our environmental, educational and civic heritage, and achieve prosperity for all.

All of these socio-economic factors resonate in the arts in Wisconsin as much as in any sector. Over the past five years, policy changes and budget cuts on the state level have meant a decline in public funding for arts and other programs. These include a dramatic reduction in the Wisconsin Arts Board’s budget starting in 2011, historic cuts to K-12 education and the University of Wisconsin system, and increased strain on public services and private support. Wisconsin has creative assets galore but does not yet have a coordinated strategy or investment plan to grow its creative economy. Other states are pulling ahead in creative infrastructure investment. Louisiana and Colorado have established creative development agencies that are directly connected to their states’ economic growth strategies. Oklahoma calls itself a “State of Creativity”, and has hosted major international conferences such as the Creativity World Forum. “Iowa Brag” celebrates creativity and innovation in that state. In 2008, Minnesota taxpayers voted to support conservation, clean water and the arts through the Legacy Amendment, which designates a percentage of the state sales tax to support conservation, clean water and the arts. This means that approximately $25 million annually supports arts, arts education, and creative economy programs statewide.

Wisconsin has all the assets it needs to lead the way in the arts and culture, and the state’s investment in the arts and creativity can and should be greater to realize the power of the arts for the state’s success. Right now, Arts Wisconsin is working in the Wisconsin State Legislature to establish the Creative Economy Development Initiative, a new state program to invest in Wisconsin’s creative industries. There is exciting support statewide for this new direction, because everyone wants . Despite the challenges, we’re optimistic about our chances for success in this year’s legislative session.

And, we’re leading the way to change the mindset that “the arts” are something separate from the rest of life, to promote the message that everyone is involved in the arts in some way. Misconceptions about how to relate the arts to other issues are rampant. When people tell me “my legislator doesn’t care about the arts,” my response is, “your legislator is probably involved in the arts, because everyone is involved in some kind of creative endeavor. So find out what that endeavor is, and weave that into your stories of economic, educational and civic progress through the arts. That creates a common bond and a relationship for the future.”

Advocacy in a complicated environment (or really, in any environment) is not linear, quick, easy or painless. Systemic change is messy, slow, multi-layered, dynamic, fluid, and often confusing, because personalities, politics and power shape human interaction and outcomes. There’s not much that can be done to speed things up or make it easier, but that applies to life in general, right? The Chinese curse, “May you live in interesting times,” defines the way we live now. The good and inspiring news is that the passion and can-do spirit that I see throughout the state means that people are paying attention and working as advocates for the arts and creativity in their communities.

These principles guide Arts Wisconsin’s work to encourage strategic thinking and action locally and globally:
• The 21st century world demands new ways of thinking and doing. With great change comes great opportunity. It’s a very exciting time, because if there ever was a time that we needed the arts and creativity, it’s now. Creativity, innovation, imagination, and entrepreneurship–all qualities inherent to the arts—are what we need to move our economy, educational systems, and civic infrastructure forward. The arts are important because creative expression is fundamental to the human condition. And the arts are important because creativity, innovation, and entrepreneurship will move us, locally and globally, to grow the economy; create locally-based, sustainable jobs; educate our children for the 21st century world and workforce; enliven our communities large and small and bring diverse communities together; enhance and strengthen a community’s competitive edge. The arts and creativity should be recognized in strategic economic, educational, and civic plans.
• Don’t assume that leaders already know about and support the ways in which the arts are a force for their communities. Even if they are supportive, they are faced with difficult budget and civic choices every minute of the day. It’s critically important to build and sustain relationships on all levels. You can and should provide ongoing information about your work, and about the public value of the arts, arts education, and creative economy locally and globally. Remember that budgets and viewpoints can be changed if enough people speak up and show that they care.
• Say thank you, if you’ve received public funding in any form. For that matter, say thank you if anyone or any institution supports you and your work. Make sure decision makers know that investment in the arts is an investment in human and civic infrastructure.
• The number of people involved in a cause speaks volumes about value, and success is directly proportional to the numbers of persons involved. The more people speaking up for the arts in your state, the more it will be understood that the arts are valued in and important to everyone, everywhere. If you don’t speak up for your cause, then others will speak up for their causes. Those are the causes that will get attention and resources…and then you will wonder why no one cares about or invests in your cause.
• Involvement and leadership will help get others involved. Patrons, audiences, parents of your students, business community, educators, and the public at large will only be as committed as you are. Don’t expect others to do the work for you. Advocacy doesn’t happen by itself. Commitment, persistence, and passion inspire others.
• None of us can sit back and stay uninvolved. If you care at all about your community’s future, it is your duty and your opportunity, and in your best interest, to speak up for the arts and creativity and believe that change can happen.

I’m looking forward to our Wisconsin Arts Day and the National Arts Advocacy Day, both happening in March, where people who care about their communities will gather in the halls of the Wisconsin and U.S. Capitols to tell their stories about the transformational nature of the arts and creativity.

I feel privileged to work with so many people who care deeply and work passionately, to know and appreciate the state’s strengths and opportunities, and to help Wisconsin continue to move forward. I know that change happens when people make the commitment to speak up and take action, starting from the ground up. Margaret Mead’s statement, “never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has,” is more true and more important than ever before.

Anne is Executive Director of Arts Wisconsin, Wisconsin’s non-profit statewide community arts action, service, and development organization. Arts Wisconsin’s mission is to nurture, serve, promote and speak up for the arts in Wisconsin and all of its communities. Under her leadership, Arts Wisconsin received the 2004 Governor’s Award in Support of the Arts from the Wisconsin Foundation for the Arts, and she received the Alene Valkanas State Arts Advocacy Award from Americans for the Arts in June 2010. Anne was chosen as a member of National Arts Strategies’ 2014-2015 Chief Executive Program: Community and Culture, and has worked with arts organizations in Madison and across the country. She is a graduate of Brandeis University, with a B.A. degree in Theater Arts, and studied drama at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art in London, England.