Does DC Need Arts Advocacy?

Bill Wilson and Ebby Thacher, founders of AAI am the chair of the DC Advocates for the Arts. I REALLY care about the arts. The studio – the dance studio – is the place I feel most at home in the world. I believe in the arts, because they are my home. But you don’t make much money in the dance studio. You support the dance studio time (mostly) outside of the studio – through grants, commissions, performances, and teaching. That money… it’s hard to get.

I’ve gotten really involved in arts advocacy, in part, because I believe in myself. Advocating for the arts en masse has been a way for me to defend my own choices. But at this point I’m uncertain what I’m fighting for. Funding is the only issue I’ve been able to get people to talk about regarding Arts Advocacy. Not priorities in funding, not efficiency in funding, just funding.

I believe DC does need arts advocacy. But not to advocate for funding. Due in no small part to the granting programs that spend the money, over the last ten years there are a larger number of mid-sized organizations drawing funding with professional development staff, and the stream of small orgs and individual artists stays constant. Nobody talks about patronage, cause it doesn’t serve them to do so, but there is a reason why more money is spent in NW DC, and the reason is the relationships that exist. Not the quality of the artists, or the possibility for arts businesses. Collegial support systems develop between staff, consultants and arts administrators, and no rules exist to manage those relationships toward the public good. Arts businesses are just businesses.

This city has – per capita – a very large arts scene, as appropriate to a locale where a major revenue stream is tourism. But how do we efficiently ensure that every child receives real arts education? How many stable mid/large sized organizations should the city be supporting? How can funding programs really encourage the kind of art that will best serve this city? What categories of art do we need to encourage to best serve this city? How can the arts leverage community development? How can we maximize government investment in the arts for revenue growth?

We cannot expect politicians to actually be experts on everything under the sun. Advocates must inform and educate themselves so that they can contribute to the dialogues, and pressures, which politicians manage on a daily basis. Does dc need arts advocacy? Yes. Because the politically expedient decision and the right decision are sometimes two different things. We might wish that arts business leaders would selflessly contribute to open ongoing intelligent policy discussions, and the needs of the city. But perhaps it’d be better to plan within the reality that exists, and build a broad, participation-driven advocacy organization.

Author: Robert Bettmann

Founder of Day Eight, and the DC Arts Writing Fellowship.

3 thoughts on “Does DC Need Arts Advocacy?”

  1. Two comments:

    1. about the numbers:
    A. FY09 will look much worse
    B. in FY08, DC may have ranked very high but this an aberration. DC has not ranked number one over time. Chart the arts funding over the last ten years and you get a very different picture.

    2. artistic quality: how do we measure it? how do we raise the bar? Can we address it en masse? (Can we not retain talent in DC; are the “good” artists moving to NYC?)

    So much local work is weak. Is it because we are under-resourced? That’s part of it, I think, but not the whole story.

    I think we can do a great deal to push one another harder. I enjoy working in a supportive community, however we can be supportive and still push harder. Or maybe not. What’s better, being encouraging or being critical? I think we could use a little more criticism. I got a bad review last summer in the Post – and that was a good experience. The show had a promising concept, but the actual music wasn’t that hot. I’ve got work to do, and I know it. Reading that review was a good thing for me.

    And won’t it be easier to advocate for funding if the work is better? If people go see a show and it blows them away, it’s not hard to argue that producing that experience is an important and valuable endeavor. Seeing lots of shows that are mediocre doesn’t help the cause. I’ve lost my patience for seeing so many local companies’ mediocre shows. These days I’d rather stay home with my TiVo. When the artwork is great, the other stuff gets much easier (advocacy, marketing, audience development, etc).

    Perhaps this is a flawed strategy, but I’ve stepped away from the advocacy work over the last few years – and I’m working on improving my own skills: taking guitar lessons and setting aside time for practice every day.

    I’ve had some good opportunities to reach people with my work over the last few years and it hasn’t left anyone wow’ed. Sure, if I had the money to spend more time on my work it would be better. But how much better? It’s my responsibility to make my own work awesome. Funding alone won’t do it for me.

    It’s a little embarrassing to admit, but the number one item on my strategic plan for FY09 (that’s what’s embarrassing: that I have a “strategic plan” for the fiscal year) is:
    1. Improve artistic quality

    So, I’m delighted to see you asking this question. Nice to know I’m not the only one. 😉

  2. Hey Jon,

    I really appreciated what you said about your willingness to focus on yourself. I try to do that, too. You have to do the shows. And you have to be able to do the shows. But you have to listen, after the shows, too. I respect your process.

    Public arts funding is not supposed to take artists all the way. Public money is seed money in the development of projects, programs, and organizations. There’s a reason why some grants have matching requirements. If your audience doesn’t back you up, why should the public?

    Personally I haven’t been getting seed. Not since 2003. I wonder why that is sometimes. If you care to – why do you think some get seed and others don’t? That’s sort of a ‘who gets funding and why’ kind of question…

  3. Oh dear. Now you’ve opened a whole can of worms. The short answer to “who gets funding and why,” from my perspective, is that it is basically arbitrary.

    The longer answer gets murky, I think… DC Commission does a great job (especially compared to Maryland State Arts Council, Montgomery County, or Prince George’s County; the other government agencies I’ve experienced as an applicant). Personally, I believe they would achieve equally effective results with a dartboard, dice, lottery, or other chance operation, but they do have a transparent process with panelists of “our peers” and they do the best they can. Your mileage may vary. In general, the government funders can only do so much. The real problem in DC is the other sources of funding: foundations, etc.

    In the foundation sector, DC has few, if any, donors who are interested in supporting artists. It’s too risky and doesn’t produce measurable community impact. So, instead, they fund arts organizations. And here’s the big problem. The money goes to cover payroll for arts administrators. This is supposed to trickle down to actual working artists but it doesn’t. (I think it’s safe to say that the trickle-down theory has been largely disproved by now?) So we have this ludicrous dance that the large arts organizations do with the foundations (and government arts agencies) to justify their own existence – and they’re really good at it by now. So, we’re kinda screwed. Good news is that they are too. They got so good at convincing donors to give huge amounts towards capital campaigns that they forgot about funding their programs. Now we have a whole bunch of shiny new arts facilities and no money to do anything with them.

    So while you and I are under-employed, we can use the time to improve our artwork. I’m not sure what the arts administrators will do? Maybe they’ll go get MBA’s and head back to the private sector? Oh wait, I forgot… now you can get an MBA in Arts Administration. Woops. I’m not supposed to enjoy it but I do kinda smile to think that an MBA could be as useless as an advanced degree in music!

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