Support Arts Education in the District on Arts Advocacy Day – April 27, 2011

Ava Spece, Executive Director at DC Youth Orchestra Program, asked if I would contribute a blog post for that organization’s blog about the upcoming Arts Advocacy Day. 

Arts education in the District is threatened. Non-profit arts education providers and the populations they serve are like the character in the movie Hustle and Flow who says, “I’m sitting here trying to squeeze a dollar out of a dime and I ain’t got a cent.”

There has not been a single community, or business, untouched by the recent economic decline.  The National Opera was forced to reduce from 7 performances to 5 for the past season, and in 2012 will be absorbed by the Kennedy Center in an effort to stave off further collapse. The budgets of most organizations have shrunk, and non-profit presenters are feeling a trickle up effect; with fewer rentals many theater spaces are struggling to keep the lights on. Washington, D.C. is not at all unique in these struggles. Last week one of the great orchestras in the United States – the Philadelphia Orchestra –– declared bankruptcy. Among surviving organizations, arts programs serving poor communities are in decline, as non-profit businesses focus on earned and donated revenue possibilities.

Sometimes we forget that non-profit businesses are just businesses, subject to the same forces that drive expansion and contraction in the rest of the economy. The DC Chamber of Commerce 2011 Policy Agenda states,  “The past year has proven to be a test for many of our members as they work to survive the economic downturn. And over the past year, the Chamber has been able to stave off legislative and regulatory initiatives that could harm our members’ ability to operate successfully and help grow our economy, create more jobs, and improve the District’s competitiveness regionally.” And that is where the DC Advocates for the Arts find ourselves as we prepare for Arts Advocacy Day – April 27, 2011. We are fighting to maintain support for DC students, and to protect opportunities for DC arts organizations and artists. Will only the wealthiest children in Washington, D.C. have access to the benefits of arts education? The outcome of the current budget fight will provide some of the answer.

Increased funding for DC’s arts agency, the DC Commission on the Arts and Humanities (DCCAH), is necessary to maintain access to arts education for lower income populations. Funding for the DCCAH has been gutted in the last three years, from over $14 million in FY 09 to under $5 million in FY 11. The District’s FY 12 proposed budget contains further cuts; the current proposal is $3.92 million to serve all of the arts organizations, artists, and arts education providers in the District. That is $3.92 million within a total District FY 12 budget of $10.8 billion. Contraction in the non-profit arts community is to be expected in this economy, but policy-makers need to protect those least able to bear additional burden. Just like Homeless services, Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, and general education funding, arts and arts education funding must be protected.

Music education teaches children discipline as it validates their individual voices. Private schools see how these kinds of opportunities drive student achievement not for individual children, but in the breadth of student populations. We don’t know which children don’t drop out because of music education. We don’t know which children focus that little bit more closely because they feel better about themselves due to music education. DCYOP and programs like DCYOP are reaching families week in and week out, and we need your help.

To support DCYOP and all of the arts providers in the District, on Wednesday April 27, 2011 – Arts Advocacy Day – please take a minute to ask policy-makers to support arts education in the District’s FY 12 budget. Contact Mayor Gray via email at or by phone at (202) 727-6300, and Council Chair Kwame Brown at or (202) 724-8032. We need your voice to maintain public support for arts education.  Please ask the Mayor and the Council Chair to support arts education, and to do that by restoring funding for the DC Commission on the Arts and Humanities to FY 2010 level – $5.16million.

Bad Relationships Have a Way of Spreading

Bad relationships have a way of spreading, and no matter what the cause, having a bad relationship with funders is killing.

You could say that a single grant – say $10,000 dollars – doesn’t make a difference in a career. But I’ve seen how good business people turn that 10 into 30 and that 30 into 300. And without that ten, that thirty, it’s impossible to get off the ground.

Sitting here this evening working on the brochure for our FY 12 advocacy day I’m trying to revisit some key turning points for my own business. In the last administration I submitted 14 grants and got none. I know I make strong well crafted art. I work hard, and I’m a nice person. And I’m also a good writer. How did I not get any of those grants???? Not one? Many reasons, sure, but here’s one turning point I’m aware of:

The position of Executive Director at any government agency or foundation is one of tremendous influence. The Executive Director is like a Council-member; they may not have direct budget spending authority, but they carry massive influence on decision-making at all levels.

One way to influence granting is through the stacking of granting panels. Hypothetically, judging done by these independent expert panels is just that. In reality, DC is a very small community, and commission staff are directed to ask/pick the folks to be on the panels. And, being on a panel is a lot like jury duty: you don’t get paid for it, and you have to take off work, so it’s a self-selecting self-interested group that is even willing to serve. In a small city, then, these independent panels put together to judge grants are highly insular, and can either represent a thoughtfully independent cross-section of the arts community, or an insular cross-section of the arts community. It’s important not to be on the outs. Continue reading “Bad Relationships Have a Way of Spreading”

Oh, you shouldn’t have!!!

I had a funny experience today. While presenting at a meeting about arts advocacy in D.C., I was asked a question about leadership, collaboration, and coordination. I responded that I didn’t think anyone questioned my leadership, or the work that we’re doing, and that certainly our efforts to collaborate are welcomed at every turn. I said that while sort of gazing at the ceiling, and with what i thought was an ironic inflection. When I stopped batting my eyelids and looked around I realized that they assumed I was speaking seriously…. I almost stopped to say,  “just kidding!”,  but thought it might undermine my otherwise flawless presentation. : )

That the folks in the room didn’t assume my humor really does speak to the hyperbole that regularly occurs in these kinds of conversations. I am confident in my leadership of the DC Advocates for the Arts.  But I do still regularly question it, and have it questioned for me, and I don’t think that’s a weakness. I almost wish I was like a Luddite, or Randian protagonist, interested only in my own success, but in fact, I am not.  I hope that my leadership is a part of something larger than myself, and if it is, my leadership is replaceable. To me that is not in conflict with my confidence, professionalism, commitment, or leadership, but it does temper my self-promotion.