Are your representatives representing you by supporting the arts?
January 24, 2020
Interdisciplinary, How To - Tips
January 24, 2020
All levels of government can have a major impact on arts support and funding. This means as arts advocates we need to focus our energy on the federal, state, and local levels of government.
Americans for the Arts provides Arts Voting Records and Arts Support Records for members of the U.S. House of Representatives and the U.S. Senate. Through these resources, you can access your representatives’ histories of arts support (or lack of support). As a Virginia newcomer, this data played a large role in my understanding of the people in office now representing me.
Why is this knowledge important? In order to effect change, there can be a great benefit in knowing who our allies are and who will require some extra attention when lobbying for support. These records can be especially important during an election period when deciding which candidate shares your values. Have you been satisfied with your legislators’ actions to support the arts or are you looking for someone to do more?
Americans for the Arts Action Fund conducts a bi-annual Congressional Arts Report Card that they describe as “Your guide to voting for the arts.” The most recent report, which came out in September 2018, graded house members on a scale from A+ to F. This report revealed one Virginia house member with an A+ rating, four with an A rating, one B rating, and five with a D rating. The five highest ranking Congressional representatives from Virginia in terms of their support of the arts in 2018 were: Bobby Scott (D), Donald Beyer (D), Barbara J. Comstock (R), Gerry Connolly (D), and Donald A. McEachin (D).
American’s for the Arts released a more updated Arts Support Record in 2019 with all new members in account. The house members with the highest support for the arts (who had previous voting records at the time of the report) included all of the above five, excluding Comstock who no longer holds office.
What arts issues have been important in recent legislative sessions?
The most common issues of arts support include funding of the National Endowment for the Arts, the National Endowment for the Humanities, and the 21st Century Community Learning Centers. These members voted against H.R. 1 legislation that could negatively affect charitable giving due to rewriting of the tax code. All Virginia Congress members who were active at the time participated in the 2018 Congressional art competition recognizing visual arts students from each participating U.S. Congressional Districts. As of 2019, Scott, Beyer, and Connolly all sit on the Congressional Arts Caucus. Scott and Connolly are also on the Congressional STEAM Caucus, and Scott sits on the Congressional Humanities Caucus.
On the 2018 Congressional Arts Report Card, select Senate members were given a “thumbs up” for exhibiting pro-arts actions. Both senators of Virginia, Tim Kaine (D) and Mark Warner (D), received thumbs up ratings in 2016 and 2018. In a 2019 report, both Kaine and Warner supported growing the National Endowment for the Arts and National Endowment for the Humanities as well as voting against H.R 1 legislation. Both senators supported a resolution that expressed Congressional disapproval of an action that would weaken net neutrality protection.
Senator Warner also hosts “The State of the Arts” program annually to showcase local Virginia artists to visitors of Capitol Hill.
Knowing the voting history and interests of your representatives can help you formulate a plan to reach the goals for your arts organization or community. The most effective advocacy comes from tailoring your message to the individual you are meeting with, so being aware of who is already your ally in the arts verses who will take more effort to get on your side can, and likely should, inform your advocacy approach. On an arts advocacy day, consider which representatives will be more persuaded by personal stories and those who will likely be swayed with facts and numbers? Who will require more convincing? Which representatives can help you get other members on board?
For more information on current arts-related legislation, you can check out the Congressional Arts Handbook created by American’s for the Arts.
Building and maintaining relationships with legislators is an important part of reaching your advocacy goals. Beyond just knowing your representatives’ voting histories, it can be effective to thank them for their work in your arts community. If I had a job as thankless as most political positions, receiving a thank you note would go a long way. This can also act as a way to build the foundation of a relationship with your representatives.
ArtsU, a part of Americans for the Arts, partnered with Massachusettes Senator Stan Rosenberg to offer a webinar on Arts Advocacy Best Practices. Rosenberg offered some suggested ways to show your appreciation and support:
- Send a hand-written thank you note
- Invite your representative or their staff to an event as a special guest
- Invite your representative or their staff to a performance
- Enlist your supporters to thank your legislators for the work they’re doing
- When you are advocating for more arts support, include examples of the ways they have helped or supported you in the past
What does arts support look like during a presidential election? The arts aren’t the typical hot topic in the debates, but you can still find other ways to access a candidate’s views on the arts. If they’ve been in office before, how have they voted in the past? Have they sat on an arts caucus? Have they sat on committees or helped craft bills to benefit the arts? What organizations have they donated to? What events do they regularly attend? Who are their allies? These bits of information can be pieced together to form a whole frame on whether a candidate values the arts and will make it a priority to invest in and support.
We’re officially one week away from Virginia’s 2020 Arts Advocacy Day. On January 31, you can join fellow arts advocates in Richmond to meet with members of the Virginia House of Delegates and the Senate of Virginia to share the important role the arts play in your community. Whether you’re planning to attend, work in the arts, or just have an interest in Virginia’s arts legislation, it’s helpful to know who represents you.
In Blacksburg, our State Delegate is Chris L. Hurst (D) and our State Senator is John S. Edwards (D). Hurst sits on an Education Committee as well as Education Subcommittee #2. If you want to advocate for more arts support with Hurst, focus on the benefits of arts education. For more information on the importance of arts education and how to sell it to your representative’s, check out “Celebrating arts education!” by Anna Wehr.
Edwards is also an education advocate as a member of the Virginia Commission of At-Risk Youth and Children. Additionally, Edwards is a veteran and has been a mental health advocate. Beyond focusing on the benefits arts education brings to children, focus on the ways the arts can help those dealing with mental health issues as well as veterans.
If you want to get even more local with your advocacy, consider setting a time to meet with your mayor or town council members. Blacksburg’s current mayor is Leslie Hager-Smith. On her welcome page, she expresses some of the aspects that shape the community. “Local foodways, music, dance and crafts are part of a living tradition that is distinctive and authentic.” Consider how you’ve seen the arts in Blacksburg contribute to the community’s vitality, civic culture, tourism, economy, and collaboration across sectors.
The two town council members with prominent arts affiliation are John Bush and Susan Mattingly. Bush was appointed to the Blacksburg Museum and Cultural Foundation while Mattingly serves at the Executive Director of Blacksburg’s historic Lyric Theatre and has held a leadership position with the Blacksburg Partnership Collaborative for the Arts. A third town council arts supporter is Jerry R. Ford, a self-proclaimed enjoyer of the performing arts. If you’re looking to meet with town council members to advocate for the arts, start with your allies and then branch out.
While funding for the NEA is important to fight for, focusing on your local governments and building relationships with local and state legislators can take your arts organization and community far. And who knows? Maybe your local representative will become the president one day with a strong plan for national arts funding thanks to you!