With that goal in mind, Americans for the Arts uses a third-party platform,VoterVoice, which enables the public to contact an elected representative about the NEA in roughly two minutes. The organization also recently wrapped up two days of advocacy in Washington D.C. that saw 650 arts advocates gather, strategize, and contact their representatives.
“We have to be relentless,” Lynch says of such efforts, adding that he believes they will be successful.
in the New York Times,
which found that several Republican representatives are wary about eliminating the NEA entirely, gives reason to hope. But while speculation over the demise of the agency may prove to be premature, its budget is always vulnerable to cuts.
Some argue that cultivating permanent, robust support for the public funding of art—beyond any one legislative fight—requires shifting how advocates speak about its benefits. Rushing to defend their field, many arts backers are quick to cite the economic impact. But research has shown that trumpeting figures doesn’t galvanize support among the general public.
“They don’t believe it, frankly,” says Margy Waller, a senior fellow at the research organization Topos, which in 2010 released a study
on public attitudes toward the arts and arts funding.
The research found problems with other traditional message points—about the transformative cultural power of the arts, for example, which they discovered overemphasizes the individual, rather than communal, impact of the field.
Such rhetoric plays into the idea that the arts are a form of personal entertainment, not suited for public funding. They also reinforce the notion that the arts only brings benefits to those who experience them first-hand.
Waller says advocates should instead work to shift the narrative from one where the public is “thinking of the arts as a consumer,” to one in which they are “thinking of the arts as a citizen.” For the arts to deserve public support, she notes, they must be seen as a public good.
This requires altering how the arts are represented. Picture the difference between an orchestra sitting in fancy dress in a concert hall—an event that appears elitist and provides no obvious value to those who don’t attend—and showing those same musicians working in local after-school programs, teaching music. “That changes, fundamentally, the way we think about the benefits of the arts,” Waller says.
Her research found that people responded well to talking points that emphasize the “ripple effect” of the arts as a means to strengthen neighborhoods and bring people together.
The NEA already funds numerous such socially engaged organizations, which are ripe for use as case studies showing the agency’s positive impact. One example, the New York-based nonprofit Cool Culture, provides museum access to over 50,000 families, connecting them with institutions that might otherwise be culturally alienating or financially inaccessible.
The organization receives 25 percent of its annual budget from the NEA and the Institute of Museum and Library Services (the latter which is also federally funded, and also on the chopping block in President Trump’s budget). Candice Anderson, Cool Culture’s executive director, said the NEA and IMLS are “excited about the work we’re doing and the reach we have to communities of color and folks that aren’t affluent.”
Ironically, it is funding from IMLS and the NEA that helps Cool Culture “address issues of elitism that individuals who are attacking these agencies accuse them of,” Anderson says.