Randy Cohen, Vice President of Research at Americans for the Arts has played a significant role in advocating for the arts for over 30 years now. Paired with recent research from SMU DataArts, we invited Randy to share his strategy on how to develop effective and persuasive messaging in support of Local Arts Agencies nationwide.
I conducted my first local arts agency (LAA) field survey in 1991. We didn’t even ask for fax numbers because not enough LAAs had one. The LAA field (e.g., arts councils, arts commissions, cultural affairs departments) has grown significantly in size and impact (and technology) since then. What hasn’t changed is their commitment to strengthening their arts and culture sector, making the arts accessible to all, and building healthier communities through the arts. The research is clear: LAAs don't always make the art, but they always make the art possible—and they are always worth advocating for.
Develop an Advocacy Plan
It can feel intimidating to meet with a legislator in their office, even for experienced advocates. While there are many tools about advocacy, I organize myself using three simple questions.
What is the message?
The successful arts advocate rides with a full quiver of case-making arrows. Prepare for your meeting by learning what issues your legislator cares about most. Not sure where to start? A survey of LAAs demonstrates that different types of community leaders respond more favorably to different messages. Elected and business leaders, for example, appreciate jobs and economic impact, workforce attraction and retention, and arts and community development. Private funders and individual donors are partial to arts education, quality of life, and “art for art’s sake.” Of course, you can never be sure what will resonate on any given day, so be ready to activate all the messages.
- Who gets the message?
Who are the decision makers in your environment? We all have community leaders and elected officials who make policy and funding decisions that affect us. Not sure who your state-federal legislators are or how to contact them? You can find everyone you need to meet in our Local Arts Agency Action Center. Simply type your zip code and click for a list of names and contact information. From there, give their office a call and schedule your meeting. Even if your legislators don’t support your request this time, they really do appreciate meeting with you. Your goal should be to build a relationship so whenever they need to understand an arts funding or policy issue, you are their go-to knowledge source. Don’t let your first meeting be your last.
- Who delivers the message?
I remember a Mayor telling a story about his Police Chief’s testimony at their city budget hearing: “If you have to cut the arts budget, I’d rather you took that from my public safety budget,” the Chief said. “When the arts do their job well, it makes my public safety job easier.” Can you imagine if we had a thousand police chiefs on that message? It is very powerful when others deliver the arts message. Who are your local leaders in education, healthcare, and business that you can recruit to join you as an arts champion?
Craft Your Advocacy Message
The effective LAA advocate needs to articulate the benefits of the arts in as many ways as possible—from the intrinsic to the practical—to demonstrate that LAAs are the most equitable and efficient route to realizing the cultural and community-building benefits of the arts.
As an advocate, I can be counted on to step up and make a passionate plea when government arts funding is on the line—how the arts are fundamental to our humanity, ennoble and inspire us—fostering creativity, goodness, and beauty. While I have never abandoned these foundational messages, I have learned that they are rarely stand-alone winners. I reinforce them by connecting the arts to the pressing issues that keep our decision-makers awake at night: jobs, economy, education, healthcare, and community well-being. This has made me a more effective advocate. They want to hear more, ask better questions, expect follow-up from me, and recognize me at community events.
Fortunately, LAAs are on the right side of what needs to be done in our country.
- LAAs build healthier communities through the arts—95% have programs or fund organizations that address community development.
- LAAs are community connectors—92% maintain at least one partnership with community organizations, and 76% have three or more.
LAAs were essential partners in helping recover from the pandemic—stimulating the economy, improving mental health, promoting social cohesion, and bringing hundreds of millions in federal pandemic relief funding to their communities.
Your advocacy message should bring alive both ideas: (1) how the arts strengthen our communities and (2) the effectiveness of investing in your LAA to realize these arts and community benefits.
- We've Got the Data
Start with “10 Reasons to Support the Arts in 2023,” our popular 1-pager with ten messages about the value of the arts. Think of this as your Swiss Army knife for arts advocacy—fits in your pocket and has all the tools you need! (Tip: If you want to learn more about any of the ten points, each header is hyperlinked to a primary source for more information.)
- The Power of Local Arts Agencies
New research from SMU DataArts demonstrates that LAAs are a proven catalyst for arts vibrancy in their communities. Grants from LAAs as well as their direct programming has a positive effect on the following:
- Increasing the number of individual artists in a community. LAA funding supports artists—a prerequisite to realizing the myriad benefits of the arts to communities.
- More nonprofit arts and culture organizations and entertainment companies. Growing investments in the arts by LAAs means a greater array of arts and culture offerings for visitors and residents alike via these arts organizations and businesses.
- The number of arts and cultural employees per capita. LAA funding contributes to job creation within the arts sector. Connect this finding to the economics research that shows a growth in arts employment has positive and causal effect on overall employment, and LAAs are an economic recovery accelerator for their region.
The Golden Rule
When you are preparing to advocate for your LAA, remember The Golden Rule: No numbers without a story, and no stories without a number. The arts are all about stories—often small, always meaningful. Share yours. It will help engage and draw your listener in—and then pair it with the research-based findings above. Yours will be an advocacy visit that is not soon forgotten!
Randy Cohen is Vice President of Research at Americans for the Arts—the national advocacy organization for the arts—where he has been empowering arts advocates since 1991. Randy is past Chair of the Takoma Park Arts & Humanities Commission, during which time the Commission completed a cultural plan, established the city’s Poet Laureate and public art programs, and led the development of a million-dollar conversion of the city council chambers into a performing arts space.