Americans for the Arts: Scenes From San Diego
In mid-June I flew from my tiny western Massachusetts town all the way to San Diego for the annual Americans for the Arts convention. Though I have been to their annual advocacy day in DC before, this was my first AFTA event that wasn’t focused exclusively on policy. And though I may be able to slap the label “artist” on my life for all those hours I clock playing music in the DIY scene, I’m no “arts professional.”
That meant that I did a lot of listening for three days. As someone who tends to be a bit of a talker when I’m in my element, there’s something to be said for sitting quietly, absorbing, and identifying themes.
The conference brings together about 1,000 people from the arts world – most of them administrators from local and state arts councils, but many serving double duty in the world as artists, too. I met a lot of people who were deeply commitment to building community and creating art above all else. They were there seeking advice from colleagues and counsel from organizations who were working on similar projects. They came to find community, because that’s what we do at these things. And they came to arm themselves with the information they’ll need to keep fighting at home. Because one thing became quickly clear: they are almost always being forced to make the case for why arts matter.
While I am used to the world of media and technology policy, arts policy is a relatively new space for me. Working with AFTA for the last two years on their advocacy day agenda I’ve been introduced to issues like visa applications, arts education and tax policies that impact the cultural community. But their flagship fight – public funding for the arts – is very familiar to me. In fact, it almost perfectly parallels the struggles for public funding for media. Both are facing cutbacks at the national and local levels – not to mention attacks from free-market ideologues who are missing one critical factor: they are both public goods.
Jonathan Katz, CEO of the National Assembly of States Arts Agencies, made this argument rather eloquently in one session. Katz quickly broke down the classic economic theory that a public good is both non-rival and non-excludable. A simple translation? One person’s enjoyment of art does not exclude another person from the same enjoyment. And what I gain from “using” it– aesthetically, inspirationally, or otherwise – will not impact your ability to gain the same things from it. The same is true of public media and journalism. When I watch Sesame Street (which I still do on occasion and no I don’t have children…what?) or Frontline, I’m not removing someone else’s ability to do the same. And public goods need public funding. We invest in them because they benefit all, not just a few.
In addition to the advocacy efforts on the agenda – which also included a special focus on the upcoming election (AFTA also has its own PAC) – there were some great discussions on civic engagement and the arts. In particular, AFTA’s Animating Democracy project made the rounds talking about how artists and cultural organizations can participate more directly (and collaboratively) with their communities around the social issues they are facing. What I appreciated most about their work was the recognition that there are a variety of ways these engagements occur and that social change takes place over time. One art project might bring people together who may not otherwise interact, thus increasing conversation and awareness within a community about its own members. Another project might illustrate a social problem so strongly that it can move decision makers to enact policy changes to solve them.
There’s exciting bridge building to be done between the world of arts advocacy and media advocacy. With so many overlapping constituents and policies, we should talk and collaborate more than we do. My hope in attending the AFTA conferences and in working more closely with NAMAC is to find more ways for us to connect these ideas. Technology has brought incredible changes and opportunities to our lives, but we must be vigilant if we want those advances to serve the public interest.
Candace Clement is an Outreach Manager for Free Press, a national organization working to reform the media. Her work has primarily focused on public and community media, and she is co-author of the 2010 report New Public Media: A Plan for Action. Prior to joining Free Press she worked extensively in college and community radio. Candace spends her "free" time playing guitar, singing, and DIYing with her awk-pop-indierock band. She recently completed a week of band coaching and guitar instructing at the new Girls Rock Camp Boston.