|Lessons from the 2012 Elections|
In Washington, D.C., I have begun to hear former U.S. Speaker of the House Tip O'Neill's classic observation that "all politics is local" replaced by "all politics is partisan." NASAA has maintained, since its inception, a commitment to making the case for the arts based in experience, logic and evidence. What lessons can we draw from the November 2012 elections about effective advocacy for the arts going forward that transcend partisan politics?
One observation is that the American debate on the merits of a candidate or strategy is ultimately about the future. In an early phase of debate, the public may consider what decisions and what political figures got us where we are. In the end, though, votes will be cast based on perceptions of what difference an individual or policy will make in the future. What costs and benefits are at issue, what do we want the coming years to look and feel like, and what improvements can we pass on to the next generation? In the recent elections, voter concern with balancing the budget at the national level caught up to the attention that has been institutionalized at the state level by statutes mandating that annual revenues and expenditures must be balanced. In the foreseeable future, decision makers responsible for public budgets will be asking with increased rigor what the observable or measurable benefits of the arts are—with an eye to judging whether or not the benefits exceed the costs—because these authorizers are reflecting the popular interest in distinguishing between investing and spending. This does not mean that all benefits need to be about money, but we will need to be clear about how the programs and services provided by state arts agencies do contribute to economic prosperity, and how the other values of these activities can be recognized.
For these reasons, I like the basic structure of two documents I reviewed this week. One is an early draft of the next strategic plan for the New Jersey State Council on the Arts: What We Believe, What the People of NJ Asked Us to Do, How We Plan to Do It, and How Will We Know What Progress Looks Like. Another is the Montana Arts Council's plan: Outcomes, Why, How, Indicators of Success, Consequences of Failure, How We Evaluate It. When the difference the investment is intended to make can be visualized, annual action plans are already outlined, and a foundation for accountability is put in place.
As we have seen, debate over the role of government in supporting the arts, the humanities, public media and various means of public education will continue. We are reminded that the general will to support a significant public-sector role in advancing cultural and educational activities will depend on whether decision makers embrace an increasingly demanding series of propositions: that the creation, experience, appreciation and learning of the arts offers desirable benefits; that government has an important role to play in providing these benefits; and that each level of government has a unique role to play. We must be prepared to articulate and document the compelling public interest in state government's role in advancing participation in the arts in an era when states are privatizing highways and prisons, and selling the buildings they operate in.
Readers may recall that one of the strongest predictors of voter support was response to the question, Who cares about people like me? Much of what people perceive as a brand, an image and "likeability" is determined by the answer to that question. In the context of scarce public resources, it will be more important than ever that there be broad agreement that, as phrased in the enabling legislation of the National Endowment for the Arts, "the arts . . . belong to all the people of the United States."
The recent presidential election underlined the importance of appealing to the broadly diverse constituencies that comprise the citizenry of the United States. In the 26 states and the District of Columbia that President Obama won, only 7 gave him a majority of the white vote. If the Hispanic vote had provided the same percentage of support for Governor Romney as it had for Senator McCain, we would have a different president today. Of the total U.S. population, Hispanics make up 16.7%; and of the total population age 17 or under, Hispanics make up 23%. The public value of government agencies will benefit to an increasing extent on their support by black and Hispanic legislative caucuses. It will be more and more important for the programs and services of state arts agencies to reach deeply into diverse demographic communities, to validate the public benefit of their role in promoting cross-cultural understanding and to assist "culturally specific" arts activities as well. (I put the term in quotation marks because there's a good argument that all art is culturally specific.) Demographic diversity includes characteristics of age, language, location and other factors, all of which represent potential constituencies. State arts agencies, which have always been exemplary in government for the quality of their public planning, will need to build on their best information-gathering and public-dialogue practices. The case for public resources will depend more and more upon an agency's ability to answer this sequence of questions: Whom do your programs and services reach? How do you intend to broaden, deepen and diversify participation in the arts, and why do you think your strategies will be effective? Whom would you reach with a lower budget and whom with a higher budget?
Elections, like many other markets in the experience economy, are driven by sensory and emotional appeal. The most successful politicians, like the most successful artists, will be those who are guided by the perception that all politics, like all art, is personal. Whether political leaders learn the power and impacts of the arts as well as artists and arts advocates learn the power and impacts of politics may determine whether the arts are supported in the public sector at a significant level. Cultural leaders are entering an era of high-stakes planning and public engagement.