April 21, 2006
Executive Director's Column
I hope you have had a chance to review the results of the legislative research NASAA recently conducted with the National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL). Thanks to our partnership with NCSL and to sponsorship from the Altria corporation, NASAA had a unique opportunity to study what matters most to a national sample of state legislators.
We convened a series of four independently-moderated focus groups designed to diagnose the current attitudes, policy priorities and information needs of state decision makers. Those dialogues, involving 36 legislators and legislative staffers, were quite candid, revealing much about how the arts and arts advocacy are viewed by people who can control how public dollars are spent.
The findings affirm many principles that have already proven their worth. For instance: advocates need to send a unified message delivered by a trusted and influential messenger; reliable data must substantiate a case for support; cultivation needs to occur year-round, not just during budget deliberations; and the most persuasive rationales for funding stem from the economic and educational benefits of the arts. However familiar these themes may seem, they point to a sobering conclusion: few legislators saw these principles implemented on a regular basis. The participants offered many critiques of arts advocacy, believing that competing interests, a small base of constituent support and perceptions of elitism all limit the efficacy of arts advocacy. Clearly, we still have work to do. Some legislators and staffers had never heard of “the creative economy,” nor could all but a few describe in concrete terms the effects of arts education on children. Arts leaders who want to raise awareness or alter misconceptions will need to put sound advocacy principles into regular practice.
Also apparent in the results is evidence of spirited discussion around the issue of public support for the arts. It is uplifting to see the many ways in which the focus group participants know the arts to be instrumental to a good quality of life and to the well-being of communities. However, not all individuals regard the facilitation of such benefits to be a necessary role of government. This finding reinforces advice often included in NASAA materials and presentations: offering general arguments for the benefits of the arts is not sufficient. Instead, arts leaders need to justify a very specific case for state government support.
The NASAA Web site offers a detailed report of the focus group proceedings, as well as some suggestions for putting the results to work in your state. You won’t want to miss this resource, so if you don’t have your member password to the NASAA site handy, call the NASAA office or e-mail Dennis Dewey to get immediate access. Urge your council members and staff to do the same. Also, be on the lookout for an e-NASAA Webcast about this project in the near future. Members will be able to dial in for a presentation about the methods used to conduct the research, a guided tour of the findings, and a look between the lines at some of the nuances embedded in the results.
Sometimes the role of research is to document or describe. While that is certainly true for this project, another important role of research is to provoke – to stimulate thinking, invite debate or challenge norms. Along those lines, below are some thorny questions brought to my mind by the focus group dialogues. These are not direct findings from the report, but are strategic questions, usefully catalyzed by the research, that I encourage all state arts agency leaders to consider.
- Whether you agree or disagree with the focus group participants’ specific ideas for building legislative support, their perception that advocacy needs improvement may serve as impetus for developing new approaches. What would it take to “move the needle” on arts advocacy in your state? Are there key constituencies that have yet to be mobilized on behalf of the state arts agency? Are there divisive issues within the arts community that are preventing you from presenting a unified front to the legislature? What are the opportunity costs of enduring those conflicts?
- How closely do your agency’s programs align with the rationale you cite for support? For example, if economic development is a cornerstone of your argument, to what extent are your actual grant investments, constituent services or partnerships deliberately designed to induce economic outcomes? Can you document how your investments contribute directly or indirectly to community productivity, workforce development or economic competitiveness? This is certainly not to say that state arts agencies should restrict resources only to those issues or programs that enjoy current legislative popularity. Nor should the delivery of “intrinsic” benefits be entirely eclipsed by instrumental aims. Nevertheless, any gaps between an agency’s rhetoric and its reality may readily be discerned by knowledgeable legislators, who are just the sort of legislators most state arts agencies hope to cultivate.
- Underneath universal interests in political survival and reelection, the focus groups reveal a wide diversity of individual motivations, life experiences, personal goals, and professional aspirations among legislators and staffers. All of these factors will affect how your messages are interpreted. What are the core values of the individual “gatekeepers” of resource decisions in your state? What do they most want to accomplish in public service? What is the basis for their position on the arts? Who are their most trusted advisors? As all our knowledge of market segmentation and arts participation suggests, being able to answer these questions with precision will help you tailor effective communications. Are your relationships and information-gathering tools sufficient?
- Can every staff member, council member, advocate and grantee provide fluent answers to the following questions: What does your agency accomplish that is truly unique? What differentiates your state arts investments from what private grant makers, corporate sponsors, individual donors or earned income achieve in your state? If not, look for occasions to fortify these messages at grant workshops, council meetings, planning forums or statewide meetings. Remember, too, that you can call on NASAA as your first resource for developing these rationales in your state. While many organizations do excellent work in promoting the value of the arts, NASAA’s focus is making the case for state arts agencies, highlighting the unique and essential role that the public sector plays in the arts.
My thanks to Kelly Barsdate, NASAA’s director of policy, research and evaluation, for her thoughtful analysis of the focus group proceedings. Her contributions to the thinking we share with you here were invaluable.
In closing, I’d like to share one more thing that you won’t find in the report – what the participants had to say about their focus group experiences. A few days after the sessions concluded, NCSL followed up with each participant to thank him or her for participating and to ask what he or she thought of the process. The feedback was overwhelmingly positive. Participants found the dialogues engaging, informative and enjoyable, while expressing a keen desire to see the results afterwards. The most common complaint was that participants wished the focus groups, which lasted two hours, were longer. That’s right, they wanted to spend more time talking about the arts. What a wonderful problem to have.
Your continuing feedback–observations, suggestions, concerns–is not only welcomed and encouraged, it is a critical part of our strategic process as we look ahead and make plans for future meetings.
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