Cultural policy USA

Lobby group targets presidential conventions

Americans for the Arts rallies support at Democratic and Republican gatherings

Are arts lobbyists preaching to the converted?

Americans for the Arts is lobbying for the cultural and creative industries at the Democratic and Republican presidential conventions. But even the loudest lobbyists may not be loud enough.

At the Republican convention on 28 August in Tampa, Florida, and at the Democratic convention on 4 September in Charlotte, North Carolina, Americans for the Arts and three other organisations are holding a panel, Arts Speak, at which politicians are expected to talk about the importance of arts education, the positive impact of arts jobs on local economies, and the funding of the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA). Among others, they have booked Mike Huckabee, the former governor of Arkansas, and Richard Riley, the former education secretary, to speak. They are already arts supporters, however. It is unclear whether the arts lobby will be able to persuade others to become converts. “The appetite to take up a cultural bill is lacking,” says a congressional staffer with knowledge of the arts caucus.

“Obviously it’s not the same as the unemployment rate, which garners attention once a month,” says Narric Rome, the senior lobbyist for Americans for the Arts, “but when the delegates go home and talk about some of the issues that were voiced at the conventions, this is the kind of thing that they remember”. He says that their events are “the only voice for the non-profit arts” at the conventions.

The lobby group is inviting members from the Congressional Arts Caucus and the Senate Cultural Caucus. But while both groups are sizeable, they do not represent cohesive voting blocks. When the lobby group issued report cards in 2010 based on legislators’ pro-arts records, the Senate Cultural Caucus’s Republican co-chairman, Michael Enzi of Wyoming, received a D+. (Six other arts caucus members nearly failed as well.)

The House caucus, on the other hand, includes eight congress members who are also on the Tea Party Caucus, which wants to shut down the NEA. Add in last-minute election priorities, such as a farm bill and extending tax breaks, and it means that the arts caucus is “not currently working on any priorities or initiatives”, says the congressional staffer, and probably won’t until appropriations come up again early next year.

Federal and state arts spending has declined in the past decade. As the Pew Center on the States notes, state arts agencies have reduced funding by 37% since 2001. However, Americans for the Arts has been campaigning based on statistics that say arts-related jobs have a positive impact on local economies, and Pew says that it “is beginning to pay off”. The National Assembly of State Arts Agencies estimates that state arts funding has increased 8.8% this financial year compared with 2011. The group has also produced a study that says the industry generates $135.2bn of economic activity every year. In June, the Republican-controlled House put forward a bill that would cut the NEA’s funding by $14m to $132m. But, according to the congressional staffer, “it’s unofficially known around [Washington] that the bill will never come to the House floor”. The House will probably pass a resolution this autumn extending the NEA’s current funding levels into 2013.

Americans for the Arts does not have the financial strength of other lobby groups in Washington, DC. The biggest slice of its political action committee cash generally goes to Louise Slaughter, the Democratic co-chair of the Congressional Arts Caucus. Since the 2006 election, she has received $19,000, which is more than twice as much as any other congressional member, but still a paltry sum considering that some corporations funnel nearly as much money to a candidate in a single election. In the current election, the group has given $23,000 to various political campaigns compared with, for example, the telecommunications company, AT&T, which has already given more than $2m to campaigns.

Nevertheless, Rome is confident that the group’s campaign is being felt across the country. “We don’t need to hold up [our economic study] for our message to be brought to light,” he says. Mayors across the country have “it in their DNA that supporting the arts in their cities and towns is just smart policy”.

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