Effective arts advocacy is essential to enriching Ohio’s artistic and cultural landscape. According to a recent on-campus discussion facilitated by Ohio Citizens for the Arts, Oberlin students have a role to play in speaking up for increased state and federal funding.
Last Tuesday, Bill Behrendt, the executive director of Ohio Citizens for the Arts, gave a talk titled “Arts Advocacy: How Does It Work and What Can I Do?” in which he discussed the function of his organization, the importance of public arts funding, and actions that anyone can take to support the arts.
Ohio Citizens for the Arts works “to increase funding and public support for the arts through advocacy, education, and engagement.” The organization asks Ohioans to demonstrate their support by talking to lawmakers and public officials about arts advocacy. Partnered with OCA is The Ohio Citizens of the Arts Foundation, which helps provide internships, education, and scholarships for advocacy events and projects. Both of these organizations educate the public about arts funding and provide opportunities to showcase and support the arts.
Behrendt explained that the National Endowment for the Arts is the most well-known organization that provides public arts funding — though most responsibility for funding comes at the state and local levels. Federal budget-makers often propose cuts to arts funding when creating a new budget, including President Donald Trump’s 2018 fiscal year budget outline calling for a total defunding of the NEA.
In 2017, the NEA received only about 0.003 percent of the total federal budget; this percentage then must be split between all of the U.S. states and territories. This shows just how little public arts funding impacts federal discretionary spending, an illuminating find when considering how much state and local support matters to the continuation of the arts.
In Ohio, about half of public arts funding goes to cities, and the other half to rural areas. Arts organizations in small towns and villages suffer the most from budget cuts, as they don’t receive nearly as much tourism as urban areas. Many of Ohio’s districts are rural, which makes advocacy for public arts funding even more important.
Gerrymandering remains the greatest obstacle to public arts funding on the part of public officials, whereas taxes are the greatest barrier for citizens. Public officials, in hopes of maintaining their reputations or positions in office, publicly demonstrate a negativity toward the arts regardless of their personal views.
“If you ask the public if they support public funding for the arts, the answer is overwhelmingly yes,” Behrendt said. “If you ask the public if they would pay higher taxes in support of the arts, the answer is not always the same.”
Advocacy can help solve these problems. If the public understands that taxes support organizations and events that they enjoy and take part in all year, the idea of paying a little more may seem less daunting for some. Additionally, if public officials see how important the arts are to the people of their district, they will work to support the arts and to increase public funding for the arts.
What can people do to advocate for the arts? Behrendt stressed the importance of voting for arts funding.
“The easiest thing you can do to be an advocate is to vote,” he said, and reminded the audience that advocacy is a never-ending position. To be a continuous advocate, you can form relationships with public officials and share your connection to the arts through a phone call or social media. Simply telling officials that you want support for the arts is vital advocacy.
For those interested in arts advocacy events in Ohio, Behrendt mentioned National Arts Advocacy Day and Ohio Arts Day. National Arts Advocacy Day, running March 4–5, 2019, will prepare Ohioans for arts lobbying and advocacy. The first day will be spent teaching people how to talk to politicians and the general public about arts funding. On the second day, individuals will travel to Capitol Hill, where arts advocates from across the country will be talking to individuals about funding and trying to gain support for the arts. Ohio Arts Advocacy Day, which will be celebrated May 15, 2019, connects Ohioans to representatives and other key individuals that work to bring in more funding for the arts.
Behrendt’s talk was organized by Director of the Office of Conservatory Professional Development Dana Jessen. When asked about arts advocacy, she highlighted the universal aspect of the arts.
“I believe it is important to bring this topic to Oberlin because public funding for the arts is something that every artist on campus will encounter in one way or another,” she said.
For more information on Ohio Citizens for the Arts, The Ohio Citizens for the Arts Foundation, National Arts Advocacy Day, or Ohio Arts Day, go to www.ohiocitizensforthearts.org or contact Bill Behrendt at [email protected]