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From the Executive Director: June’s Big Advocacy Wins: What Went Right?

Posted By TBA Staff, Monday, July 06, 2015
Updated: Tuesday, July 07, 2015

By Brad Erickson

This past month saw important victories for the arts in Sacramento and San Francisco, with Governor Brown signing an allocation of $7.1 million from the state’s general fund for the California Arts Council (up from $1 million just two years ago), and SF’s City Hall allocating an additional $7 million to the arts over the next two years. With arts budgets stuck for so long at both the state and local level, what happened this year that went so right?

On the surface, the advocacy approaches in San Francisco and Sacramento this past year appear very different—but a closer look uncovers shared strategies that led to success.

In San Francisco, the newly-formed Arts for a Better Bay Area (ABBA) created an “Arts Budget Coalition” by convening a large number of artists and arts groups to discuss and debate arts funding. Led by Ebony McKinney and Lex Leifheit, ABBA’s was a broad, inclusive effort that combined “Town Hall”-type meetings, small working groups and widely distributed surveys sent to the SF arts community. ABBA met with the staffs of San Francisco’s arts agencies, the offices of key members of the Board of Supervisors and Mayor Lee—gathering historical data on arts funding and getting a broader picture of the city’s finances and funding priorities. They coordinated a letter and email writing campaign, and lined up speakers to testify at key budget hearings this spring. Months of this work allowed ABBA to build an ambitious and detailed request on appropriations for the San Francisco Arts Commission and Grants for the Arts, complete with specific line-item recommendations on budget allocations. ABBA’s approach: a coordinated, grassroots effort that encouraged a broad range of input, then distilled the community conversations into succinct policy recommendations.

At the state level, this year’s advocacy initiative was almost entirely behind the scenes, focusing entirely on the budget process, as in San Francisco, rather than legislation, as had been the case in past years. The sister advocacy groups Californians for the Arts and California Arts Advocates (CAA) opted not to engage in a massive grassroots campaign, focusing instead on letters from key arts leaders; select testimony at a handful of budget hearings; an upbeat “Arts Advocacy Day” event with 200 advocates visiting legislators at the Capitol and constant suasion from CAA’s lobbying firm, which met regularly with pivotal lawmakers and the governor’s office. The result: substantial increases to the appropriation for the California Arts Council (CAC) for the third year in a row, replacing the $1 million allocation that had been in place for more than a decade with a new “baseline” allocation of $7 million from the state’s general fund.

At first glance, it may seem like San Francisco advocates took a grassroots approach, while the statewide advocates in Sacramento opted for what Americans for the Arts likes to call a “grasstops” strategy. Actually, the behind-the-scenes initiative taken this year by advocates at the state level followed an aggressive grassroots campaign in 2004 that featured hundreds of letters, thousands of emails and even more telephone calls to Sacramento lawmakers—so many that state legislators begged for the action to stop. That grassroots blitz—along with savvy persuasion from well-connected insiders—led to last year’s breakthrough in arts funding: a 500% increase to the CAC from the state’s general fund, and a strong sense among Sacramento policy makers that more needed to be done.

Characteristic of both the San Francisco and Sacramento initiatives was an uncharacteristic (for the arts) unity of message. For years, arts advocacy in San Francisco and California has been riven with a multiplicity of messages and messengers that have been not just distinct, but too often contradictory—and even outright hostile.

This year in San Francisco and the past two years in Sacramento have been different. There was a strong determination among advocacy leaders to speak with one voice. Differences were discussed and debated within advocacy circles—not in front of lawmakers. Compromises were hashed out, agency and legislative staffs were consulted privately, and when it came time to go public, the speakers from all vantage points sang from the same song sheet. The results are clear: big wins at both city and state levels.

Other factors contributed to June’s victories: friendly lawmakers who took bold leadership positions and were not afraid to expend political capital; good economic times that made it possible to open wider the public purse; and years of advocacy and education that laid a firm foundation of relationships and case-making upon which this year’s campaigns could build.

Despite the significance of June’s big wins, there is far more to achieve. California still ranks towards the bottom of all 50 states in terms of per capita investment in the arts—at 25 cents per person, far below the national median of one dollar. In San Francisco, the ABBA coalition had requested $8 million in additional arts funding for this year; what it got was $7 million over two years. Beyond Sacramento and San Francisco, there are many other localities that could—and should—be investing so much more: Oakland, San Jose, San Rafael, and so on.

As arts advocates gear up for the 2016 funding campaigns, let’s be clear about one strategy from 2015 to keep in next year’s playbook: work together on the song sheet and learn to sing in unison.

Brad Erickson is executive director of Theatre Bay Area.

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