Too often the arts sector relies on lobbying politicians when they should be lobbying the public to lobby the politicians.
Wednesday, 12 June, 2013
Monday, 6 May, 2013
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by Michelle Lefevre
Over the last few weeks Arts Council England (ACE) has been pushing the case for arts funding, via reports, press releases and Tweets in almost purely economic terms. The funding monolith even went so far as to create info-graphics that people could share around, via the internet, citing various statistics.
This outpouring of numbers appears to be a response to Culture Secretary Maria Miller's request that the arts need to make a good economic case to avoid further cuts in the up and coming spending review that takes place in late June.
It's not the first time ACE has started firing out lots of large numbers to fend of funding cuts. They did almost exactly the same thing the last time (in 2010) when their funding was under threat and on that occasion they received a 30% hammer blow to their coffers and the cuts have continued ever since.
So if history tells us anything it's that economic arguments when it comes to the arts don't really work, even if the arguments are true. Detractors of Ms Miller have also pointed out that economic reports vouching for the arts as a booster rocket for any economy have been kicking around for decades.
Ms Miller is either ignoring them, doesn't know they exist or simply doesn't care.
The Culture Secretary's speech, delivered at the British Museum in April, confirmed that Ms Miller was somewhat clueless about both her job as a government minister and the portfolio of responsibilities she has in her department.
Time and again the coalition government in the UK has demonstrated that facts are not something they are all that interested in hearing. Although a lot of arguments made by ACE in favour of the arts, in public at least, are pretty weak sauce you can't really blame them for the craven nature of the current crop of incumbents in Westminster.
Power of the People
You can be certain about one thing when it comes to politicians though. What they care about more than anything else is getting re-elected and to do that they need votes.
One of ACE's statistics, embedded below, claims that an astonishing 89,000,000 people (approximately) attended some form of performance or event given by an NPO company. That's about 20,000,000 more people than actually live in the UK. The stat probably means the number of attendees at all the NPO events but even if the number is only 50% accurate that would be a lot of fire power to throw at the politicians.
The number isn't the fire power though, it's the people that attend the events.
Arts Council England and the culture industry in general need to actively encourage the people who show up at their events to lobby their local MP's and councillors about arts funding.
Asking people to argue with politicians about "percentage contribution to national gross domestic product" is probably not a good idea. Getting them make a far simpler points such as;
"You know the local art gallery? Well I quite like it and visit it all the time. It's publicly funded so if it closes because of cuts, I'm voting for somebody else!"
It's a simple message but one that will certainly start a conversation with politicians and get their attention if enough people actually do it.
Wood For The Trees
How do you get people to lobby their MP to substantively support the arts? Well, you could try asking them!
At a recent performance in Leeds the AD of bgroup, Ben Wright, made a very short speech prior to the company's performance of 'Just As We Are'. Mr Wright simply asked all of those in attendance to fill out the forms that had been left on their seats which would not only help the company with ACE it would also help the Riley Theatre to secure future funding to bring new work to the venue.
He used no statistics, no mention of GDP, no convoluted esoteric arguments. Asking nicely was all it took and people responded in-kind.
On a wider scale the approach is almost as simple. First of all you have to actually let people know that the work you are presenting to them is publicly funded. Not funded by "the government" but publicly funded. Governments don't have any money, it's all your money. An ACE logo on the back of a leaflet isn't enough though, you have to try harder than that.
Then you have to let people know that the gallery, the company, or whatever it is, might be in jeopardy because of irrational cuts being made to national and local budgets. Again, keep the explanation simple, if they like the thing they are seeing or the thing they are doing and they want it to continue then the funding has to continue.
Finally you have to let them know who to contact so they can actually do a bit of activism on your behalf. Things get tricky here because local MP's and councillors are dependant on where the visitor to your venue is from and that is not necessarily going to be the same as where the venue or a particular company is located.
Fortunately the internets spring to the rescue here with websites like Writetothem.com and Theyworkforyou.com. Write To Them in particular makes it very easy to find out who your local MP is, who your local councillors are and even who your local MEP's are. They also make it very easy for people to contact them via the website.
If you're not a bricks and mortar venue (like a dance company for example) then use your website, your Twitter feeds, Facebook pages and your performances to let people know what's going on, where your funding comes from, why it needs to continue and who your audience can contact to voice their views.
The most important advocacy method however is direct engagement, actually talk to people who come to your show and encourage them to get politically involved in helping your company.
Climbing The Mountain
One of Arts Council England's info-graphics with a slightly dubious claim
Now, we know what you're thinking. Persuading people to lobby their local politicians about arts funding, that's going to be kinda hard, right?
Yes, it probably is. But think about how much time you spend trying to get feedback through paper forms, voxpops, Twitter and Facebook. Also, consider the herculean task involved in trying to replace public funding with private sponsorship. A task with a 95%-99% probability of failure.
If you have the confidence to ask people for money, asking them to contact an MP should be easy. Also, just because you do one thing doesn't mean you can't do the other things.
Currently, no dance company we know of actively encourages people to lobby their MP's and councillors in favour of the arts. Everybody is so focused on the people that don't listen (government ministers) they've forgotten about the people with the real power, the voters.
If ACE's numbers are correct there is a massive army of people out there who come along to arts events and, presumably, would like to continue to do so. If you want to lobby someone for support then lobby them because they have something far more powerful than a ministerial position in government.
They have the power to throw those people out of office.