Arts Advocacy at the U.S. Capitol with Sotheby’s Institute of Art
Advocacy. When I opened Gallery 38 with a colleague in the West Adams section of Los Angeles, the goal was to make sure to provide a safe space for artists and a way to engage our new community in the appreciation of contemporary art and its participants. The idea was a large task, but we felt up to the job and also a responsibility; to the artists who deserved to have their visual voices heard and the underserved communities where this engagement with culture seemed relatively absent.
I felt that same energy as we headed into Washington, D.C, in early March to advocate for the arts with a surplus of arts professionals, students, and crusaders on several issues plaguing the arts in our communities and careers. Gathered at the Grand Hyatt Washington, a five-minute walk from Capitol Hill, I entered the conference hall excited to see so many representatives from different states spread across the room and we scurried through to get to our seats which were in the front of the hall. Great for a clear view of the speeches and information presentations but a nightmare for bathroom breaks (ha!).
I didn’t know what to expect leading up to the advocacy day but once we got settled and started it all became clear what the collective mission would be. We opened the first day with facts, figures, and key informative media about new legislation and initiatives alongside role-playing from Americans for the Arts leaders on how to successfully meet with government officials. The program leaders did an amazing job of raising awareness of the issues at hand with our creative economy and how funding and support affect how we encounter everyday life. Becoming more aware, I was able to understand how these proposals would directly influence my efforts in the arts community.
I don’t know if I truly understood how involved the arts were to our local and global economies. One of the most inspiring stats that I noticed was the effect that spending has on communities when there is an art event with $23.44 being spent by locals and $47.57 by non-locals respectively, and this is per event. I immediately thought about the benefit not only to the art space and artists that help curate, promote and stock the exhibitions but to the local food trucks and mom-and-pop stores that depend on the foot traffic of potential patrons.
I became aware of new ordinances and briefs proposed as well, with a few directly associating with the mission I undertook when I started my creative business. One that I became very fond of was the Comprehensive Resources for Entrepreneurs in the Arts to Transform the Economy (CREATE) Act which pledged to “invest in the country’s workforce and creative economy; to recognize artists, entrepreneurs, and non-profit organizations as contributors to the small business economy.” I was extremely interested in this legislation because of the measure to increase technical assistance to artists and development tools and “incubators” in the form of grant programs that support the creative economy. This is extremely important because it encourages innovation, leadership, and entrepreneurship along with the opportunity for the “little guy” to run businesses that improve the welfare of its local creative community.
As we began to take in all the information from the first sessions of the morning and break for lunch, I found out that we were but a short walk from the National Portrait Gallery and the newly painted and installed portraits of former President Barack Obama and his wife, First Lady Michelle Obama. Two of the countries biggest advocates for change, I was inspired beyond belief to see these works illuminated in the space and so did countless other visitors. Standing in front of the portrait of (Barack) Obama you are taken aback by the flourishment of life, color, growth, and leadership radiating throughout the work. I felt as if it was my duty to be there (Arts Advocacy Day) and that President (Barack) Obama would be as proud of me as I am of him for taking charge and advocating for others. We headed back to the Grand Hyatt full of excitement and tons of “wow’s” as we got prepared for the second half of our advocacy preparations.
We broke into smaller groups to get a deeper insight into more specific issues regarding the arts in our society. I chose the panels on “Protecting the Arts in Higher Education”, “Strengthening the Creative Economy through the CREATE Act” and “Views from Student Leaders” where we got to hear from high school ambassadors lending their voices to keep arts a major part of the education experience. One of the speakers, Margo Drakos, Founder and CEO of Artist Year spoke of her program that enabled inner-city students to take part in a recreation of the play “Dreamgirls” and the impact that performance arts had on the students and the community. This program was employed at South Philadelphia High School in the City of Brotherly Love, my hometown, and I immediately felt connected because of my familiarity with her program’s audience because I was once one of them. I was able to connect with Margo during and after the event (via email) in hopes of learning from her strategies and incorporating some of the proven techniques in my approach.
As the first day came to a close we got together with our delegation to prepare for the Kickoff of Advocacy Day and our meetings on Capitol Hill. I was informed that I was part of the group that would visit Senators Diane Feinstein and Kamala Harris to gain their support for our asks. I am a huge fan of Sen. Harris and her campaign and was ecstatic that I was going to be able to visit her office. I returned to my hotel with a mini script that I repeated all night long just so that I could look like a pro when I stepped on The Hill.
We arrived the next morning at the Russell Senate Building to a long line of lobbyists ready to kickoff advocacy day in full force. Braving the wind and morning chill, we awaited our entry to the main hall where speeches congressmen and women spilled through the opening doors of the 3rd-floor conference room. I hurried inside just in time for the speech of National Endowment of the Arts Chair Jane Chu who gave a big-hearted welcome and speech that stimulated the crowd. As I listened to the speeches of Chairman Chu and other members of congress they reiterated the polarizing figure of $764 billion generated by the arts in our country. In the words of our current Commander in Chief just a few blocks down “Billions and Billions!”
As the speeches drew to a close we gathered into the hall to find a space to rehearse our push for the Senators and their staff’s support of our asks. We headed to Sen. Feinstein’s office first in the Hart Building which was adjacent to where we were. Nervous and trying to be punctual we hurried over to the office building to rejoin with our cohort just in time to meet with Andrew Fuentes, one of the Senators aides. Andrew was very receptive, aware, and inviting of our stories and concerns and very knowledgeable about the requests for support and where the Senator stood on the issues. His responsiveness cured tons of the anxiety that we felt being newbies on Capitol Hill and allowed us to fully deliver our pitches for assistance from his office. With everyone on a strict schedule, we promptly took a group photo thanked Andrew and the office of Sen. Feinstein for their time, and headed downstairs to our next appointment.
As we arrived downstairs at Sen. Harris’ office we discovered her “Dreamers Welcomed Here” sign at her door. Being a person who believes that anything is possible, I thought that to be a fitting welcome. We were welcomed by Lisbeth Alvarez who lived in our district in Los Angeles and was familiar with some of the public works that I took part in in the community. Talk about an ice breaker! She immediately understood our concerns and knew first hand how the correct legislation could truly impact the communities we were representing. We talked about the state (CA) being a leader in the creative economy and how the support for funding programs by our congressmen and women will allow us to continue our leadership in this regard. This time around we were more confident and able to expand on our delivery and turn it into a friendly conversation about the betterment of our overall communities which is always a win.
We ended our meeting with a photo, an exchange of information and countless thank you’s, and a promise to share information with the office to help improve their awareness of this that is happening on the ground. Still full of energy and excitement from the meetings and with a little time to kill before I headed back to Philadelphia, I decided to trek down to see the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial as I always seem to miss it when I am in Washington. Upon arrival, the placement, the size, the silence, and the visual of the sculpture overwhelm you and transport you to a place of serenity. You immediately replay speeches in your head before you realize you’re surrounded by the exact words inscribed across the marble. Then it hit me, I finally understood why I wanted to attend the Americans for the Arts Advocacy Day, why I wanted my face seen and voice heard. I thought about how Dr. King advocated for me to have a place in society, and just like the Presidential portrait, it was a reflection of what I ultimately want to be remembered as. Someone who cared.