Robert Bush

Robert Bush

If a Local Arts Agency (LAA) doesn’t produce plays or present concerts or mount exhibitions or offer classes, why does a community need an LAA? Why does your LAA need your support?

A fundamental part of an LAA’s role in the community is to increase public access to the arts and work to ensure that everyone in their community or service area enjoys the cultural, civic, economic, and educational benefits of a thriving cultural sector. In 1999, when the LAA community and Americans for the Arts (AFTA) celebrated the 50th Anniversary of the local arts agency movement, access was the theme that ran through our collective vision plan for American communities through 2025, which included the following:

  • Fostering a lifelong continuum of arts creation, arts experiences, participation and education;
  • Bringing cultural equity and equality into existence;
  • Helping the arts bring diverse people together and bridging differences;
  • Enabling people to value the arts by participating at both amateur and professional levels;
  • Ensuring arts diversity is valued and celebrated as an expression of our humanity.

According to AFTA’s most recent study, 58.5 cents of every dollar LAAs receive is returned to the community in the form of grants, programs, public art, and services – so clearly, LAAs are investing in access every day.

If you think about it, each of us was given a point of access in our past that drives our passion for culture today.  It may have been that box of 64 crayons or a piece of chalk and some concrete.  It may have been wading in a creek and catching crayfish or tadpoles. It may have been learning to play the clarinet in middle school band or singing in the school choir. It may even have been digging in the yard and finding a piece of forgotten history or building your own family tree. The point being, without someone providing the first point of access to the power of the arts, sciences or history, we may never have found the joy and enrichment that comes from cultural engagement.

The core mission and programs for an LAA all speak to public access:

  • Operating grants to arts  organizations help cover overhead and program expenses and help keep admission prices affordable;
  • Project grants to grassroots cultural and community organizations provide seed money for new and innovative work, as well as programs in towns and neighborhoods across the community;
  • Grants to artists help with projects or training but also tell artists that they are a valued part of this community and we want them to live and work and create here;
  • Classes help children of all ages, as well as seniors, learn a specific skill or technique in a wide range of artistic disciplines;
  • LAAs provide volunteer and professional training, as well as technical assistance support for artists and cultural organizations, so they can increase their capacity to do their work;
  • LAAs advance arts education through support of field trips, in-school workshops and presentations, teacher training, and curriculum development;
  • LAAs conduct research on the impact of the local cultural community;
  • LAAs help groups preserve and celebrate the unique cultural heritage and traditions of their community; and
  • LAAs recognize and promote excellence and artistic achievement by supporting premier arts institutions and commissioning the creation of new works.

The other great thing about LAAs is their ability to create paths for diverse perspectives, discoveries, and passions. For example, I love the opera and the grand spectacle of Madame Butterfly or Aida, but I also love a community theatre musical production of Gypsy or Jacque Brel.  I love teapots (the most beautiful of sculptural objects), but I also love a child’s drawing on a refrigerator door.  I love jazz and bluegrass, but I also love a Tchaikovsky symphony.  My cultural tastes are diverse because my parents, my teachers, and my community gave me wide-ranging points of cultural access, and my life is certainly fuller and more complete because of their influence.LAAs provide that same range of cultural opportunity to the masses, and in turn, everyone can benefit from experiences that are not curated by an individual or group’s personal taste, but rather by the opportunity and access afforded to have the experience.

An LAA’s vision should articulate our promise to provide access for each residents and visitor of the community it serves. That is the answer to the question. That is why communities need LAAs and that is why they are fundamental to the quality of community life.

However, LAAs cannot expect, nor be expected, to continue to be able to support all of the previously mentioned points of cultural access without coming to grips with the fact that it is getting harder and harder to fund – from both public and private sources – without good data that documents our impact on the communities we serve. Every LAA needs to make collecting data a priority, and participate in key activities that help the entire LAA community, like AFTA’s Arts & Economic Prosperity and Creative Industries research projects.  More importantly, when AFTA and the NEA roll out the 2014 LAA Census, every LAA needs to make it a priority to fill out the survey and turn it in on time!

Ever wonder why our friends in the health/human services and education sectors of the non-profit world get more attention?  It’s because they have the numbers to back up their statements when they stand up as advocates or make requests for more contributions.

LAAs can have that same kind of power and influence if we get smart about collecting and using data.  The first step?  We must keep accurate attendance and participation records and then complete and submit study surveys when prompted. With this first step, we, too, can have good data, which ultimately will give us the ability to do what we all do best – provide more points of invaluable cultural access.

Robert Bush is Americans for the Arts’ 2014 Selina Roberts Ottum Award for arts management. Every year, we honors individuals, organizations, and programs committed to enriching their communities through the arts at our Annual Convention. This week, we are featuring a series of blogs by our award recipients on their projects or an arts policy issue of their choice. Follow the tag Annual Awards 2014

2 Responses to “Access for All – But Make Sure You Have the Facts to Back It Up”

  1. Great post Robert.

    My only comment is that I think the reason “our friends in the health and education sectors get more attention” is not only that their advocates “have the numbers to back up their statements” but that society values health services and education far more than they value the arts. Maybe that reality is a product of their having had, for some time, the numbers to convince society of their value, but I think it goes beyond both the convincing numbers and organized advocacy. The arts are simply not seen as equally important to health services and education. It is a question of prioritizing what is fundamentally most important to people. How do we change that belief? That’s the challenge. I don’t think the numbers by themselves will change the mindset.

    • Robert Bush says:

      Thanks Barry – I agree, our friends have somehow convinced them that they have a ‘preferred’ place but our job is to mobilize the data and voices to make sure arts and culture are seen as their equal. We can’t just depend on your being the lone voice in the ‘wilderness’….we all have a responsibility to speak with both data and the life changing stories we all have experienced through our work in this field.

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