by Byron Woods
United Arts of Raleigh/Wake County
110 South Blount Street
Tuesday, March 8, 12 noon
Durham Arts Council
120 Morris Street
Monday, March 14, 11:30 a.m.
Playmakers Repertory Company
Paul Green Theater, UNC-Chapel Hill
Monday, March 28, 2 p.m.
The moment has occurred repeatedly since the early part of the 2000s, when Arts N.C. executive director Karen Wells and her colleagues began conducting what she calls “Advocacy 101”—hour-long workshops that teach total novices how to coordinate and raise their voices with their elected representatives as citizens who support the arts.
At some point it starts to dawn on her students: It isn’t difficult. And when you’re doing it with others, it’s actually pretty fun. “That’s it?” she chuckles, recalling one such moment in Wilmington: “That’s all there is to it?”
The truth is, arts activism is “not the mountain people think it is,” Wells notes as we speak before a series of free arts advocacy workshops slated in Raleigh, Durham and Chapel Hill in the coming weeks. She’ll conduct two lunchtime workshops, one at United Arts of Raleigh/Wake County on Mar. 8, the other at Durham Arts Council on Mar. 14. On Monday, Mar. 28, she brings Advocacy 101 to Playmakers Repertory Company in Chapel Hill at 2 p.m.
Wells calls arts advocacy “applied common sense, actually. It’s just one person talking or writing to another person about what they believe in, and through that person-to-person contact, you make the effort to persuade that individual to support your beliefs, your values. It’s about expressing a viewpoint in an organized, unified, articulate way. And anybody can do it."
"We just sort of demystify the whole process,” she adds.
Experts—and state legislators themselves—credit such grassroots activism with turning the tide on arts funding in North Carolina in recent years. Indeed, it’s helped make the state one of a handful of success stories in arts funding across the nation over the past decade.
As we reported last May, as state arts agencies across the country experienced an average decline in funding of 4 percent each year from 2001 to 2010, funding for the North Carolina Arts Council actually grew by an annual average of just under 7 percent during the same period.
More significantly, where arts councils across the South saw an average cut of more than 50 percent in funding after the start of the economic recession between 2007 and 2010, a combination of cuts and increases in North Carolina resulted in an average net gain in Arts Council funding of just under 6 percent.
All of that, however, may be about to change. A number of sources fear that arts funding is in jeopardy this year. In addition to the budgetary crisis, Wells cites “a voice within the Republican Party” which took the leadership in the state legislature last November “that would suggest eliminating all non-profit funding. That’s $700 million dollars in the state budget.”
“Arts funding is less than one percent of it—$6.5 million, administered through the Arts Council through the Department of Cultural Resources,” she continues. “It’s the fabric of our arts infrastructure.”
“But if the people who love the arts and have benefited from them don’t speak on behalf of public funding, we can’t win this battle,” she concludes. “It’s an absolute imperative this year that people get involved.”
As it turns out, that isn't all that difficult to do. In her workshops, Wells stresses that advocacy is about opening lines of communication and establishing positive relationships with legislators who, after all, have been sent to represent you.
“We sometimes think that issues are directed by political philosophy or extremist rhetoric. But the real truth of things is that political issues are directed by voters,” Wells says. “When you have extreme points of view in government, it’s because extreme voters have made voices known. But when ordinary citizens in people’s districts tell them what they want and what they should do, that can change. If you have enough of that, everything changes.”
For a complete schedule of Arts Advocacy seminars across North Carolina, check Arts North Carolina's blog, The State of the Arts, here.