In The Know: Gaining Confidence with Arts Advocacy

By Maureen Walsh

October 1, 2011, PUBLISHED BY IN DANCE

As I sat in the back of an almost full, Yerba Buena Center for the Arts Novellus Theater, for the SF Mayoral Arts Forum this past August, I felt a palpable energy and camaraderie. It felt good to be among many artists and art enthusiasts, all of us coming together to be part of the larger conversation.

Before attending (in typical form) I hadn’t done research. I didn’t know the current mayor’s name. I knew none of the candidates, no one’s platform, and nothing of the issues at stake. But being present and just listening for two hours, I felt connected to something valuable.

Here’s a short list of topics I gathered from the forum, filled in with my subsequent and minimal research (a full recap and an overview of the candidates’ platforms can be found at http://sfartsforum.org/mayoral-candidates):

-I deduced that the Hotel Tax has dropped from 8% to 6% in the past two years. Many candidates addressed (and also dismissed) this conundrum, but none seemed to give clarity to the subject or ways to correct the deficit. I later researched the basics of the Hotel Tax: it levies money from local SF hotel bills. That money goes to Grants for the Arts, who in turn re-grants money to smaller local arts organizations and companies. Increasing the percentage that gets re-granted back up to 8% seems insignificant but would have a serious impact on the smaller organizations.

-Many candidates stressed the need to strengthen arts education. Some gave personal anecdotes about their own experiences making and producing documentaries, and theater productions (I was surprised that many had personal experience with large scale creative projects). And other candidates stressed the importance of their own cultural artistic heritage–whether it was sharing the love of the opera across familial generations, or their observation of the creative spark and excitement when their children come home from art classes or music lessons.

-I was caught up on various methods for the revitalization of the central market corridor (a topic I’ve been avidly following for at least a year). Candidates tossed out ideas ranging from commissioning more free, public performance and visual art in this district, to building more artist space/affordable housing, to pulling in private institutions to leverage funding for urban and commercial development. I’ve more recently come to realize this project is not only of local interest, but national as well.

-I was surprised by talk about how to keep tech media companies like Twitter and Zynga in San Francisco. A question was posed to the candidates asking their stance on feeding these companies municipal money as rent subsidy, in hopes that they stay and active part of this city’s corporate flora. I found this topic intriguing: a direct link between two tech-media heavy-hitters and the art culture in this city? I agree that the creative minds at Twitter and Zynga contributes to something truly San Franciscan: the creative side of new media, though I’m still on the fence about funding two thriving companies to stay within our city limits, without a clear path for their revenue to feed back into the arts.

It’s exciting to be in the know about what decisions might be made. Yet there are so many issues and variables to this political equation, the number of ideas and platforms and possibilities became daunting. Which candidate had the best platform? The right answers? Who had charisma and charm? Who seemed most connected with my own visions of a richer civic interest in dance and art? My honest answer is I’m not sure. But even if it’s not perfectly clear who I’ll vote for in November, I now have a more informed position and personal stake in following the candidates, their platforms, and current political issues as they move toward municipal actions.

If there was one starkly clear takeaway from the evening, it’s that I think it’s necessary to promote dance and art in a civic forum. The one instance during this Arts Forum that dance was mentioned (other than the obvious go-to: San Francisco Ballet) was Mayor Lee’s mention of a “monthly dance performances happening in the Rotunda of SF City Hall.” As part of Dancers’ Group–one of the presenting organizations for this series–I happen to know that he is personally invited (along with numerous district supervisors, and other political counterparts) to each month’s performance. I know he’s been to at least one Rotunda performance. I have no idea what he actually thinks of the series, but he’s reminded of it every month, and having dance on the Mayor’s mind is an incredibly good thing.

Leaving the event I was at once glad and also frustrated. I felt excitement that the arts are a vibrant and rich part of this city and its history. The candidates all addressed their dedication to San Francisco’s free-spirited artistic culture, and stressed the importance of sustaining these traditions. Whether or not they’ll actually follow through once the elections are over remains unkown, but I’m joyed and relieved by the importance placed on the arts by all of the candidates. At the same time however, I felt disgruntled by my dance peers. I wished more of the dance community had been present. How else will we ensure that we have a voice as important decisions are being made?

I know many artists, arts advocates, and arts enthusiasts are already spread thin. Their time and energies are put into their craft–as they should be. But staying informed doesn’t have to be a full time job. As I continue to figure out my personal role and interest in arts advocacy, I’ve found some easy ways to stay connected. I credit most of these finds to my good friends, colleagues, and professional peers.

Organizations and resources:
One of the best sources of general information on each of the candidates is at the Bay Citizen. You can read bios, look at their campaign contributions, and link to their websites, Twitter and Facebook. baycitizen.org/data/mayors-race-2011

Three excellent blogs covering SF’s political news:
fogcityjournal.com; sfusualsuspects.com; citireport.com

For general Bay Area coverage:
ibabuzz.com/politics; sanjoseinside.com;
kqed.org/news/bayarea

For more extended, statewide and national coverage, it’s a blessing to have organizations that specialize in arts advocacy resources like California Arts Advocates (californiaartsadvocates.org) The California Arts Council (cac.ca.gov/events), and Americans for the Arts (artsusa.org). Many of these organizations have weekly email updates that you can subscribe to. Read them each week, or skip a few in between. It relieves some of the pressure of staying current by having timely, relevant information sent directly to you.

Curate your own info:
Plug in a few minutes each week, check in with your local political figures. Follow their Twitter feeds or Facebook posts. It’s an easy, bite-sized way to get their updates and platforms. (@MayorEdLee, @DennisHerrera, @JoannaRees, @BevanDufty, @JeffAdachi, @DavidChiu, @AvalosSF. @LelandYee, @MichelaForMayor, @PhilTing, @TonyHallSF) Or follow the race using #sfmayor.

Local blogs (arts related or not) often post fun updates on current political issues. The SFist (sfist.com) and SF Gate (sfgate.com) are examples. Last month they captured a few of the current candidates participation in a school car wash.

Talk with other people. Once every three months plan to have lunch with someone who knows more than you do. It doesn’t have to be a politician, or even someone who works in politics, just a colleague or friend who knows more than you. Pick their brain and get the gist of the current happenings in arts advocacy, politics, or funding news. Tell them what you’re up to also. Sharing goes both ways, so what you learn from them will be reciprocated by whatever your specialty is (this season’s reality TV recap? the newest somatic therapy advice? the best place to get a burger in Papua New Guinea?). Just this week over coffee I swapped my fashion advice for an arts policy blog: createquity.com. It’s my new favorite site for general arts news and creative ideas.

Get your word out there:
If you’re sending marketing materials to funders, family and friends, include politicians on that list. Let them know what you’re up to.

Show up and continue to make noise. These two simple actions continue to ring in my head after attending the forum in August. It’s my own advice to myself as a self described art advocate, art enthusiast, art maker, art doer, and art lover. While listening to their platforms, I wanted to hear them mention dance more often. So I’ve committed myself to doing something each month to continue learning and advocating for the field. That may mean I read a handful of related blog posts, maybe I’ll send the mayor an invite to the local performances I’m in, maybe I’ll show up to more debates and discussions, maybe I’ll write an article.

The SF Mayoral race is in full effect. Election day is quickly approaching–November 8, to be exact. Do you know the issues, platforms, and candidates?


Maureen Walsh lives in San Francisco and enjoys the city’s craziness and wonder. She spends her time dancing, playing, finding funny things on the internet, giggling, baking, working as a Social Media Strategist, learning to play the bass guitar, surfing, and adventuring.

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