On the morning of April 17, over 500 artists, arts managers and supporters gathered in the Cannon House Building in Washington, DC. Why did we all happen to meet up within a hundred feet of the steps of the US Capitol? Maybe it was because there were free donuts. Maybe it was because we all love having to empty our pockets for security every few feet. Or maybe it was because Alec Baldwin was going to be there. Maybe it was because Ben Folds, Omar Benson Miller, Clay Walker, and many more celebrities were going to be there. Or maybe it was something bigger than all of us together.
Every year arts advocates from around the country gather in DC for National Arts Advocacy Day (AAD), presented by Americans for the Arts. We spend one full day getting caught up on all of the major developments in the arts world – namely funding levels, arts education breakthroughs, and lots and lots of statistics. We also learn where the arts stand in the political arena because the following morning, we all scatter around Capitol Hill and meet with our respective Congressional leaders and remind them that arts are important and vital to their community, and the nation.
The 2012 AAD was my second time attending this event – and I had just as much fun as I did the first time. The 2011 AAD was my first time ever in DC and at this conference. In 2011 I learned a lot of new material, met a large number of incredible arts leaders, and was able to voice my thoughts on the industry — and have them heard, which is rare sometimes in the arts world. This year, my focus switched. Over the past year between AAD11 & AAD12, I had grown a lot professionally. Things at the Mauldin Cultural Center had gotten extremely busy, and I had added a lot to my “professional plate”. We had over 20,000 people use our facility, hosted over 1,000 classes, events, rentals, and had just launched three new programs beginning in 2012. I had also had a hand in two design projects for my facility (landscaping and building) and had also led the vision for our ‘shorter term update’ to our auditorium space. All of this plus I had joined the board of the SC Arts Alliance (which organizes the SC attendees during our time in DC) and also started the SC Young Professionals Arts Network. So when I talked to people about our arts situation in SC and in Mauldin, I had a lot more under my belt rather than the standard national statistics.
This year I think we (the arts industry as a whole) made a concerted effort to no longer tell Congress to support the arts because they are “pretty”, rather I noticed that 2012 marked the beginning of a new way to think of the arts — as a tool. Do you want to build a better community? Use the arts. Do you want to build better school programs? Use the arts. Do you want create a thriving community? Use the arts. Do you want to create…anything? Use the arts.
This mindset carried itself into my own meetings with Congressional leaders and their staff. I wasn’t telling them that the arts generate billions of dollars in economic impact across the country; instead I told them of how a city of 24,000 has made an effort to create a community identity by using my arts organization as a catalyst for economic development and community enhancement. The argument for the arts was no longer “It is the nation’s way of expression”, it became “If you want innovation, you need creativity, and you use the arts to do that.” This AAD gave me confidence in knowing that the arts industry has awoken from its previous years’ “elitist sleep” and has now recharged itself with proof that the arts aren’t about what’s in the painting, they are about what happens when you look at the painting.