The Johnson Amendment – It’s Not About Money

The GOP-backed tax plan has made it through the House and the Senate. You’ve heard people praise it, question it, and despise it. The Senate version stands at over 500 pages long, and let’s be real – if you’re reading this, I’m 99% sure you didn’t read the whole thing. Heck I’m 95% sure that 90% of Congress didn’t read it all before passing it, but that’s how legislation works in the country now, so I’m not surprised.


Tucked into the House version, and potentially being put into the Conference Committee Report (which is the compromise between the House and Senate versions) is a clause that repeals the “Johnson Amendment”. This little amendment to the IRS tax code added in 1954 by then Senator Lyndon B. Johnson was never a household name, or even a political topic du jour until in 2016, when President Donald Trump promised to work to repeal the amendment.

For those playing catch up a bit, the Johnson Amendment prevents any organization who files as a 501(c)3 nonprofit organization with the IRS from partaking in electioneering – endorsing candidates, making political contributions, and otherwise engaging in political activity at the risk of losing their tax-exempt status. (Note: nonprofits can engage in limited amounts of lobbying and unlimited amounts of advocacy, but that’s getting into the weeds a bit.)

The repeal of the Johnson Amendment (JA for short in this post) became a polarizing issue due to the hefty support of the evangelical right voting block for then candidate Donald Trump. Supporters of Trump believe that the restrictions placed on their own pastors, preventing their faith leaders from voicing political opinions from the pulpit, not only violated their pastor’s First Amendment rights, but also the rights of the church community from financially supporting those political causes closest to their faith.

But on the other side of the coin, repealing the JA, according to critics, would create a situation where previously nonpartisan organizations would be able to pick sides, and in turn accept politically motivated donations aimed at supporting particular candidates, thus turning churches into political fundraising machines.

I don’t really care which side of the coin you fall on here, but the only thing I want to be sure to get across is this:

It is not about money, it’s about mission.

Let us not forget, the JA applies to all 501(c)3 nonprofits, of which churches representing only a portion. Your local food bank, Meals on Wheels, your after-school program, and even my own employer – they’re all nonprofits that can impacted by this change.

Personally, I’m wholly against repealing the JA, but not because I necessarily line up with the mainstream critics. Rather, for me, it opens the doors for nonprofit organizations to stray away from their mission.

Nonprofits are guided by mission, not profit or politics. Our missions are nonpartisan, and our delivery methods are bipartisan. Or at least they should be.

As a community of nonprofits, and most especially faith based organizations, we should not concern ourselves with who is in power. We should only concern ourselves with implementing our mission – regardless of who is elected.

You want to impact the politics with your mission? Educate every single politician of the impact your work has on the community. Demonstrate need and highlight level of service. Do not sit and complain – find a way to have your mission reach every politician, not just a select few.

To put it another way – if you’re unable to justify your mission with any brand of politician, whether you personally support them or not, is your mission worth justifying? Our missions should inform an individual’s political views, not direct them.

Repealing the Johnson Amendment is a mistake. Plain and simple.



Ten Things in the Arts That Should Die

Y’all. It’s 2017.

I’m just going to be honest. After being in this field for a hot second, there are just some things that I think are impeding our ability, as an industry, to become more self-sustaining, attract new and younger audiences, and make the arts experience much better for the audience and/or consumer. These are ideas, traditions, thoughts – or “institutional traditions” – that have somehow become the “norm” in our industry and create an environment where we value the tradition over the audience experience – our “user interface”.

They are, in my personal opinion, things in our field that I think should die. They should go away. Leave. Bye Felicia.

Are there exceptions? Yes. Are my reasons fool-proof? No. Am I entitled to my opinion? Yes, and so are you.

Let’s talk about 10 of them. In no particular order.

And if you’re asking, “Does this apply to me or my organization? Is he talking about me?” Yes. Yes I am.

1. Predatory Docents

A few years ago, my sister asked me to join her to go see an exhibit at an art museum for one of her classes. Our younger brother came with us. There we were, walking through the museum, analyzing works, talking about them and enjoying them. But we weren’t alone. The entire 90 minutes we were in the museum, a docent followed us like hawks. Ten to fifteen feet behind us at all times, this docent moved when we moved, paced when we paced, and probably breathed at the same rate as us. It was threatening. As an avid arts supporter and museum attendee, I also felt offended. We weren’t sneezing on the paintings, trying to punch the paintings, or trying to draw mustaches on them — we were simply trying to enjoy them. Meanwhile, the experience left a bad taste in my younger siblings’ mouths. While I’m trying to help form them into arts advocates and supporters, this museum gave them the impression that they weren’t “ready” to enjoy the artwork properly, that we required supervision.

I have never returned to that museum, and I never will.

Update: I’ve rightfully been corrected that by “docent” I mean “gallery guard”. Thanks for keeping me in check! I’m leaving the content as-is though, mostly because I just like the term “predatory docent”.

Side note: Another thing that should die? The title “Gallery Guard”.


2. Lack of Late Seating

Right up front, I’ll say there are exceptions to this one – layout of theater space, set impediments, or intense moments that shouldn’t be interrupted, these all are factors that can be excused. 

If you are a venue, and you have the ability to have late seating. Offer it. Sometimes people run late. Sometimes the babysitter gets stuck in traffic and makes everything run off schedule. Sometimes your own venue’s layout is so confusing it takes a newcomer 15 minutes to find the front door. It happens.

I’m looking directly at you, colleges and universities. If you require students taking an intro class to see live theatre, kudos to you. But don’t forget that every student, regardless of their level of interest in theatre, is a future board member, donor, audience member, or elected official. How can we bestow a love for the arts when perhaps the first interaction this student has with a theatre production, ever, is being told, “No, you’re late, we can’t seat you until intermission.” And heaven forbid it’s a one-act and they miss the entire thing and end up having to Spark Note the play for the paper due the next morning.

Are you really helping the field out here? No. Stop.



3. Ticket Fees

Just give me one price and have it include the fee. Life’s easier that way. We all know it costs money to print a ticket. I don’t have to pay a “handling fee” when I an apple at the farmer’s market. I pay $1.00.

Simple enough.

4. Venues Only Open on Show Days

The most ironic complaint I hear in the industry is from venues who say they are having a hard time attracting new audiences and their venue is only open one hour before show time and 30min after.

Well, sometimes I can’t be there at 7:30pm every time you have a show. Sometimes, your season of shows doesn’t intrigue me.

But you know what? If you encouraged people to come work in your lobby during the day, buy a coffee from the concession stand, or even just had the doors unlocked to the lobby and treated your venue like the public space you intended it to be – I’d feel more comfortable in your space and would be more likely to try that new show out, buy that extra ticket, or be sure to tell my friends “Yeah, I was working in the lobby of the Center last week and talked to the Development Director. There’s a wine and cheese reception before the next opening and it’s only $10, want to go?”

Art supporters are not always formed during a performance, they’re formed before they even walk in the door…if it’s open.

5. Software Only Good at One Thing

Why on this great Earth can we not develop a ticketing, donor, email marketing, and finance software solution that integrates in a website of any platform. All-in-one.

Why do I need one software for ticketing, export new ticket buyers as a .csv, upload that file to my email service, process ticket transactions in a batch in my finance software, and then type in my donor records from the gala into my donor software? They are teaching children how to build apps in middle school, guys. We should be able to figure this out.

Side Note: If you want to start a company that does this with me, holler. Because I’m ready.

6. Large Institutions Keeping Quiet on Advocacy

Hey, every household arts organization out there – plus every large institution in any metropolitan area:

Where you at?

Because I saw over 700 arts advocates attending National Arts Advocacy Day this year, fighting for the very kind of funding, tax policy, visa policies, educational policy, and support you have received and continue to seek, but didn’t see one of you around town. The same holds true for local and state advocacy work. Participation by larger institutions is hard to find in some areas.

We need our large, nationally, regionally, and locally recognized institutions to come out and join with their colleagues and speak up for the industry.

It’s time to step up.


7. Organizations Ignoring Community

Dear large performance venue: When’s the last time you featured local musicians on your stage?

Dear small art gallery in an arts district: When’s the last time you invited the resident community around your “up and coming area” to your opening, specifically?

Dear local Household Name organization: When’s the last time you leaned so hard on your mission that your immediate community got to experience something so unexpected, so affordable, and so inclusive that it changed their perspective on you?

When the answer to all of those is “last week”, then you’re on to something.


8. Beginner Art Classes That Cost More Than Rent

Read like Jeff Foxworthy: If your 4-week art class costs more than the rent surrounding your art center, you might be gentrifying your community.

Two points here. One, the line above is serious. How can you be exposing people to art when they simply can’t afford your beginner level course? I know, it can expensive to provide supplies to those who have none to start with. I know, people need to get paid. But take the long-view on your classes. If someone has to spend an entire month’s rent on an intro-level painting class, how can you expect a repeat customer? Or, gut check, are you even creating this art class for the person who’s rent is the same as your class fee? Do you want that person’s business, and passion?

Second, why are beginner level classes so expensive to start? If we want to create life-long supporters, learners, and creators, then we need to seriously evaluate what it means to be a beginner. Maybe it’s not the 6-week course, maybe it’s 2 weeks. There isn’t one perfect answer. But all I know is that there is a gap in the arts market for affordable and approachable intro classes in all art forms.


9. Not Posting Salary Ranges for Open Jobs

Just put the salary range up there. If you’re embarrassed by the number, then you may need to address why you’re embarrassed – or just own it! If you’re not embarrassed by it, then you should be proud of it.

And let’s admit it, we all need to make money. Why waste the applicant’s time and your time by not stating the first reason the applicant even sent an email — everyone needs a pay day.

Be honest to yourself, and to the applicants of the world. Post the salary.

10. Not Teaching Any Business to Arts Majors

Every arts discipline major – even at a conservatory – should be required to take at least one class in arts management, or a similar field. Required.

Let’s better prepare artists to be the entrepreneurs they will need to be, and let’s prepare them to understand the marketplace in which they will have to exist upon graduation.

Being an artist is being a business.

America the Creative

This post appeared in the March 28, 2017 Greenville News as a Guest Column. It was originally written for the SC Arts Alliance and is also available on their website.

America the Creative.

AAD photo

This past Tuesday, our executive director, GP McLeer, led a team of eleven advocates from across South Carolina to Washington DC to join over 700 arts supporters from around the country for National Arts Advocacy Day. The annual event, organized by Americans for the Arts, puts arts advocates in front of members of Congress to ensure that the arts have a voice on Capitol Hill and to support the support of the arts through public policy and funding.

The timing of the event could not have been more appropriate. On March 16, President Trump released a blueprint for his executive budget for FY2018, calling for the elimination of, among other cultural agencies, the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA). While the President’s proposal is just that, a proposal, the appropriation process in both the House and Senate is set to begin in the coming days and weeks – a marathon that will stretch far into the summer. Additionally, new legislation such as the CREATE Act, the funding and implementation of the Every Student Succeeds Act, and the burgeoning hot topic of tax reform (including charitable deductions), were all up for discussion during Hill visits by arts advocates this year.

For South Carolina, the message to our Congressional leaders was simple: The arts are valued in our communities, in our state, and should continue to be valued in our nation.

Communities of all sizes have been using the arts as a tool for economic development all across South Carolina. For the new hometown of the South Carolina Arts Alliance, Fountain Inn, the continuous public investment in the Younts Center for Performing Arts has been credited as the sole change agent in turning a once almost-vacant Main Street into an economic engine. In rural communities in the SC Promise Zone, like Denmark, SC, community leaders have been working with the South Carolina Arts Commission (funded in part by the NEA) to use the arts to tackle community needs ranging from artistic vibrancy, to health, to literacy. And in large cities such as Charleston, public support of the arts has helped propel the city to be named one of the top tourist destinations in the world year after year.

The state Legislature has for 50 years supported the role the arts play in South Carolina when it created the South Carolina Arts Commission (SCAC). Since then, with broad bipartisan support, our legislators have placed value in the arts by continuing to support the state’s only arts agency. The grants made by the agency in nearly every county in South Carolina help arts organizations and artists make our communities stronger, more vibrant, and more economically successful.

Education in the state benefits when the arts are integrated into the culture and programs of the school day. Through state funding for the Arts in Basic Curriculum Project which helps schools and entire districts plan for the inclusion of the arts in their portfolio, or Read to Succeed Camps which last summer began integrating the arts to help improve reading retention, to grants made to individual teachers to support the purchase of arts materials for students, the arts play a major role in helping us achieve the Profile of the South Carolina Graduate, made law last year by the Legislature and the Governor.

Statewide recruitment of business includes highlighting cultural amenities in a given city or region, helping us secure investments by Michelin, Volvo, and Boeing. In fact, the state of Texas lost the competition to have Boeing’s headquarters in the state to Chicago in the early 2000s because there were not enough cultural facilities near the sites the state looked at. Big companies need vibrant arts scenes to recruit and retain talent. And in South Carolina, we use that to our advantage.

The National Endowment for the Arts, which celebrated its 50th Anniversary in 2015, is currently funded at $148 million. Of all of the funding the NEA receives, 40% of it goes directly to regional and statewide agencies – in our area that includes the SC Arts Commission and South Arts (which covers 9 states). In South Carolina last year, over $1,000,000 in NEA grants made it to our state – at least one grant in every congressional district. $800,000 of that money went to the South Carolina Arts Commission. Those funds are matched by the state, plus some, and then used to support the work and grants of the agency as detailed above.

Funding for the NEA represents just 0.004% of the federal budget. And yet, that small investment yields a 9:1 return of private dollars used to match the grants across the country. The NEA’s original charter legislation stated that one of the agency’s purposes was to stimulate private sector investment – it’s doing its job remarkably well. Over the years, the argument has attempted to be made that with such a small % of the federal budget, why can’t “we” just encourage private philanthropy to fund the arts and cut government funding altogether? That view point has a major flaw – it assumes that private philanthropy is available all over America. Private philanthropy is geographically skewed, with only 5.5% of all private foundation funding reaches rural parts of America. In South Carolina, there is simply not a philanthropic infrastructure in place to support the arts in some of the most rural communities. NEA funding reaches every single congressional district in the country, and help reach over 16,000 communities across the country. Public funding is necessary to ensure Americans have access to quality arts experiences, regardless of where they live.

In addition to the role the NEA directly plays in supporting the arts in America, at the end of the day, a governmental budget, and really any budget, is a statement of values. In America, our economy, our jobs, and our military are perhaps the three highest values we look to invest in. The Bureau of Economic Analysis, the leading authority on analyzing the country’s economic well-being, maintains an arts and culture satellite account to measure the impact of the sector on the US economy. The latest results are in, and the arts and culture sector has an impact of $730 billion on the US economy, representing 4.2% of US GDP – a higher impact than Transportation and Construction, among other sectors – supporting 4.8 million jobs around the country.

For our returning and wounded veterans, the NEA has supported grants across the country to support programs that use the arts in therapy, provide better access to arts experiences for veterans and their families, and more. The NEA partners with the Department of Defense on Creative Forces to use the arts for rehabilitation services, and with Blue Star Museums to offer free admission to hundreds of museums across the country to veterans, active military, and their families between Memorial Day and Labor Day.

When it comes to jobs, the economy, and our military, investing in the arts are a major part of the equation.

The arts are a fiber that runs throughout our nation’s economy and well-being. They raise achievement in our education system, make our communities more vibrant, treat our military, and strengthen our economy…and all of this for only 0.004% of the federal budget.


Special thanks to the entire South Carolina Team!

Valerie Morris | Dean, School of the Arts, College of Charleston
Susie Surkamer | Executive Director, South Arts
Dr. Stephanie Milling | Head of Dance Education, Dir. of Undergraduate Studies, USC
Scott Shanklin-Peterson | Chair, Engaging Creative Minds
Mary Ellen Millhouse | Charleston Advocate
Al Weinrich | Charleston Advocate
Megan Barbee |  USC Dance Education Major
Christine Smith | USC Dance Education Major
Leigh Ann Davis | USC Dance Education Major
Allie Anderson | USC Dance Education Major
GP McLeer | Executive Director, South Carolina Arts Alliance