Talking To Your Neighbors About Saving The NEA

Margy Waller’s piece about How To Talk About Saving the NEA has been making the rounds these last couple weeks. You should take a look at it if you haven’t already.  Her piece isn’t so much about how to convince your legislator that the NEA is worth saving as much as it is about making the case to your neighbors.  While there is a lot of immediacy about preserving the NEA, Waller’s piece integrates the longer, broader encompassing view that aligns with the agenda of building public will for arts and culture.

She addresses the common objections about supporting the arts: arts are entertainment and a private experience; they are a commodity; they are a passive experience; and a low priority.

The response she proposed advocates for support based on the ripple effect arts have (my emphasis):

A thriving arts sector creates ripple effects of benefits throughout our community, even for those who don’t attend.

These are broad-based benefits that people already believe are real—and that they value:

A vibrant, thriving place: Neighborhoods are livelier, communities are strengthened, tourists and residents are attracted to the area, etc. Note that this goes well beyond the usual dollars-and-cents economic argument and is about creating and sustaining an environment that is memorable and a place where people want to live, visit, and work.
This organizing idea shapes the subsequent conversation in important ways. It moves people away from thinking about private concerns and personal interests (me) and toward thinking about public concerns and communal benefits (we).

Importantly, people who hear this message often shift from thinking of themselves as passive recipients of consumer goods, and begin to see their role as active citizens interested in addressing the public good.

Now obviously, this shift in perception can’t happen in a vacuum. There actually has to be artistic and cultural activity occurring that resonates with people as contributing to the public good.

She notes that “While it’s true that some decision-makers expect to see this economic impact data, our research reveals that it is not persuasive to the public and is not useful to build broad support for public funding.”

She provides a check list to help keep messaging focused. The following is only an excerpt so be sure to check out the whole thing.


✓ Vibrancy/Connectedness: Does the example include benefits that could be seen as examples of vibrancy/vitality or increased connectedness?

✓ Benefits to All: Does the example point out potential benefits to people who are not participating in the specific event?

✓ Behind the scenes: Does the discussion also remind people that this doesn’t happen by accident but requires investment, etc.?

✓ One of Many: When possible, it is helpful to mention additional examples in the discussion, which helps audiences focus on the broader point that a strong arts sector creates a range of benefits.


We can’t say the sky is falling—that undermines our efforts because most people won’t agree with us. We should advocate for good policy on immigration and health care, etc. because these changes could be incredibly devastating to the arts, artists and the communities where they live. It’s not responsible to fight only for the NEA budget in the face of other damaging proposals.

The first point on her check list was “Arts Organization: Are the benefits created by an organization/event/institution that NEA supported?” An important distinction to emphasize if you are talking to people about this is that while many smaller arts organizations, especially in rural locales, may not receive support directly from the NEA, there is a good chance that they do receive a fair amount of funding through their state arts agency, which in turn is strongly supported by the NEA. Since there is likely to be a dearth of private funders, arts organizations in more rural locales potentially have the most to lose even receiving indirect NEA funding.

It can be important to emphasize these indirect relationships to NEA funding because it can be easy to disregard the relevance otherwise.

As someone pointed out to me yesterday, even if you don’t ultimately see a significant impact to your finances, the fact that another organization has to scale back can mean fewer great opportunities for your organization when a group decides not to tour.  Perhaps fewer venues participating in touring means the routing doesn’t work out for your location for a performance or visual arts show. Indirect impacts can have the most significant repercussions but can be the hardest to anticipate.

About Joe Patti

I have been writing Butts in the Seats (BitS) on topics of arts and cultural administration since 2004 (yikes!). Given the ever evolving concerns facing the sector, I have yet to exhaust the available subject matter. In addition to BitS, I am a founding contributor to the ArtsHacker ( website where I focus on topics related to boards, law, governance, policy and practice.

I am also an evangelist for the effort to Build Public Will For Arts and Culture being helmed by Arts Midwest and the Metropolitan Group. (

I am currently the Director of the Grand Opera House in Macon, GA.

Among the things I am most proud are having produced an opera in the Hawaiian language and a dance drama about Hawaii's snow goddess Poli'ahu while working as a Theater Manager in Hawaii. Though there are many more highlights than there is space here to list.


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