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Make Your Voice Heard: How Artists Can Influence Policy and the Political Process

Last Wednesday, Fractured Atlas hosted a conversation with NYC 26th District Councilmember Jimmy Van Bramer, who is also Chair of the NYC Cultural Affairs Committee, at Topaz Arts in Queens NYC.

>see photos

Jimmy Van Bramer at Topaz Arts

The event had a surprisingly fantastic turnout, and Van Bramer stayed an hour late just to answer every question from the overflowing audience of artists.  He was candid, cohesive, informative, and passionate.  He explained how things work and how any of us can influence that process.

I say “surprisingly” because unfortunately, it can be challenging to get almost any audience – let alone artists with demanding schedules – to take time out to learn about the political system and how it affects their life, work, and funding, as well as how they can improve the process.  Absent the theatrics of a presidential campaign or #occupation, the workings of government, especially local, are usually perceived as either impenetrable, irreparable, or ineffective.

Though I generally count myself on the active side of the political spectrum, I learned a lot about how arts funding and initiatives happen on the city level.  This is vital information for all artists, administrators, educators, and even audiences and funders.

Here are some of the takeaways…

Your opinion matters.
Elected officials get their jobs because you put them in office.  Once there, their job is to represent the needs of their district. Every day, they weigh in on multiple issues, initiatives, referenda, and laws, and the constituents they hear from shape the stance they take, from arts funding to public art to special event permits.

Some influence is limited.
While a city official can help pass a referendum in favor of an arts initiative, it can get stopped well before implementation.  For example, our politicians can support arts in education, but the Board of Ed has to usher it through to implementation.

Those that show up affect the dialogue.
What are elected officials and candidates talking about?  The issues you raise.  When people start asking, they have to start answering.  Debates, meetings, hearings - what's talked about there influences the outcome. Squeaky wheel, people.

Elected officials have discretionary funds.
There is money that can be allocated to the arts, or artists, beyond government grants.

Councilmembers affect which areas get which services.
Does it seem like one part of town gets attention and amenities that your neighborhood isn’t getting?  Your councilperson should be fighting for your equal consideration.

Elected officials answer inquiries.
Even when the request is not from someone in their district.  Someone in their office will get back to you.  (My correspondence-filled semester as a congressional intern can back this one up.)

Don’t just attend when you need something.
You’ll be more effective if you are engaged.  Build relationships with your community and its leaders even when it’s not in your personal interest, and when the time comes, your request will be given more consideration.

Ask candidates what their position is on the arts during their campaigns.
How do you stop the endless loop of the same old issues?  Ask new questions.  Press for answers.  Show up to a debate and ask what a candidate’s stance is on the arts, and what they will do to arts funding when push comes to shove.  Hold them accountable.

You should vote.
Okay, so Van Bramer didn’t say this explicitly, but how will we get more arts supporters in office if arts supporters aren’t getting them in?  If you are worried that one vote won’t count, motivate your network – and no one’s more networked than artists.

Events like these are an easy – and fun – way to get involved and make your opinion matter at the local level.  And grassroots efforts can definitely trickle up, so to speak.

Vote. Email your elected official.  Invite them to your show. Ask them for funding. Complain when you don’t get it. Occupy something. Show up at hearings. Donate to your favorite candidate.  Email your network. Follow your elected officials on Twitter.  Read the newspaper. Go to a community board meeting. Run for office.

No matter who you are, you can be active in the political process – we encourage you to find out how influential you just might be.