Advocating for the Arts
At a time when there’s so much need, how can we best advocate for the arts and make changes that last? For two leading advocates, Emily Ruddock and Michelle Ramos, the answer is to start by showing up for others first.
About The Guests
Dr. Michelle Ramos
Executive Director, Alternate ROOTS
Dr. Michelle Ramos, Executive Director brings a diversity of experience to her role as Executive Director of Alternate ROOTS, and founder of Ramos Coaching. Her most recent experience includes working in criminal justice reform at the Vera Institute of Justice, philanthropic work as Program Officer for Women’s Foundation of California, and service organization leadership on the boards of Dance/USA and Performing Arts Alliance. A licensed attorney with a PhD in Psychology, she has significant organizing experience and has committed her career to serve communities and individuals adversely impacted by issues of race, gender, disability, class, socioeconomics, inequitable laws and systemic oppression. She has consulted for over 20 years nationally. She is the proud mother of Broadway choreographer, Ellenore Scott, and since retiring from her own dance career, Ramos has continued to teach ballet locally, performs with Ritmeaux Krewe, (New Orleans first Latinx Mardi Gras Krewe) is a competitive triathlete and Ironman finisher, and enjoys her Southern New Orleans lifestyle.
Executive Director, MASSCreative
Emily Ruddock is the Executive Director of MASSCreative, a state-wide arts and cultural advocacy organization in Massachusetts. Throughout her career Ruddock has worked to unite artists and communities for meaningful connection, understanding, and change. Ruddock serves on the Board of Directors for the Massachusetts Nonprofit Network. In her personal time, Ruddock is a potter who loves making original ceramic art and functional ware for her home, her family and her friends. She holds a Masters in Public Administration from the Maxwell School at Syracuse University and a Bachelor’s Degree in Critical Social Thought from Mount Holyoke College.
Marianne Combs: Welcome to Filling The Well, a podcast created to nourish, provoke and inspire artists and arts leaders. I’m Marianne Combs. Arts and cultural organizations have to regularly make the case for funding, whether it’s to individual donors, private foundations, or legislators. The distribution of arts funding in the US is similar to the distribution of private wealth. That is a very small percentage of cultural institutions receive the vast majority of available funds. A 2017 study found that just 2% of arts organizations receive 58% of all contributed income. That same study found that smaller arts organizations were being left with an ever-smaller portion of funds. Healthy consistent funding is key to sustainability, so how can arts organizations work together to advocate for better support across the sector? And how can arts organizations of all sizes make themselves indispensable to their communities? Joining me for this conversation are two long-time advocates for the arts. Michelle Ramos is the executive director of Alternate Roots, a coalition of cultural workers based in the southern United States. She joins us from New Orleans. Michelle, welcome.
Michelle Ramos: Thank you, good to be here.
Marianne Combs: Emily Ruddock is the executive director of MASSCreative, which advocates for support for the creative community in Massachusetts. She joins us from Boston. Emily, welcome.
Emily Ruddock: Thanks so much. Good to be here as well.
Marianne Combs: First to you, Michelle Ramos. Has the pandemic helped make the case for supporting the arts?
Michelle Ramos: That’s a really loaded and fantastic question. [chuckle] I think that the pandemic has definitely reflected the power of the arts, in a very positive way. I do believe that there was a lot of advocacy that was initiated and amplified through the pandemic for the arts. If you just take a look at what happened through all of 2020 and well into 2021, so many people got through the pandemic because of the arts. Folks were sitting at home watching Broadway on their laptops and enjoying movies on Netflix and listening to music, watching some of their favorite musicians streaming from various locations. So I think that the value of the arts, which those of us that are in it have always known was there, just really became amplified in the pandemic. Because I challenge anyone who went through that pandemic to imagine it without any of the arts or entertainment that engaged them throughout. And I think that folks started to realize the value and the importance through that experience. Good, bad, or ugly. [chuckle]
Marianne Combs: What about you, Emily, how do you feel that the pandemic has affected the way we think of the arts in terms of its value to us?
Emily Ruddock: I think that, to echo what Michelle said, I think that there’s a really strong message of, we would not have made it through the pandemic without the connective power of the arts to combat the isolation many of us felt, to get us through rougher moments. And I also think that there’s been, in Massachusetts for example, a number of instances where artists and creative and cultural organizations have really, in some ways, pivoted their delivery of arts to meet the moment. So a great example is in Springfield, Massachusetts, the Community Music School of Springfield and the Springfield Cultural Partnership started the Trust Transfer Project, where they commissioned Black and Latinx artists to create pieces of work across mediums, to amplify public health messaging and to encourage frankly honest conversations about vaccines. And so I think that’s one of a couple of examples that I can think of, about it’s not just that we’re like, “Oh, it’s great to have it on Netflix,” but we’re also seeing real impact in our communities around specific need.
Marianne Combs: Emily, there have been numerous studies as to the economic value of the arts, and it feels like every couple of years when there’s a legislative session people bring out this study of like, “Look, it’s not just about the ticket sales, it’s like people hire babysitters and then they’re paying for parking and then they’re going out for a restaurant, it’s really great for the economy.” Is that the best argument or the most effective argument to make for the arts?
Emily Ruddock: I think it’s part of it, and I think it depends on who you’re talking to, to be honest. I think that in my work, elected decision-makers wanna talk about the numbers. They are making, every day, difficult decisions about how to allocate dollars, and they’re trying to think about how to stretch those dollars as much as possible, and so that economic piece certainly matters. But I think when we’re in the field, or when we’re with people who care about the arts or looking to increase engagement and advocacy with people who care about the arts, that’s not the thing that’s gonna get people out of their seats and writing to their legislators or picking up the phone and talking to their staff, it is that heart and that connection piece. I would also say that it’s frustratingly funny to me that no matter how many economic studies we put in front of lawmakers, their initial response is, “That can’t possibly be true.” And so we will continue to show them that data, but it often helps when we put an actual personal touch on that. And I think one of the pieces here too, is that it’s not just the amount of dollars that the sector generates, it’s the people who work in the sector that are constituents who make up their communities and neighborhoods, that really, in many cases, found themselves summarily out of work very quickly, that became the best ambassadors and storytellers to advocate.
Marianne Combs: Michelle, you have talked about this I think pretty eloquently, the notion that we tend to think of artists as separate from the community, not as of the community. And in the south certainly you’ve had several experiences, in New Orleans with hurricanes, where the artists were not just the arts, but they’re your constituents that you’re trying to serve as well. How does that play out when you’re trying to argue for support for the arts?
Michelle Ramos: Yeah, absolutely, thank you for that question. Yeah, I think that there is sort of this ridiculousness in the bifurcated idea of who the artist is, right? Like, artists live in this world and do this work and yet somehow we lose their humanity and all of that. Since I have been in the south for the past seven years, I’ve not witnessed more of a clear connection that has always been present but I think is just palpable because of everything that we are going through right now as a country, everything we are going through with our humanitarian crises, and in our collective consciousness around all the isms that we’re dealing with right now. And so I feel strongly that any time that I’m advocating for an artist, it’s almost like I have to remind people, like, these are human beings with families and lives and bills to pay and child care that they need taken care of.
Like, they are human beings who are in your community living and working amongst you, and there is no reason why they don’t deserve the support and the attention, and the funding frankly, that all these other sectors are receiving. And it’s just always been such a strange thing to me, I’m like, “I don’t quite understand,” but it’s like I think one of the challenges is we so often, especially in this country, frame arts as the higher arts. And so because of that framing, I think that buys into this idea that somehow artists are on this pedestal and they are all wealthy and they’re all living well and they’re all living in the [0:08:16.2] ____, right? [chuckle] Which is absolutely ridiculous. Like, some of the best arts in the country are coming from my region, are coming from the south. During the pandemic, it was those musicians that literally a block away from me came out every Monday and Thursday and played on the corner, with the neighbors pulling their patio chairs up, to get through just the insane time that we were in, right? But they live there, on my corner, they are people. And so I think that message is super, super important, and I think it’s one that is lost so oftentimes because of how we… Not even ourselves, but often our society defines what an artist is, what they look like and how they show up in space.
Marianne Combs: And, Michelle, you work with numerous artists and cultural organizations based in the southern United States, which I understand on a whole receive a paltry amount of arts funding compared to the rest of the nation.
Michelle Ramos: That is absolutely accurate. I think that that reflects the disparity, because not only is that disparity related to geographic, but because of how geographic demographics break down, it also means less is coming to predominantly black and brown organizations as well.
Marianne Combs: What have you been able to achieve by uniting forces with Alternate Roots, by bringing all these organizations and artists together?
Michelle Ramos: Well, I mean, just the network of Roots in and of itself is a powerhouse, right? Our ability to be able to network across all of our states, across all of our cities, across all of our arts disciplines, it’s just a tapestry of beautiful artistry advocacy. But then you pair that with the other advocacy, which by the way has been happening here in the south for a long time, I feel like folks are talking about arts partnering with social justice initiatives and programs in health care and I’m like, “Y’all, that’s been going on [chuckle] a real long time, this is nothing new.” But I think that because of how embedded artists are in community here, in the south, I think there is sort of just this organic way in which, when the crisis happened, those relationships were just immediate, right? Like, trust is built at the speed of relationship. And so for us to partner with our sister organizations, it was a no-brainer. We were like, “Yeah, absolutely, of course.” We know none of that money, none of that crisis money, is coming our way, so we need to figure out how to fend for ourselves and come together to figure out how we get some funding to our folks who were so so in need.
Marianne Combs: Emily, how do you effectively communicate the importance of the arts to communities and legislators? How do you take the work of Alternate Roots and these other arts organizations and say, “Hey, we need more funding?”
Emily Ruddock: Right, that’s a great question. And just to note, so our sphere of work at MASSCreative is largely focused on Massachusetts, but we do certainly unite on federal advocacy conversations and certainly look to Alternate Roots and Michelle as partners and leaders in that work. We are also doing a deep dive into this conversation about the equitable distribution and allocation of funding of public funds, right? And we’re also seeing some inconsistencies in Massachusetts. And I think one of the things that we are always talking about is this notion that the person next to you is probably an artist, is a real thing. And early on in the pandemic there was an article that was written by an arts journalist, and the question he posed was, “Why aren’t artists and the arts better at advocating for themselves?” And I obviously took some umbridge to that.
My response was, “Oh, we are. We are advocating all the time, but the way that our work shows up in the space, in the civic and public playing field, makes it really hard to tease it out as this isolated thing,” So when we walk through our built environment, there are the fingerprints of artists and creatives and designers all over the place. When we think about our main streets or our downtowns, they are animated by the work of artists and by creatives, and frankly by cultures, and celebration of culture. But it’s easy to take that for granted. And so that’s one of the things that we often talk about is, our work is about coming together and reminding elected officials not to take that work for granted. And that’s one of the things that we’ve talked about when we’ve talked about that economic argument, or we’ve talked about the connection argument, is that these are things that don’t just happen by accident, they take public investment, and right now we’re in trouble. And so if you want to see the things that you expect to see in your district, in your neighborhood, in your city, in your town, you need to invest in them now.
Not later when they have started to decay or fall apart. I often talk about the arts and cultural ecology of Massachusetts, and this idea that in any ecology, if a piece of it starts to be damaged, the whole ecology suffers. And that’s true when we’re talking about the equitable distribution of public funds for the arts, and why it’s important that we have organizations across budget size, we have artists that are creating across disciplines and across mediums and practice. Just one of those is not enough to realize the benefits that we all want to have from a vibrant creative community.
Marianne Combs: I’m hearing some conflicting things. One is that when artists and arts organizations make themselves essential, they’re often weaving themselves into things like health care, quality of life, and public spaces, things like that, but also that that in turn works against them in standing out and being like, “No, no, no, fund the arts.” Because in that case, it might be better to say, “Look who I am, standing out alone here, we are artists, we do this work,” to distinguish themselves from everything else that’s going on, otherwise they get sort of lost in the shuffle. I mean, it feels like it’s a pro and a con to ally yourself with other community sectors. On the one hand, you’re helping, you’re making yourself essential in these ways, and the other hand, you might not stand out for your singular work as much. Does that make sense?
Emily Ruddock: A little bit. I think I would actually draw from Michelle’s example of, at the start of the pandemic, and how there were relationships that were built over time that allowed for a more intersectional advocacy effort. And I think that’s probably the place where we all need to kind of arrive at, is this, “Yes, I’m not gonna stop making art and culture my number one advocacy conversation,” but I as an advocacy leader in Massachusetts have a responsibility to show up for other issues and sectors that affect the community that I’m serving. So transportation is an arts issue, housing is an arts issue, right? And I think the more that we show up for those pieces that matter to our communities, the more our community does show up for us. And I think we kind of… That’s a way to combat this sort of othering that happens for creative workers and artists.
Marianne Combs: Yeah, no, you were talking earlier about the high art, and I think we think of the high arts, we think of ballet and opera and classical music and some of the major theatre companies around the United States. We don’t necessarily think of them in association with housing issues or with transportation issues. So talk a little bit more about how arts institutions can make themselves essential to the community in these other sectors and in these other ways.
Michelle Ramos: I’m happy to jump in on that.
Marianne Combs: Great.
Michelle Ramos: I do think that, even before the pandemic, I would offer that a lot of the higher arts institutions, and I’m just using that word ‘cause it’s used not ‘cause I believe in it or support it, but it just is an easier way to kind of bifurcate. I think we were already seeing the higher arts having to do some self-exploration and take a deep, deep look internally. Because as our world is shifting, as our country is shifting, their traditional way of doing their art form, that is for those ones you’ve named very Eurocentric, starting to become obsolete to audiences. They were already struggling with how are we keeping audiences engaged, how are we sifting our decision-making around our curation of our artistry so it speaks to a community that no longer looks like a community we used to serve.
So I think that conversation was already starting to happen and people were struggling with that in these higher arts sector fields, and then pandemic hits. And so what usually happens with crisis is, of course, there’s a ton of advocacy, and as usual all that money goes to that particular sector, and then the rest of the sectors just kinda like fighting for scraps to get what’s left over. But what I think has kind of unintentionally but very organically manifested, is that realization that, “Oh, wait, there’s all these other organizations, like Alternate Roots, like organizations from the south and in the Midwest who have been doing work in community and know how to engage authentically with community, and we don’t know how to do that. [chuckle] So we need to figure out and try to learn from them how we start to look a little bit more like them and a little bit less like who we used to be, because that is no longer serving us.” And it will serve for a particular period of time, but with the shifts that are happening demographically, it’s an obsoleting proposition, it’s just not going to work on a long-term basis. So I almost feel like the conversation started before it even started… Was forced to start with the pandemic.
Marianne Combs: It sounds like both of you are saying that there needs to be a more equitable distribution of funds across the arts. How might that happen? And I’m trying to imagine the people sitting in their large cultural institutions being told, “You guys are getting too much, we need to spread this out amongst the others more fairly.” And how does that work? How do you bring on the major arts institutions and cultural institutions as your allies in this fight for a more equitable distribution of funding?
Emily Ruddock: Yeah, this is Emily. I think actually, Marianne, what I’d like to do is push back on that question a little bit, right?
Marianne Combs: Sure.
Emily Ruddock: Because that’s coming from a place of like, in some ways, scarcity, right? Like, there’s only ever gonna be a zero-sum game, and if I don’t get out there and get mine, then who else is gonna get it for me, and that model, I think along with what Michelle was saying, has really been challenged and is really being challenged within the field of arts advocates that I engage with, there is not this sort of like, yeah, we’ll just try to raise the increase of the dollars and then we don’t care how they get distributed, it’s we wanna look for increased funding and we wanna be participating in how we design those public grant programs that are gonna reach the field, and when I say we, I mean arts advocates, I don’t mean MASSCreative. MASSCreative is not a grant fund… We are not a funder.
And so I think this piece about like, yes, this is change and change is always scary. And I’m mis-quoting about 1000 people in this moment, equity and a realignment can often feel like a loss, sharing power can often feel like a loss, but I think that there are a lot of examples about how that actually isn’t the truth, and how if we actually sort of work towards a more equitable distribution of dollars, that there’s actually we’re able to make the case better for increasing dollars for the arts and cultural sector, right? Like, I have been in rooms with elected officials that have said, “Those guys are fine. They’ve got major donors. They’re gonna be taken care of.” That’s not true. Number one, I’m holding up my finger. And two, that’s not a story that a well-established predominantly white cultural institution can frankly combat, so if we’re actually talking about investing in a variety of artists and practice, that tells a very different story to those lawmakers about who’s benefiting and what it means to their district or their state or their community.
Marianne Combs: Michelle, do you wanna add to that? This notion of abundance versus scarcity, that if we all join together, there’s more money to be had rather than just fighting over the scraps left over from the larger institutions?
Michelle Ramos: Sure. Just pointing out the fact that the world of philanthropy alone, which is the largest funder of the arts, presumably, is always giving less than 6% of their annual… Just that alone, if they would liberate the endowments to move the dial to even like 15%, it would be a game changer right now, don’t even go down the rabbit hole of how that gets dispersed, who gets that? That’s a whole… [chuckle] That’s a whole another podcast. But just that, just that little piece would make such a huge difference and that’s money that exists, that’s not having to create anything, that’s not having to raise anything, that’s just money that exists, and we need to be asking philanthropy why do you all keep sitting on it, it is not serving, your role is to serve community, your role is to serve artists and whoever else you have identified as who you want to offer to help support public good, so stop sitting on the endowments and liberate those and get them, get it out to the people and hey, here’s a revolutionary idea, how about when you do that, we start backwards by looking at funding all those organizations and all those individuals and all those artists who you have significantly and purposefully underfunded or disinvested from over the course of your grant-making history.
And let’s start there, let’s start with them, and let’s get them the money that they should have had all along, and still continue to fund the predominantly white institutions and all those organizations as well, but let’s prioritize the folks we’ve disinvested from during the course of our giving, I think that’s a really reasonable place to start, and I would be really curious to hear all the whys for why that couldn’t happen. So yeah, I just think that that, that piece of it is just so… It’s just such an easy thing. And I say that as someone who has worked as on a board of a foundation, it’s not brain science, it’s not brain surgery, it really isn’t, it’s just a matter of choice and decision-making power and who has it, and once again, that’s a whole another podcast about who gets to decide moving off of that 6%, and when you look at who those individuals are, it makes sense why that money doesn’t shift.
Emily Ruddock: Michelle, can I ask you, so in that 6%, is that private philanthropy or does that include public funding as well?
Michelle Ramos: That is a private philanthropy number. Yeah.
Emily Ruddock: Okay. So that’s really interesting too. One of the things at MASSCreative that we, we’re really sort of locked in on this piece about public support for the arts, although there’s always that question about how do we advocate to private philanthropy and to private donors as well. But the thing… One of the arguments that we often make, and I guess, Michelle, I’m asking if you agree with this or how you see it sort of fitting, particularly in a region that is under-funded with public dollars, is that when you take the philanthropic, if you take the donor and the donor’s intent away from the investment piece and you put it through a grant program that is designed intentionally to address need through a state agency or through the NEA, where there’s a grant panel of experts and leaders that you actually can remove that piece where cultural organizations are programming to satisfy larger donors versus satisfying community that may or may not be able to give, but certainly are deserving and should be the priority focus of the arts organization.
Michelle Ramos: Sure, absolutely, and I think to respond to that, I will say that I think even with private and state agency NEA, when we’re talking that level of funding, it’s still problematic, because we’ve still got the hoops, we still got the barriers, we’ve still got the… I mean, just the CARES Act with the NEA was so problematic and just completely discounted so many arts organizations and artists across the country, it’s the reason organizations like Alternate Roots exist. We are, for all intents and purposes, the partner to larger philanthropy who help us get money out to people on the ground because they trust us to know where the money goes, but the first response when the pandemic started was, “Oh, we need to get money out. We need to coalesce and get all this money together, and then we need to send it out through the usual channels,” and we were down here going, “Oh no, that… We’re not gonna see any of that money,” And the reason, and I raise that because the reason is because we know, we know the game, we know that application is gonna be defining art excellence, well, what is art excellence if you’re a community organizer who defines himself as an artist, but doesn’t fit a category of artist.
We know that that application is gonna be required written documentation, which is going to advantage people with a higher education, so we know our artists aren’t gonna be competitive in that, and so I say that because the NEA and the state arts agencies and so many, that is the lens and the filter through which they define which art is worthy and which art isn’t, and so while I hear you and I affirm that I think it’s a circuitous way to get that money out of that larger philanthropy into that lower lens, I still think we have the same problems there, because the field is built in a white supremacist framework, and so until that lens, until that filter gets shifted in the state and the local agencies, it’s just gonna be the same, it’s gonna be the same outcome.
Emily Ruddock: Thank you, Michelle. I think that in some ways, to me, that’s the next phase of arts and cultural advocacy, is this real point to be made about how the field is advocating to its state arts agencies to say it’s not simply enough that we raise those dollar amounts, but we examine how those dollars are being distributed and break the systemic under-investment in frankly, black and brown and communities of color. I would also put on that lens, in Massachusetts, there’s a real issue with rural communities as well, and so there are these pieces that are deserving of advocacy that I feel like oftentimes to go to the scarcity piece, we’re like, “Oh, we don’t have time to do that, we just have to ask our lawmakers to raise our annual budget,” as opposed to saying like, “We need to raise that annual budget, and we need to advocate to the NEA to say that when you put out that American rescue plan act funding, we deserve a different system to distribute that money than you did with CARES.”
Marianne Combs: Emily, we’re talking about advocacy, and it seems like there are so many arts organizations, the smaller arts organizations that are out there that are struggling just to raise the money for their own continued existence and to go through the grant-making process only like as soon as they get the grant they have to start applying for the next grant. How do you convince arts organizations with limited resources and time, that advocacy for the greater sector is worthy of their limited time and energy?
Emily Ruddock: Yeah, that is exactly the question and I think it goes back to this question of equity and value, what’s the value for us to engage in this work if we’re not gonna see the benefit. And so one of the pieces I think that MASSCreative really leaned into at the start of the pandemic is saying, “Every time we get an opportunity to meet with a member of the governor’s administration or to sit down with a legislator, we’re gonna bring three to four or five people who tell a variety of stories about the sector, because we wanna make sure that our work is that connective point, and we are also providing opportunity for visibility for more arts leaders and more arts and cultural organizations and artists.” And I think that piece of saying, “It’s not just about write your legislator and don’t worry about it,” but it’s like, no, I need your… We need to work together and we’re gonna work to make sure that your experience, your needs, your community is like, I would say, emergency issues are being considered or being amplified just as loudly as a cultural organization that is well-resourced and has an entire government affairs team.
Our work is to make sure that the entire sector’s voice is amplified, and in some cases, that means raising the volume on parts of it to be that equalizer. And so to answer your question, I think that that’s one of the ways that we demonstrate why it’s important to engage, is like you’re not carrying water for someone else’s issues, another… Someone else’s problems, you’re carrying water for your own problems, and we’re here to carry that water with you.
Marianne Combs: Michelle.
Michelle Ramos: Yeah, I think Emily summed it up perfectly. I think that it’s hard if you’re in a smaller organization, in a smaller city and you’re just barely getting by and you’re like… These folks don’t even have anybody to help write grant agreements, let alone take time out of their week to even respond to an email that’s asking them to send a message to a legislator or to come to DC for arts week, and that’s not even… That’s not a thing, right?
That’s not a thing. That said though, I do think… I think this is where… This is the piece where I think a lot of these larger, predominantly white institutions who are looking to be a part of the change have the opportunity to do that. What does it look like if I’m an on the ground, community-based dance organization, who doesn’t have time to do that in Texas, but the Texas opera has a government affairs person who can be in touch with these organizations and have an understanding of what their needs are, what the issues that they’re looking to do and then help use their labor and their time and their resources to support those artists who are in their inner circle in their cities, in their communities.
That person’s hired, that person’s salary, what does it look like to dispatch that personnel to also support these smaller organizations or help with advocacy things that are important to folks on the ground that are in their community. I think one of the challenges is that we are always so focused on federal arts advocacy, which is important, and nothing happens without that, but then oftentimes that trickle down effect, we’ve got these great state arts coalitions who are out there ready to be activated, ready to do this work, but it’s the how, it’s the resources, and so I feel like that’s one of the ways that these predominantly white institutions could lend their time, money, and resources in support of the other organizations that have been disinvested in.
Marianne Combs: You both seem to think that there is an appetite for that, that there are these major institutions that are looking at this and saying, “Oh, how can I help? I’m gonna dive right in there because I’ve got this abundance mindset and I know there’s plenty for everybody.” Am I crazy to be a little skeptical?
Emily Ruddock: Yeah. [chuckle] I think it goes back to Michelle’s point. Even before the pandemic, again, to use that phrase, as high art-based organizations, we’re realizing that they had to rethink their engagement with community, and we’re thinking about like, “Oh, this isn’t… We wanna diversify our audience… “ How many diversify our audience seminars have we been offered to take. And the quickest way to diversify your audience is to demonstrate relevance, and part of that, one of the things that we ran during the 2020 election was called Create the Vote 2020, and it was about offering and saying to arts and cultural organizations, “You don’t have to engage with a single elected official during this election season or somebody running for office.” What we want you to do is we want you to make sure that you are sharing with your audiences, with your neighborhoods information on how to participate in the census, and ways, the numerous ways that you can mail in your ballot this year, or vote this year.
Emily Ruddock: And it was about… It wasn’t about promoting the arts policy agenda during that election, it was about demonstrating that the arts and cultural sector was committed to civic engagement and voter education and census turnout. And I think those moments where you can say, “We are relevant. We are paying attention to what you care about community,” shifts that piece, so I think there’s… Yes, I don’t think it’s necessarily from a place of altruism, I think it’s from a place of being aware of what people are asking for from their cultural organization.
Marianne Combs: Healthy self-interest.
Emily Ruddock: Yeah. Yeah.
Marianne Combs: Yeah. Michelle, when you look forward and try to envision the future of arts advocacy, what would more inclusive arts advocacy look like?
Michelle Ramos: Well, it wouldn’t look like art advocacy, that’s been going on for years and years and years, I can tell you that. [chuckle] I do think that we are at a place, again, to Emily’s point, where the old ways of working, being doing, showing up a space, it’s just not… It’s, we can’t… It can’t be like that anymore, it has to be horizontal, it has to be at the ground level, it has to be from the ground up. It can’t be from the top down, it can’t be one singular voice representing the entire arts community on Capitol Hill that is just not working or serving us.
We have to be able to be more inclusive, we have to recognize all the tiers and layers that are involved in advocacy from the federal level, all the way down to my neighborhood community co-op, there’s all that levels. There’s all that complexity that the great thing is, is that we have artists in all levels of all of that all across this country. It’s just we haven’t been paying attention to like three-quarters of that tier, the focus has been on this top tier here, so I think that looking forward, and honestly, this is already starting to happen, there are already coalitions, multiple coalitions of people convening, coming together, trying to figure this out, trying to understand how do we take it out of a top-down singular voice to a network streamline, transparent process that allows everybody’s voice at the table that is advocating for all levels, and that is finally giving room and space for voices who have never been able to be at that advocacy table, and how do we do that? How do we make that space? And how do we lift up and amplify those voices.
So I’m a glass is half full girl, and I just really, truly believe that if we just stick in and we do this work and we get folks engaged and we try to break down all those barriers and walls, that both have been set up societally for us, that make those distinctions, but also just help our sector to understand that we’re all in this together, that is the path forward, and we have to be committed to that at all levels.
Marianne Combs: Emily, what are the biggest obstacles to building public will for the arts?
Emily Ruddock: I think there’s a lot of preconceived notions about who is and who is not included in that space. I will never forget when I… A member of Congress said he grew up with his face pressed against the glass of one of our leading museums. He didn’t think the space was for him because he came up from a working class family. There is this long history of the arts colluding with exclusion and propping up a singular cultural experience. And the damage that that has done is that many people say, “That’s not me. I don’t want to engage in that. I am not an artist, I do not care about the arts.” And so I think that we have a lot of work to do to shift that perception. And so I think that shifting the conversation to say, “We all enjoy art and culture, whether you call it arts and culture or not.” There’s no one definition of an artist, there’s no one definition of cultural organizational space.
One of my favorite groups in Boston is The Record Co, and what they envision is they wanna create a basketball court for recording artists. They wanna make recording music as easy to do as walk into your local park with a basketball and shooting hoops. And I think that kind of shift of mindset to be like, “Look, this is… “ It doesn’t matter if you’re the virtuosic performer but if you enjoy doing it… You should be able to shoot hoops because you like it, not because you’re gonna be the next Michael Jordan, and the same thing goes with playing music or any of those pieces.
Marianne Combs: In contrast to the biggest obstacles, Michelle, where have you seen the greatest progress in arts advocacy?
Michelle Ramos: think the thing that resonates as it always has, is stories. I think it’s people telling their stories, I think it’s people connecting with a story that someone is telling them. It’s the reason that folks are taken up to Capital Hill and ask to speak one-on one with legislators to try to resonate with them about something that hits at the heart. And I know it sounds so cliche, but storytelling is such an important tool, and I think we have under-utilized it in the arts. And I don’t know if that comes from the arts ideal world of trying to be a perfectionist, or trying to be perfect, or trying to be excellent in all these things. So we don’t wanna show our flaws, we don’t wanna show our humanity, and so I feel like that piece of it is to me, the most important part of the solution for moving forward.
We have to be able to, Emily’s point, help people to see artists as human beings, as part of the cultural and community fabric and recognize like, yeah, the guy next door that takes out his saxophone and annoys the heck out of us playing at 10 o’clock at night is an artist, and he doesn’t need all the bells and whistles and the affirmations and the awards and all the things, that guy is an artist. And he may not even see himself as an artist but when he does, he is also going to be part of that equation of helping us to figure all of this out, but we have to recognize artists in all of their beings, and not just what we’ve traditionally historically have defined artists to be.
Marianne Combs: Emily, anything you wanna add to that?
Emily Ruddock: Yeah, I am obsessed with looking at other sectors and other movements. That’s the thing I just want us to take a page from, and this goes back to Michelle’s point about not having a singular voice. If we look to the environmental movement into a climate justice framework, if we look at housing and housing advocacy, there’s not one organization in every state that’s charged to do that. There’s not one organization for the nation that’s charged to do that. There are many people at the table who are representing unique and specific things as well as joining together towards a larger whole. And that’s what I’m really focused on here in Massachusetts, is the piece about how does MASSCreative hold space for more advocacy, arts and cultural advocacy to occur that is in coalition and partnership with us, but also has its own agenda?
That’s okay. It’s okay if we disagree sometimes or focus… I think this piece about focusing on a specific part of the work and building coalition around a specific part of the work, because when there’s more diversity in our advocacy efforts, we’ll see wins like I think other sectors have seen. I think that that’s one of the things that I’m really, as I look ahead, continuing to really try to prioritize is this, no one person has the answer and there is no one silver bullet policy, argument or policy, the public policy that we should all be getting on board with, there’s a lot out there. So how do we find focus but how do we also advance a number of things at the same time.
Marianne Combs: I wanna leave this conversation with an action item for the people who are listening right now, for the arts administrators, artists, culture makers who are thinking about activism and advocating for the arts in their own town or in their own state level. What one thing would you recommend that they do, if they’re looking either for a place to start or just what do you think is most key in terms of their practice, in terms of advocating for the arts?
Emily Ruddock: I have a laundry list, Marianne. Can I have more than one? Is that okay? [chuckle]
Marianne Combs: Of course you can.
Emily Ruddock: So I think the first thing I would say is, look up who your elected officials are and know who your school committee members are, your select person or your city counselors, your state reps, and then your members of congress. Today’s school committee member… Literally in Massachusetts, the Senate President of our legislature started out on the school committee. So today’s school committee member or library trustee is probably tomorrow’s… Is gonna hold more power and hold more elected office tomorrow. And so looking up who those people are, getting familiar with them. I follow most of them on social media just to get a sense of what they’re talking about, what they care about, is the first step.
The second step is every single elected official in Massachusetts, and I think a good deal across the country offer opportunities for coffee hours or office hours or Zoom hours. And you would be surprised the number of times arts and cultural representation happens in those sort of pre-planned coffee hours. It’s very, very low. Barely anyone is talking about it. We need to show up more. It’s probably a 30-minute commitment of just going in and saying, “My name is Emily, I’m the assistant production manager at the local theater down the street, and I just want you to know who I am. I want you know I vote in your district, and I care about the arts, and I’m an arts worker.” So those are a couple. Know who they are, follow them on social media, find out where they are and begin a relationship.
Marianne Combs: Michelle.
Michelle Ramos: Be aware too of what’s happening at the federal level. And don’t be intimidated, and I say this all the time as someone who is based in the south, who represents artists who live in… And I don’t mean to get all political but let’s be real, who live in red states, who a lot of legislatures and folks are not supporters of the arts. A lot of times I think people give up. I think they say, “Oh well, I don’t know, I’m just… My congressman doesn’t care about the arts. What’s the point of me going?” No, you have to believe in your story and you have to believe in your art form to be able to just go anyway, because you just never know when your story resonates with somebody and changes their mind. If you don’t have the capacity, which so many arts organizations and artists don’t have, to be able to take the time to go to that council meeting, to go to that coffee hour. Being engaged with the federal level can be as easy as subscribing to Performing Arts Alliance and these other advocacy organizations who will send out an alert and say, “Hey, this thing is happening in your state today, click this button and hit send, and it will send a letter to your Congress person.” So that it’s low threshold capacity but still allows you to have a voice at the table.
Emily Ruddock: The other thing I would say is, there’s a state arts advocacy organization in almost every state. There are organizations like Alternate Roots in many states and many regions. And that’s another piece of this, is do that Google search and find us in your neighborhood, because that’s a way that you are going to better understand how you can be in service towards a more equitable creative sector.
Michelle Ramos: Absolutely. That kinda goes back to that piece that I was talking about earlier. And again, this is happening, this is happening right now as we speak, and I am a part of, through a number of coalitions of conversations that are bubbling up as a result of everything that we’ve seen over the course of the past year and a half, and really working to create this network of organizations across the country at all entry levels who want to and are so hungry to not only lead this work, move this work forward, but also challenge the traditional way that advocacy has always been done in this country, which has predominantly served institutions that don’t look like them.
And so I think that my message is, is for funders, for people who are interested in finding out about how we do more advocacy and do it well, and for people who are hungry to know how can we do this in a different way moving forward, because frankly, we simply just have to, to support the field and to grow and strengthen the field. Then find out, find these coalitions, fund them, support them, give them resources, give them spaces to meet in, and let’s get these networks growing and moving forward, so that the artists are their own voice at the table and this work is happening from the ground up, which is the way it should have always been from the beginning.
Marianne Combs: Was that just like the best ending of this conversation? Oh my gosh. That was beautiful. Michelle, Emily, thank you so much for this conversation. I’ve learned a ton and I just thank you so much for your work in the field.
Emily Ruddock: Thank you.
Michelle Ramos: Thank you so much, it was a pleasure to be here.
Marianne Combs: You’ve been listening to Filling the Well. Our guests for this episode were Michelle Ramos, Executive Director of Alternate Roots, and Emily Ruddock, Executive Director of MASSCreative. I’m your host, Marianne Combs. Want to dig deeper into the ideas behind this episode? Visit the arts Midwest ideas hub, a collection of free curated articles and tools to help creative leaders foster growth within their organizations and communities. Go to artsmidwest.org/ideas for more. This podcast was produced and edited by Emily Goldberg and mixed by Eric Romani with original music by Dameun Strange. The Filling the Well series is made possible with financial support from the Bar Foundation based in Boston. The Bar Foundation’s mission is to invest in human, natural and creative potential, serving as thoughtful stewards and catalysts.
Marianne Combs – Host
Emily Goldberg – Producer
Dameun Strange – Original Music
Eric Romani – Master Mixer