Susan Schmelzer on Arts Policy: We, the Grassroots People!

Two arts success stories demonstrate the power of voters’ voices.

“I found my first success in the visual arts when I was nine. I am now a professional artist. Art saved me.”

This note was written by a Missouri artist to the General Assembly. If you think this little piece of lobbying made a ripple amidst the wrangling and aggression that went on in Jefferson City this spring . . . you’re right!

At a time when politicians are being showered by big money with strings attached, it is good to remember that there is still power in grassroots advocacy.

The Letter Project, organized by Missouri Citizens for the Arts, invited art students and patrons in dozens of legislative districts throughout the state to voice the value of art in their lives and to ask the legislature and governor for increased funding for the arts.

It was an astounding advocacy success achieved through the simplest, most effective form of persuasion there is — personal testimony in large numbers. Participants were also invited to add illustrations, which were hung in the Capitol building and delivered to legislators on Arts Citizens Day in March. The letters were then presented to a stunned Governor Nixon and were ultimately entered on the public record — all 1,000 of them!

A few weeks later, as the budget process played out, bi-partisan votes in the House and Senate supported Governor Nixon’s recommendation to increase the previous year’s allocation for the Missouri Arts Council by $1.2 million. Coincidence? Perhaps — who knows which effort made the difference in this welcomed increase, but good seldom comes about by coincidence in a state capitol.

At a time when politicians are being showered by big money with strings attached, it is good to remember that there is still power in grassroots advocacy. In fact, it is the best means of achieving sound arts policy.

At the national level, another successful grassroots arts lobbying campaign blossomed last December, when Congress replaced the No Child Left Behind Act with the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA). The hallmark of this new legislation is a transfer of responsibility for enforcing achievement standards, from a one-size-fits-all national system, to the states.

I’m confident that what was accomplished to bring arts to the table in the final days of the ESSA legislative process will lead to an enormous and lasting revolution in American education!

Here’s what happened: Americans for the Arts, the largest federal arts advocacy organization, set out early in 2015 to strengthen the status of arts within the provisions of the Every Student Succeeds Act. Behind-the-scenes work was augmented by policy briefs, coordination with other arts groups, and a national, online petition drive which resulted in nearly 20,000 signatures urging arts-friendly provisions in the new legislation.

The result of these efforts was the inclusion of programs that integrate the arts into ESSA’s definition of a “well-rounded education,” thus converting the STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) curriculum to STEAM!

The Every Student Succeeds Act defines arts as “including dance, media arts, music, theatre and visual, and other arts disciplines…,” adding a strength and specificity which suggests front-burner status never before seen in arts education!  Whatever the subject, there’s strong and convincing evidence that all learning is enhanced when students are developing and engaging the creative aspects of their brains, which are turned on by arts.

Where we will go as a nation with this approach to arts-integrated education is exciting to anticipate, but depends to a large extent on individual states. In Kansas, the burgeoning budget deficit resulting from Governor Brownback’s tax cuts continues to undercut arts and education. By contrast, the Missouri Department of Secondary and Elementary Education (DESE) created a full-time position titled Director of Arts Education, to oversee the curriculum transition, with half of the salary provided by the Missouri Arts Council. DESE is moving quickly to form an arts integrated schools network, while Missouri Alliance for Arts Education is providing workshops at Union Station in September and November devoted to STEAM curriculum implementation.

Like the increase in allocation of revenue to the Missouri Arts Council by the General Assembly, the revised federal education curriculum was brought about in large measure by us — “we the (grassroots) people.”  Go ahead — take a bow!

Above: Note from Missouri artist to the Missouri General Assembly as part of The Letter Project, organized by Missouri Citizens for the Arts. Photo courtesy of Missouri Citizens for the Arts.

About The Author: Susan Schmelzer

Susan Schmelzer

Susan Schmelzer is a community activist who has served in leadership roles on several boards, currently including the Executive Committee of Missourians Citizens for the Arts, which advocates for state arts funding. Her devotion to the arts began as a vocal music major, while her professional background spans careers in higher education and nonprofit consulting.

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