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Sunday, June 23, 2013
It’s tough to be a local government.
A diversity of people, needs and priorities, goals and dreams — it’s difficult for municipal leaders to allocate those scarce revenue dollars.
For the last several years, funding priorities were, of necessity, altered. There was a real urgency to care for pressing human needs: hunger, housing, health care and jobs. Some funding for “quality of life amenities” shifted to the bare bones of sustaining life.
We in the arts and cultural community understood.
But now the economy is warming up, and we are seeing better days. It’s wonderful when people have enough to eat and a safe place to live, but they need more for employability and a vibrant life.
Every person needs a chance to learn, grow, explore, to ask questions and find answers. That’s where museum professionals, performers, artists, historians and others fit into the puzzle that local governments assemble to build desirable communities.
So how do cultural organizations attract municipal support? How can nonprofits prove their worth? The strategy is simple:
n Do what people want and value.
n Provide a return on investment in both dollars and other benefits.
n Fight the false label of exclusivity.
First, do what people want. Listen to all constituents. Great ideas come from everywhere, not just from a handful of board members or senior staff.
The Virginia Museum of Transportation added public input to its strategic planning process, with great success. More than a thousand individuals were surveyed in 2010, with more than 5,000 responding to a survey currently in progress.
Some results validate our leadership’s thinking, but others challenge ongoing assumptions. Crucially, some of the very best ideas come not from the staff or board, but from interested members of the community.
Arts organizations that seek public funding must understand the public’s needs and wishes, and be responsive to what the public wants. When public input shapes our organizations, cultural experiences become more meaningful and memorable.
Second, provide a real benefit to local governments, a real return on their investment.
Roanoke has identified important budgeting priorities. To qualify for city funding, arts organizations must address at least one: enhancing economic activity, supporting education for all ages or making the valley a desirable place to live, work and play.
To varying degrees, cultural organizations do all three, but we need to show local governments that we provide a positive return on their investment.
To offer some examples, the Virginia Museum of Transportation is a major destination attraction in the Roanoke Valley. Along with the O. Winston Link Museum, we draw rail fans from around the globe. In 2012, our guests included more than 14,000 tourists (one-third of our total attendance) from every state and 49 foreign countries. These visitors spent more than $2.2 million in area hotels, restaurants and stores.
School buses bring students on educational field trips from across central and western Virginia nearly every day. When these students board the buses for home, they have experienced something new, becoming engaged in science, math and history.
Local visitors enjoy the same exhibits that tourists and schoolchildren travel here to see, but come away with an additional benefit: pride. This museum tells the story of the hard work and ingenuity of Roanokers in days past and opens residents’ eyes to who we really are in this community. Among other livability benefits, all of our cultural groups make our guests proud to call this valley home.
Finally, fight the false label of exclusivity. Occasionally, some elected officials get the erroneous idea that cultural organizations serve only the affluent. That cultural programs, exhibits and opportunities welcome only the fortunate few. That only private dollars, then, should underwrite the arts. We’ve even heard museums described as “playgrounds for the rich.”
Nothing could be further from the truth.
At every arts nonprofit’s core is a mission of education, to provide enriching experiences that support learning and broaden horizons. Our region is particularly blessed with a diversity of cultural organizations committed to serving all citizens.
Decisions about programming are based on available funding, and wealthy donors do have influence. Fortunately, in our community, many of these donors intentionally share their resources so that the less privileged can participate in a full range of opportunities.
When elected officials refuse to fund arts organizations, they hurt the citizens who stand to benefit the most from full participation in a community’s cultural offerings. Our doors swing open even wider when public dollars are part of the revenue stream.
All of our citizens deserve the same opportunities. We in the arts and cultural community stand ready to partner with each of our local governments to maximize our service to the region. Our citizens deserve nothing less than the best we can offer.
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