Once every year, New Jersey arts advocates collectively descend upon Washington D.C, barring those dark times of the pandemic that so many of us try to forget, in order to educate their representatives on the value of the arts.

This year’s Arts Advocacy Day took place on March 21, 2024 wherein arts organizations across the state advocated for continued federal funding and legislation in support of the arts and arts education. ArtPride New Jersey was but one of these organizations who facilitated the opportunity for constituents to touch base with their representatives.

As a fan of the once popular show, Parks and Recreation, I like to imagine hundreds of Leslie Knopes proudly marching into the congressional offices on Capitol Hill, armed with enough passion and charisma to affect change and make a grown man giggle. For those unfamiliar with the show and reference, you can instead imagine the physical embodiment of happiness, dedication, and persistence enveloping your representatives with the knowledge that the Arts Sector is essential to the health and wellbeing of our populus. Arts Advocacy Day participants

ArtPride NJ invited constituents to participate in the day, including students, artists, trustees of arts organizations and arts professionals who sought, and seek, to voice the impact of the arts in their communities. It’s true that “advocate” as an imperative can sound overwhelming, daunting even, especially if you’ve never spoken to your representatives before. But ArtPride does their best to make it less intimidating. If you’re anything like this writer, you like to know what you’re getting yourself into before being thrust into it.

Led by ArtPride New Jersey Director of Advocacy Operations, Vincent Hall, participants were invited to a virtual webinar where they were prepped with what bills are on — or hope to be on — the floor, and are in need of support and advocacy. All meetings were arranged for participants by ArtPride New Jersey, and a veteran delegation member was assigned to each group of constituents who were representing their or their organization’s respective districts. This webinar provided the opportunity to ask questions and gain clarity on what could be expected upon arrival at the congressional offices. While meetings and schedules were provided to participating constituents, the participants were encouraged to have a 2-3 minute statement of their own prepared in advance as both representatives and their staff often have limited availability for these meetings. Efficiency is key.

David Tamaki headshotFirst time participant, David Tamaki, representing District 11 as Executive Director of New Jersey Ballet, shared his wishes to repeat the process next year. He emphasized, “Every organization has an important role in their community and we need to be present with our representatives to remind them that we have a very big impact in our community and every federal dollar that comes into New Jersey is extremely important.”

While not every constituent is able to meet directly with their representative, often they meet with staffers, David Tamaki and his group were lucky enough to get a thirty-minute sit-down with Congressman Payne this year. As Mr. Tamaki explained to me, he was impressed that although the congressman was scheduled for a floor vote within the half hour, he dedicated the time he had available to hear from his constituents.

David Tamaki, Congressman Payne, and several Arts Advocacy Day correspondents“My favorite moment was being able to sit in Congressman Payne’s office with him at his desk. One of his aides was in the room and taking notes of everything that was being discussed. Seeing as how these representatives are inundated with various individuals coming in all day with their own issues to address, for them to be attentive to this and take note of it, it’s interesting to see how they handle the various requests from their constituents.”

While this was the first professional visit to the Hill for Mr. Tamaki, those returning had equally positive things to say about the experience. Kahra Buss, Executive Director for the Perkins Center of the Arts made her way to Arts Advocacy Day for the second year in a row representing Districts 1 and 3.

Buss remarks, “Working with ArtPride has been really helpful and informative. The pre-trip meetings that they hosted where they shared information about legislation that’s currently being discussed or currently being offered as having potential to move on to either a bill or even further, being enacted and funded, those things were very interesting. This has also helped me now, returning from D.C., to be mindful of what’s being proposed, what kind of legislation is being advocated for, and then, as an arts organization in South Jersey particularly, how we can amplify that work and encourage others to support it.”

Kahra Buss headshotFinding strength in data, Buss believes that providing cold, hard facts assists in advocating for the significance of the arts. Passion goes a long way but quantitative and qualitative proof go even further. During her trip to the Hill last year, Buss came prepared with copies of the recently published book “Your Brain on Art: How the Arts Transform Us” by Ivy Ross and Susan Magsamen. She provided copies to Senator Booker, Congressman Norcross, and Congressman Kim’s offices to drive home the notion that the arts are not a luxury. They are essential to the development of an individual and thereby, society.

The book’s website, yourbrainonart.com, reads “Advanced technologies including brain imaging and biomarker measurement are providing important data about the arts unique ability to alter a complex physiological network of interconnected systems including your immune, circulatory and respiratory responses as well as higher-order cognitive, affective, reward and motor functions, among others. The arts literally make us healthier, happier, and smarter.”

Sounds like the kind of data that is hard to refute.

“Now is the time to be able to go to elected officials, businesses, people that make decisions financially, and say ‘you know how you always thought that the art was just nice to have? Well it’s not just nice to have. It’s kind of essential. And it really means that you’re creating children who have the ability to cognitively develop and create solutions as opposed to checking boxes and teaching to the test.’ We’ve got a lot of opportunity right now to make an impact and more of a statement in the community” Buss insists.Kahra Buss and Norcross

Advocacy is educating others about the arts and establishing working relationships with key decision makers. These relationships can range from simply sending emails to becoming friends.  Advocacy is simply telling your story, in this case, why the arts matter to you and thus, why they should matter to others.

Any and all of us can be advocates if we so choose. When you know what to expect, it’s a lot less scary! Use your voice to advocate for what strengthens your community. Small steps make big moves.

We hope to see you on the Hill next year. Bring some comfy shoes, they call it a hill for a reason.