Arts Wonk

Rebecca Nath, Emerging Arts Leader




Rebecca Nath, Programming Chair for the Emerging Arts Leaders/Los Angeles, blogs on her trip to Washington, DC for Arts Advocacy Day 2011.





As my long weekend in DC came to a close, I removed the ‘Arts Wonk’ button I had proudly worn as I strode through our nation’s capitol. Merriam Webster defines wonk as “a person preoccupied with arcane details or procedures in a specialized field; [a policy wonk]; broadly : nerd” (italics mine). Yes, for three straight days I had self-identified as a nerd—and I was more than happy to do so.

I received the pin earlier where my weekend as a bona fide arts wonk began: at the Emerging Arts Leaders Symposium at American University. The symposium was a professionally inspiring and encouraging launching pad, and presented three phenomenal panel discussions and an inspiring keynote address delivered by Rachel Gosslins, Executive Director of the President’s Committee on the Arts and the Humanities.

In her speech, Gosslins was realistic and did not shy away from stating the glaringly obvious point that we emerging arts leaders have our work cut out for us. She reminded us that times are tough and only getting tougher for the arts. But, she said, that should not dissuade us. There is much to be hopeful about, and we young professionals have the knowledge, skill, and inspiration to create a sea change for and within the arts.

AFTA Americans for the Arts Chart on NEA Appropriations History 1966-2011

This theme of undeterred optimism resonated throughout my time in DC. At the Americans for the Arts Arts Advocacy Day training session I, along with a good number of other novice art wonks, attended a full day of training to become better acquainted with federal arts policy, as well as government budget processes and the historical framework of government support for the arts, so that we could be effective advocates before Congress. As you can imagine, we learned that the outlook is pretty bleak, and there was no shortage of charts to prove just that.

One of AFTA's more dismal charts showed the appropriations history for the National Endowment for the Arts (click to enlarge chart at right). On it, a nosedive in funding after 1994 is unmistakable. Also unmistakable is the snail’s pace at which funding for the NEA thereafter increased. In fact, it was only last year—a full sixteen years later—that funding levels finally reached something near 1994 levels. A grim reality indeed.

And just as I began to feel real trepidation for the task at hand and an overwhelming sense of ‘the cards are stacked against us’ and ‘what have I gotten myself in to?’... enter Kevin Spacey, stage left.

As keynote speaker for Americans for the Arts' 24th Annual Nancy Hanks Lecture on Arts and Public Policy, Spacey shared the following call to action which he received from his mentor, Jack Lemmon: “If you have been successful in the business that you wanted to be successful in, then it is your obligation to spend a good portion of your time sending the elevator back down… 'cos it doesn't matter what floor you're on. In life, there's always someone just below, just waiting for the chance to be invited up.”

California delegates to Arts Advocacy Day 2011As an emerging professional who has been happy and successful because of, through, and for the arts, it is my civic duty to be a part of ensuring that the elevator continues to get sent back down. For students to have equal access to quality arts education, for all communities to have the right of admittance to productions of Shakespeare, for service members to have the opportunity to enjoy Opera at military bases—my charge is to ensure that the elevator gets sent back down, and down, and down again.

As I learned last week and as was demonstrated with the near-shutdown of the federal government, garnering federal support for the arts is not an easy commission. It is one that has great leadership and momentum, but one that can always use additional voices. Voices from the likes of emerging arts professionals, seasoned professionals, or those who simply think the arts have a fundamental role in society, we all have a shared responsibility to ensure that this arts elevator is fully operational, very well-funded, and on unremitting rotation. We do not all have to be full-fledged arts wonks, spending our free time flying to DC, but we can make our voices heard simply through our vote, by talking with our members of congress, or by sending a letter of support. This arts wonk can tell you first-hand that each and every little action counts.

On this final note, I will leave you with the following call to action from Henry David Thoreau: “Cast your whole vote, not a strip of paper merely, but your whole influence.”

California delegates to Arts Advocacy Day 2011

I would like to give a special thanks to the good folks at the Center for Cultural Innovation for helping me further my ambition to be an arts wonk through the Creative Capacity Fund’s NextGen Arts Professional Development Grant.


Rebecca Nath is an arts wonk by night and Programming Chair for the Emerging Arts Leaders/Los Angeles by day.

Photos: The author, Rebecca Nath; NEA Appropriations History Chart by Americans for the Arts,; small group & full group of Californian arts delegates at Arts Advocacy Day 2011.