Reactions from a First-Time Arts Advocate 

Denyse Owens 

Most New Yorkers do not have to be employed by an arts organization or even enjoy going to museums, theatre or dance to know that the arts and cultural community continuously faces financial concerns. But most New Yorkers are not aware of the incredible challenges that arts organizations of all sizes and operating budgets are now facing: a whopping $6.5 million cut in state funding for the arts for the upcoming fiscal year. That is 15.5% less than what the arts will receive in 2009-2010. Working as the Institutional Giving Associate for Theatre Development Fund (TDF), I am fully aware of how much TDF relies on state funding from the New York State Council on the Arts (NYSCA) year after year.

The news of the governor’s proposal to drastically cut this funding will have a significant impact on TDF. Not only would our programming be affected, but so would the Off-Off Broadway community who we have worked so hard to protect. As TDF continues to play a key role in strengthening this community through such programs as off-Off @ $9 and the TDF Voucher Program, Joy Cooper, Director of Development and I felt it was our duty to advocate for both TDF and this population. In order to do this, Joy and I joined hundreds of organizations in Albany for NYS Arts Advocacy Day on Wednesday, February 24, 2010.

Through Arts Advocacy Day, arts and cultural organizations of all sizes from across New York State unite for one purpose—to meet with legislators in their respective districts and ask them to keep NYSCA funding level. In preparation for Arts Advocacy Day, Joy and I made appointments with the offices of several senators and assemblymen from the districts our programs serve. Under the guidance of Veronica Claypool, TDF Managing Director and a tireless advocate for the arts through her leadership of the Board of NYS Arts, and Judith K. Weiner, NYS Arts Executive Director, we quickly learned the inner workings of the state capital and how best to position ourselves in our meetings with legislators.

Even as someone who works in the arts, I never realized that the impact the arts have on New York State reaches beyond cultural enrichment and entertainment. Our field creates jobs and has a significant impact on the state’s economy. I was astonished to learn that there are 54,000 arts-related businesses in New York State and that the arts employed 340,000 people in 2008-2009 (American for the Arts Cultural Industries Study for New York State 2009). Additionally, the taxes generated by the arts industry in 2005 put $1.2 billion back into New York State, factoring in income tax, sales tax, taxes on visitor spending and business tax. Armed with this information, we were prepared to make a strong case to our legislators.

On February 24th, the room in the Legislative Office Building was buzzing with excitement over the upcoming days’ events—a rally led by Senator Jose Serrano and Assemblyman Englebright and various meetings with legislators—and the snowstorm that prevented many advocates and legislators from attending. At the rally, we did not miss a beat as Ms. Claypool spoke on behalf of Heather Hitchens, Executive Director of NYSCA. It was invigorating to witness how supportive and attentive the legislators were in response to NYSCA’s platform to keep funding level for the upcoming fiscal year. Assemblyman Englebright called it “political malpractice” to cut the budget and to cut jobs.

Overall, each legislator or staff member we met with was extremely giving with their time despite their busy schedules and supportive of the work that TDF does in the field. Throughout the day, Joy and I established initial relationships with each legislator’s office and we plan to keep in touch with them in the future. At the very last meeting of the day, Joy and I banded together with John Clancy and Jennifer Conley Darling of the League of Independent Theater and Nick Micozzi of the Innovative Theatre Foundation. Representing three theatre arts organizations varying in size and purpose, we saw this as an opportunity to illustrate how much we all rely on funding from NYSCA and how we all have a responsibility to support one another.

In a meeting with Mark Furnish, Esq., from Senator Thomas Duane’s office, we pointed out that TDF supports the Off-Off Broadway community by helping them to build audiences and generate revenue and, in turn, the Off-Off Broadway community supports TDF by raising awareness about our programs and services. As of now, the verdict is still out on the State budget; we continue to fight an uphill battle. As arts administrators and artists, we must continue to work with each other to advocate for NYSCA funding to remain level. Based on our meetings with the legislators, we take solace in their enthusiasm and support of the arts in the state of New York and recognize this as a good representation for things to come.


Check out the advocacy video of Innovative Theatre Foundation, Executive Director Shay Gines that played at the Arts Advocacy meeting.


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