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        Arts Advocacy Works — but it’s a long game, not a sprint!


        September 18, 2023 | Teri Ball

        It has been a long summer of what seemed like weekly announcements of theater closures and contractions across the state. We now have some good news! During the closing days of the legislative session funding for The Equitable Payroll Fund (SB1116) was included in one of the final budget bills sent to the Governor. As of this writing, we are waiting for Governor Newsom’s signature on the bill that will allocate $11.5 million to implement the Equitable Payroll Fund (SB1116). SB1116 was introduced in 2022 by Senator Anthony Portantino (D — Burbank) and signed into law by Governor Newsom last September, but until now remained unfunded. The Equitable Payroll Fund will support nonprofit performing arts organizations, those with budgets under $2 million, by reimbursing a portion of their payroll expenses. The smallest organizations will receive the largest percentage of reimbursement. This is an innovative program that could be a real game changer for small nonprofit performing arts organizations. This is just the beginning and the funding here will really only allow a pilot program, so there is much more work to be done. For today though we will celebrate the victory!

        “We could not be more thrilled to see funding that was designated for the recovery of the arts, culture, and live events industries be repurposed to support the implementation of SB1116 and help stabilize a critical workforce for California,” said Julie Baker, CEO of California Arts Advocates. “We want to spotlight Senator Portantino for his determination to get this done and to all the grassroots advocates who worked tirelessly to let their lawmakers know how critical this funding is to the nonprofit performing arts in California, you are all rock stars! We look forward to our continued work with Actors’ Equity and TPSCA to ensure the funding is distributed as quickly and as equitably as possible.”

        The $11.50 million is coming from unused funds in the CA Venues and Nonprofit Performing Arts grant programs. It is important to note that The Equitable Payroll fund is not pandemic relief, this is a workforce development program, an investment in creative workers. It is also significant that this fund will be part of the office of the California Small Business Advocate, not the California Arts Council. The arts have long been under-capitalized in our country, and have absolutely been underappreciated for their economic impact. We are a vital industry within California and can play a critical role in the economic recovery of the state.

        As part of the advocacy for SB1116 the Theatre Producers of Southern California, Actors Equity Association, and Arts For LA with support from Californians for the Arts commissioned CVL Economics to conduct a study of the economic impact of the performing arts in California. Effective advocacy takes many forms and needs many tools. Advocates have to convince both hearts and minds. In addition to personal stories of how legislators’ constituents are being impacted, we also need credible data, and that is what this study provided. “For every 100 Performing Arts jobs in 2021, an additional 156 jobs were supported in other sectors through downstream impacts. Additionally, each Performing Arts job resulted in $13,287 additional state and local tax revenue.”

        This is an advocacy success story and a great demonstration of the power of collaborative advocacy. No single factor made this achievement possible, it was the result of a combined effort of individuals and organizations across the state.

        It is, however, not an overnight success story. This journey began more than three years ago with the simplest form of advocacy, constituents with a problem reaching out to their state representatives. Faced with the compounding impacts of the pandemic, inflation, rising employment costs, and more, a number of leaders of small arts organizations began reaching out to their elected officials.

        Ophelia’s Jump Producing Artistic Director, Beatrice Casagran, knew that without some assistance Ophelia’s Jump and many organizations like it would not survive. Through the years Beatrice had cultivated a relationship with various elected officials including Senator Anthony Portantino. He had been to the theater and knew the important impact it and all the other theaters in his district had on their community. Another early champion of this work, Senator Susan Rubio, was similarly alerted by a constituent, Emmanuel Deleage from CASA 0101. The connections continued. In southern California, the Theatre Producers of Southern California (TPSCA), led by Board President Martha Demson took up the fight. Eventually, the effort came to encompass a statewide coalition including numerous individual artists and arts organizations from across the state, Actors’ Equity Association, The Theatre Producers of Southern California, Arts For LA, Theatre Bay Area, Californians for the Arts, California Arts Advocates, and more.

        Like most advocacy efforts, much of this coalition was made up of volunteers who did this work on top of running their organizations. This was the “grassroots” portion of the effort with thousands of emails, phone calls, letters, and direct meetings with legislators. The coalition also conducted events around the state to draw attention to the situation. They met with their legislators and traveled to Sacramento for Arts Advocacy Day to carry their message. Simultaneously there was the “grasstops” effort with leaders from unions and advocacy organizations armed with statistics and data making the case to legislative leaders and the governor’s office.

        Things were not looking very promising as we moved into the summer, with no indication that funds would be included in the budget, but luckily everyone continued to work and we had a legislative champion that just would not give up.

        Beatrice Casagran, Producing Artistic Director Ophelia’s Jump Productions said, “The specific and personal stories of closures, cutbacks, and layoffs related by theaters and artists in his district galvanized Senator Portantino to make a final push to secure funding for this important program. We can’t overstress the value of building relationships and advocating with local and state representatives in our districts. We may be small, but together we are strong. We’re incredibly grateful for Anthony Portantino’s support of live performing arts in California.”

        The journey of the Equitable Payroll fund includes many lessons about the impact of collaborative advocacy and the importance of ongoing advocacy efforts in all areas of the state. Not only by strong statewide organizations but also by a network of smaller advocacy organizations or ad hoc collectives around the state and by every individual arts organization. Advocacy should not just begin in the face of a crisis but instead with developing a relationship with all your elected officials from day one. Providing them with information about your organization, inviting them to your work, letting them know the impact you have in the community. This is not easy, our organizations are all under-resourced and spread too thin, and the last thing anyone needs is more items on the to-do list. However, we all need to begin to think of advocacy as an ongoing part of running our organizations. This effort was absolutely served by the relationships that organizations had prior to the crisis, and will be sustained by relationships that were built along the way.

        As has been well documented, the performing arts sector is facing incredible challenges that are going to take many creative solutions to overcome. Part of the way forward is by changing how our leaders at all levels of government see our sector. All of our voices working together will be needed to make this change. The need for strong advocacy throughout the state is what has led Californians for the Arts to start the Regional Advocacy Infrastructure Network (RAIN) Project. RAIN will offer training, support, and resources to develop local advocacy efforts throughout the state. Ultimately all advocacy is local, one of the first questions elected officials and their staff always ask is, “How does this impact my constituents.” RAIN will help local advocacy efforts and also be a resource for CFTA and CAA in our statewide efforts.

        We understand that no one has enough time and that advocacy can be intimidating especially at first. “How do you reach out and contact elected officials? Who should I talk to about what?” Answering these questions, and providing these resources is part of what CFTA and CAA are here for. Reach out with your questions, subscribe to the newsletters, become a member, attend advocacy training webinars — no one has to do this alone.

        A giant thank you and congratulations to everyone who supported the SB1116 efforts. Take a deep breath, enjoy the accomplishment, and now let’s get back to work advocating for the next steps!

        Teri Ball is a Program Manager at Californians for the Arts and the Executive Director of Center Stage Theater, a nonprofit rental venue in downtown Santa Barbara, where for 15 years she has had the opportunity to indulge her passion for mentoring young artists and helping develop the theatermakers of tomorrow.

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