Advocating for the Arts? Tell a Story

04/17/2015 01:45 pm ET | Updated Jun 17, 2015

As I reflect on the recent National Arts Advocacy Day and the several hundred visits to the offices of our Congressional representatives and senators that took place, I can think of hundreds of stories to tell. Each of the nearly 550 arts advocates from all fifty states, members of Congress, and artists who joined us in Washington, D.C. to advocate for the arts on Capitol Hill came with a story about how the arts have transformed them and the people around them. To many, the arts have brought hope and fortitude, been a partner in solving community problems, and provided Americans with role models, identity, and opportunity.

Numbers and data are an important part of case-making for the arts and understanding the breadth of their impact, but the raw, passionate voices that spoke and sang before Congress while delivering our message of the value of the arts were a profound reminder that without stories, it is nearly impossible to grasp the depth to which people can be moved by their experiences. The arts are so much a part of our daily lives and who we are that the mechanisms of their transformative power within ourselves and our communities go unnoticed. In each of us, there is an arts story waiting to be unlocked and revealed. This has been my experience with elected officials, military leaders, corporate executives, and hard-working community members. The arts seep past barriers we don't even notice until our eyes are opened to the possibilities around us.

Before a room packed with Congressional policymakers and arts and community leaders at the Congressional Arts Kick Off, Congressman John Lewis told his story about the role the arts played in the historic march for civil rights and freedom across the Edmund Pettus Bridge chronicled in the recent film Selma. "Without music, without song, without dance, without drama, without photography," Congressman Lewis proclaimed, "the Civil Rights Movement would have been like a bird without wings." Without music to lift and reinforce the marchers' courage and the photographs and film footage that startled the nation into action, the events that took place 50 years ago might have had a different outcome. But moved by the powerful portraits of the first march, hundreds of Americans from all walks of life followed the call for freedom and joined the marchers in Selma. The arts had yet another role to play as marchers, old and new, came together in song and music.

When we look back, the significance of the arts in the Civil Rights Movement seems perhaps obvious. Impact is much easier to trace in hindsight. But the immediate role and value of the arts all around us needs to be pointed out. Stories need to be told. In his delivery of the Americans for the Arts 28th Annual Nancy Hanks Lecture on Arts and Public Policy on the eve of Arts Advocacy Day, Norman Lear admitted, "I had spent half my life sending audiences out of our studios, laughing, crying, feeling and thinking, but somehow had not accepted the depth of it all -- the art of it all."

Mr. Lear did not learn how widely and deeply his art had taken root until decades after his shows such as All in the Family, Maude, Sanford and Son, and The Jeffersons had first aired. At a recent event titled "What do a 92-year-old Jew and the world of hip-hop have in common?" in Mr. Lear's honor, artists Common, Touré, Steve Stoute, Marla Gibbs, Kenya Barris, D-Nice, Russell Simmons, Baratunde Thurston, and Regina King recounted particular characters and episodes of The Jeffersons and Good Times that had provided them with role models and inspiration. For the first time, Mr. Lear noticed the emotions of the participants telling their stories rippling out over the audience as it too became a part of the collective experience of sharing and remembering. The art, he discovered, was not bound to just the people on the stage. It had created hundreds more stories than could be shared in that moment.

In the 1960s, the arts helped propel local protests for justice to national attention during the Civil Rights Movement and brought people together to make monumental change. In the 1970s and 1980s, Mr. Lear's shows removed the idea from television that "America race issues, no bigotry, no wars, no health problems, no unwanted pregnancies." Through his shows, young Americans discovered people to look up to and took away lessons that would shape them into the adults they are today. These and other stories hold true in recent decades as well.

Every year, we bring hundreds of arts leaders to Capitol Hill and thousands more through technology to tell our stories, to make our case, to be sure that the power of the arts to confront the challenges of the day and help shape the future is not overlooked. If today's society does not repeatedly plant and tend the seeds of the value of culture and cultural support today, including the understanding that the arts transform us and our communities every day, we will not be able to look back and enjoy the fruits of the harvest tomorrow.