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Report from Museums Advocacy Day 2015

posted by Linda Downs — Mar 10, 2015

Elizabeth Schlatter is deputy director and curator of exhibitions for the University of Richmond Museums and outgoing chair of CAA’s Museum Committee.

On Tuesday, February 24, the American Alliance of Museums (AAM) held the seventh annual Museums Advocacy Day, in which representatives from all types of museums and arts organizations from across the country meet with congressional representatives to promote museums’ contributions to society and to discuss specific initiatives affecting their impact. This year, CAA sponsored a Museum Committee member to attend the event, so I was able to join fellow museum professionals in this important and surprisingly fun activity.

Monday, February 23, was dedicated to all-day training, which included presentations on the three main initiatives that we were to focus on during our discussions on Capitol Hill, as well as a panel Q&A with representatives from several federal funding agencies, including the usual “alphabet soup” of the NEA, NEH, IMLS, NSF, and the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs from the US State Department. The main takeaway from that discussion was to always contact these federal agencies when applying for a grant or program, as their staffs are there to help you through the process. Another activity was a fantastic presentation on the “Art of the Ask” by Dan Yaeger, executive director of the New England Museum Association. As a lobbying newbie, I attended a talk by Stephanie Vance (a.k.a. the Advocacy Guru) on the nuts and bolts of lobbying on the Hill. Helpful tips included:

  • Be respectful to everyone you meet, even if it’s a twenty-one-year-old staff member and not your congressperson. These staff members truly affect how the representatives work and vote
  • Prepare an elevator speech and connect it to the representative’s personal interests or platform
  • If you have an appointment with a congressperson whose views you oppose personally, remember that when they meet with you, you are at the very least taking up their valuable time (an amusing and helpful tip!)

The afternoon consisted of reviewing the main issues that AAM was emphasizing this year:

  • Supporting fully authorized funding of $38.6 million in fiscal year 2016 for the IMLS’s Office of Museum Services
  • Opposing any proposals that would limit the scope or value of the tax deduction for charitable donations
  • Supporting the Artist-Museum Partnership Act, which would allow artists to claim a tax deduction of the fair market value of their work when donated to a charity
  • Supporting partnerships between museums and schools
  • Allowing museums be to eligible to compete for funding as part of a new Elementary and Secondary Education Act

AAM’s staff and presenters assured us that we need not be experts on these subjects but rather should use our congressional meetings to offer personal stories that demonstrate how museums are vital to the fabric of society and explain how the issues stated above will help museums continue this good work.

On Tuesday, we were fed a great breakfast, then all broke up to attend appointments that AAM set up for us across the Hill. I attended these meetings representing both CAA and my own institution in Virginia, so I met with Senator Tim Kaine (VA), Senator Kirsten Gillibrand (NY), Representative Louise Slaughter (NY), Representative Bobby Scott (VA), and Representative David Brat (VA).

I was with a group of about ten to fifteen fellow museum and arts folks for the first two appointments, and for the last three I was one of only two or three people. In addition to the issues mentioned above, I was able to talk about my museum, about university museums in general, and, of course, about CAA, including the recently issued fair-use guidelines. In general, the congressional staffers I met were gracious and knowledgeable—and I even got a photo op with a representative for my Facebook page. I was surprised and terribly grateful by how well AAM organized the event, how well they prepared us for the meetings, and how kind all the staff on the Hill were.

One of the things AAM pushed during training was that advocacy should continue beyond just that day, so I sent thank-you notes later that week. I’ve also been in touch with the two House Representative offices in Virginia to invite the congressmen and their staffs to visit our museums. Finally, my fellow advocates and I offered ourselves as resources on issues related to museums and the arts. All in all, Museums Advocacy Day was a fantastic experience to see and engage Congress in person, to meet colleagues with shared interests, and to spread the good word about museums and CAA.