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Artists learn to lobby 

This year, North Carolina has a surplus of about $2 billion. So it was with optimism that nearly 250 artists and arts administrators from across the state descended on Raleigh last Wednesday to lobby legislators for more funding as part of Arts Day 2006. Arts council staffers and volunteers, museum administrators, dancers, filmmakers and other arts advocates made their pitch on the second day of the legislature's short summer session.

"It's different than in prior years when projections were so dire and the state's budget was so tight," said Karen Wells, executive director of the advocacy group Arts North Carolina, which organized the lobbying effort. "It's created a whole different dynamic."

A registered lobbyist, Wells is the bridge between the world of arts councils and the legislature, boiling down the impact of thousands of small grants, gallery openings and live performances into dollar signs that get the legislators' attention. One side of Arts N.C.'s legislative agenda handout lists the number of jobs created and audience members served by the state's biggest arts groups; the other side lists the amount of money each North Carolina county would receive in grant money. (See www.artsnc.org.)

"Karen has this organized, lobbyist mentality," said Anna Ludwig Wilson, artistic director of the Mallarmé Chamber Players in Durham and a board member of Arts N.C. "She is so clear in her strategic planning. She has taught us as artists the ABCs of effective advocacy."

In 1999-2000 and '00-'01, annual state funding for arts grants was more than $6.2 million. Then came the recession (and Hurricane Floyd), which left arts organizations (and the rest of the state) reeling. Funding dropped by $3.7 million by '03-'04. Getting it back up to '99 levels has been a long-term goal.

Last year, Arts N.C. managed to get another $2 million through during subcommittee negotiations. The only drawback was that most of that money was non-recurring, meaning it's a one-time deal and doesn't automatically show up in the following year's budget. Getting that money again this year won't be as much of a challenge, Wells said, as getting it to become a recurring budget item.

Most of the budget surplus comes from one-time income, and the state has a lot of catching up to do. Gov. Mike Easley's budget request includes long awaited pay raises for teacher and state employees as well as an increase in the minimum wage.

Arts N.C. is asking for an increase of $1 million in recurring funding for grassroots arts programs--money local arts councils dole out in small grants--and $604,000 in basic grants and general support money for some of the state's larger, more established organizations such as the Carolina Ballet, Full Frame Documentary Film Festival and Artspace.

Raleigh, Greensboro and Winston-Salem each had a contingent of about 30 people lobbying on Arts Day. Durham had 17, including Arts N.C. board members Barbara Lau (of the Center for Documentary Studies) and Margaret DeMott (of the Durham Arts Council). Though they had scheduled appointments with legislators into the afternoon, plans changed when session was called to begin at 11 a.m. So the Durham posse trekked through the cinderblock hallways to find their reps. They used the Senate seating chart to track down Jeannie Lucas and Bob Atwater, and asked aides to pull them off the floor during a short break.

"I'll be right there for ya," Atwater told members of the Durham delegation in the hallway. "You all do a lot to increase our standard of living, and you do it for a low dollar amount."

As the group lobbied Lucas, Senate President Marc Basnight stopped by to find out what was happening. "I love the arts," Basnight said with enthusiasm.

Around noon, the Durham folks grabbed lunch in one of the legislature's four atriums with Rep. Paul Luebke. "I don't think any of our delegation is opposed to this," Luebke said. "My suggestion is to reach out to your colleagues in the less urban areas. Small-town legislators get very little communication from their grassroots."

"I think what Paul Luebke was asking for pretty much happened," Wells said afterward. While urban counties were heavily represented, even rural Catawba, Burkes, Yancey and Robeson counties brought in handfuls of representatives.

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