We talk often of health and human service nonprofits operating in silos, but the arts groups are not only in different silos, they’re on an entirely different farm when it comes to legislative advocacy. Arts organizations already lobby for funding, but more funding benefits institutions more than individual artists, and it has no impact on the larger community save indirectly.
The major arts organizations—and the smaller ones, but the leadership and investment needs to come from the bigs—need to leverage their community connections and partner with other nonprofit organizations to advocate for progressive social change. This goes beyond merely hosting a forum or community meeting. It means strategizing, organizing, and working in coalition to effect social change.
What should their agenda contain? I’d start with these three things:
- affordable housing,
- Medicaid expansion and, ultimately, single-payer healthcare, and
- a $15 living wage in Houston, if not statewide.
Artists deserve needs to have their basic needs met the same as anyone else, especially considering the myriad ways arts enrich our lives.
Artists and affordable housing are a natural fit. When we think of group homes or supported communities, we tend to think of people in recovery or in decline, but consider how many artists would benefit from access to creative and affordable housing options. A Dutch nursing home allows university students to live there rent-free, in exchange for some interaction with residents. Not every artist, medium- or personality-wise, would be cut out for such an arrangement, but many would. What if nonprofits running SRO housing like New Hope set aside space for resident artists?
Artists need be able to afford health insurance, and to have the ability to seek both preventive care and emergency care without having to choose between paying the water bill or paying for a prescription. Medicaid expansion would relieve pressure on our greatly overburdened healthcare system, primarily Harris Health, but all hospitals that operate emergency rooms. That’s a short-term fix that just helps shift some healthcare dollars around to make lower-cost primary care more accessible. The long game is single-payer insurance. Some artists may not want insurance, but that usually comes down to not being able to afford it. I’m tired of going to benefits to help people pay when they are uninsured, and even under-insured, especially because I resent having to ask other artists to donate their time and talent to make those benefits possible. It isn’t sustainable.
As far as a living wage goes, while some artists aspire to earn their entire living from their art, not all do, and not all can. Some great art does not have commercial value, and some has even greater value because it is not commercial. No matter what, while some lucky few artists will be able to survive and thrive off income from their creations, plenty of artists will still need to support themselves with jobs as hourly workers.
Aiming for $15, a living wage that has already been adopted in several larger cities around the country, just makes sense:
Arts organizations are already part of civic discourse, as evidenced by recent community meetings and candidate forums. Nonprofits with 501(c)(3) status can engage in advocacy through voter engagement and education, and even some limited lobbying. They can also establish 501(c)(4) organizations, and, in turn, 527 political action committees. That’s a quick overview, but you can learn more about what these types of organizations can do here. I don’t know of any arts-focused (c)(4)s or PACs operating in Houston now, but there are some across the country that can be used as models.
Who needs to lead?
The big arts groups need to take the lead, because they have the capacity to drive this work. The big groups, like the Museum of Fine Arts Houston, the Houston Museum of Natural Science, or the large performing arts groups downtown have big staffs and critical political connections because of who their boards of directors and donors are. Smaller organizations do not have room in their budgets or enough staff members to devote significant resources to advocacy work, but they could leverage their supporter base and include key information in emails and newsletters.
The bigs can also implement policies that help artists. If a large museum with a substantial endowment paid $15 an hour or more for entry-level work, and allowed for flexible hours, artists could take those jobs.
I don’t know what the major arts organizations in Houston pay for those positions, and would love to learn I’m wrong about my hunch, but I suspect they don’t pay $15 an hour to many or any their hourly workers. The Museum of Fine Arts, for example, today lists $9, plus benefits, to a security officer. The Houston Museum of Natural Science lists a data entry position at $7.50.
People like Ric Campo serve on numerous boards and commissions. I single him out because he’s a good example of someone who undoubtedly counts among his friends trustees of some of the tops arts organizations in town. Given his position and those relationships, might he (and people with similar professional and philanthropic profiles) be prevailed upon to help negotiate more affordable lease rates for artists, or help identify investors who could develop affordable housing for artists?
I am pleased that our city seems to recognize the tangible/economic and intangible value of fostering a thriving arts community, but I’d like to see our arts community engage in even more action to make it possible for artists themselves to thrive. I’d love to know of advocacy that those organizations are already doing, and would be glad to help train them or talk to their boards about the importance of getting involved.
I want artists and people who work in the arts to go on lobby days with healthcare organizations, and healthcare advocates to help lobby for arts funding in exchange. I want to see artists and people representing their interests at all candidate events, not just those focusing on arts and culture.
It will take all of us, together, to turn Texas into the progressive place we know it can be. The arts feed our souls, and nurture our psyches. The least we can do is be sure that artists can feed and house their families, and take care of their health.