Our Arts Advocacy Blog Week continues with Christina Girardi’s ever-exciting experience at Museums Advocacy Day. Here, Christina shares her thoughts as a first-timer at the event. 

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“Raise your hands if this is your sixth time,” the opening speaker said into the microphone, in the medium-sized ballroom in a George Washington University building downtown. A meager few hands went up—well, it was not many at all, from what I could see in that back corner. “Now, raise your hands if this is your first time at Museums Advocacy Day.” Over half the room shot their hands up. Chelsey and I smiled at each other as we both brought our hands down, yet we were both thinking the same thing—with all these students and newcomers, how can the American Alliance of Museums, the organizer for such a fun and powerful way to participate in democracy, engage these groups to come back year after year and develop relationships? (pause—this is the question that all arts organizations are facing as we move into the next phases of arts participation, now, isn’t it?)

Well, maybe I am getting a bit ahead of myself, considering I didn’t fully know what I was signing up for.

I really found out about the AAM this year as an arts manager in training in the American University Arts Management Program, and the more I looked into it and learned about museums advocacy, I was keenly interested in experiencing it myself.  Through my Cultural Policy class, we have the opportunity to participate in advocacy, and I specifically chose Museums Advocacy Day because I have always loved exploring the many museums I come across when I travel. Being from the DC area, the role that museums played in my school field trips, my lazy weekends at home, and my one exciting summer internship with the Smithsonian, I feel their presence and I think about their treasures often in my daily routines. They haunt my ideas when I sit down to paint, and I call up styles I have seen in Florence, Oxford, and San Francisco. They are a force to reckon with and lose oneself in, but they depend on us in so many ways we don’t even imagine; they are fragile and vulnerable underneath those mighty marble walls—just look at the Corcoran.

Day 1, AAM’s program to orient all of us, mostly newcomers, to the dance we would do in the offices of our representatives was filled with pointed, convincing information with a refreshing level of humor.  One of the speakers mentioned that we would most likely be meeting with the staff, who were very much younger than the senators or representatives that we were picturing ourselves sitting with, but also very capable and apparently carry a lot of weight on the decisions made. AAM made a few short videos depicting some typical meetings, such as in the hallway or in an office, and with distractions coming from all angles—and this made people laugh at the potential awkwardness of it all, but also the even more potential impact we were making by actually going there ourselves. We were given a small, yet substantial, handbook that seemed to me like the golden cheat sheet– sections such as Museum Facts, Congress’ Legislative Record, and the Legislative Agenda all made it accessible and DOABLE by anyone. Acronyms such as IMLS, NEA and NEH all were anchored in core facts, numbers, and specific asks.  I recalled Andrew Taylor’s advice in our Survey class last semester: Make your ask, then shut up. No one wants to self-sabotage in such a critical moment of need. I laughed with Chelsey about this.

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I met my fellow Virginia group, the one I would accompany to the Congressional offices, and they were a very nice, witty, and capable bunch. I was one of three students, and probably the youngest. It was exciting to be in on the conversation, coordinating how everyone would be wording their ask to the staff, making sure that personal stories and clear examples of impact were at the forefront.

On the second day, we met at the Capitol. They had breakfast for us, and a chance to meet up with our states and walk over to the offices. It was snowing that morning, and as we walked past the dome quickly becoming dusted with white, the feeling of being an American really set in. We were at the heart of where decisions and changes were made, and we were going to be an active part of that, on this snowy February Tuesday morning.

First, we met with Senator Mark Warner’s two staff members, two young women about my age (24 ish), and it was an awesome experience that actually didn’t last too long at all.  They took us into a beautiful wood-paneled room with high windows and a long table in the middle, and were very engaged in what our group had to say. They shook each of our hands on the way out, and I like to think that there was a level of Virginian charm in that room—after all, Virginia is for lovers.

Next, a more busy office setting with a few more staffers doing work and one who met with us in the midst of it from Tim Kaine’s office.  About three people in the group each time efficiently and pointedly addressed the IMLS, NEA, and NEH funding as well as Charitable Giving and the grave implications it would have if the scope or value of the tax deduction was limited—something on the table today. One thing that a group member tactfully wove in to both conversations/asks was engaging the staffers in asking what their favorite Smithsonian was, or if they had heard of what T-Rex meat would taste like if we had one to hunt down today. Regardless, they will remember us.

What stuck with me from the adventurous two days was the importance of us just BEING there. We have the tools and the manpower, thanks to AAM and their amazing organization of the whole two days, but we also have the power of democracy and the opportunity to go into these offices and talk with these decision-makers on a personal level. Often, they tally up the number of calls and visits they get from their constituencies to decide if an issue is important enough to sign yes or no to. It’s as simple as: just show up.

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As our representatives and their staff count on these efforts in their decision-making, museums and arts organizations count on us to leave them for a few days on their behalf, and walk the halls within some other historic marble walls in Washington. As a kid, if you are lucky, you go to the many museums in DC and will remember these encounters with art and history and science as fun and inspiring. But, not until after you grow up a bit do you realize that there is so much work, money, sweat, and policy that goes into that look behind the glass, that connection to school made, and that painting that seems to look back at you.

How do we develop relationships with the people that come into our arts organizations, and to come back often? I don’t know. I do know that we all want these organizations standing there in the future to allow us to continue to ponder and solve questions just as these.

– Christina Girardi, EALS Finance Assistant