Student Arts Advocates: “You Need to Be an Arts Advocate”

A few months ago, the Alliance was contacted by Student Advocates for the Arts (SAA), based at Columbia University. We’re delighted to share their terrific advocacy video, “You Need to Be an Arts Advocate” as well as some lessons learned from outgoing SAA president Jonathan Lewis.

Can you share a defining moment in your advocacy work?
For several years, I’d participated in the Arts Advocacy Day in Albany. A group of students headed up there to show our support each year, but usually ended up on the sidelines. This past year, we came out to support our friend, Richard Kessler, the Executive Director of the Center for Arts Education who was to give testimony before the Joint Meeting of the Committees on the Arts Hearing at the New York State Senate for Arts Day 2010. However, there was a snowstorm, and Mr. Kessler was unable to be there, so he called and asked me to take his place.

After several in-transit cell phone calls with Kessler and a quick re-drafting of his remarks, I found myself in front of a panel of legislators, providing testimony alongside many directors and presidents of arts non-profits and arts service organizations. My testimony went by in a rush (captured on tape – you can see me in the video) but the experience stayed with me. It really brought home that not only was I (or any other student) capable of stepping into this role, but it is also opportunities like these that truly make things happen. It’s easy to stand on the sidelines and wait to be asked, but I realize now that it is also important for students to take that extra initiative and put themselves out there. Because you never know – the day might come when we’re suddenly needed, and we have to be ready rise to those occasions.

Have you passed that message on to other student advocates?
We definitely have at the local level. We started a gathering of other college students in New York City who are advocating for arts education. It’s very informal; we meet at a bar. It’s been a great way to build relationships with other advocates, to learn what other people are up to.

There are also Student Advocates for the Arts chapters and other student arts advocacy groups across the country who are doing great work. At the moment we only tend to meet each other on Arts Advocacy Day in Washington D.C. So part of our planning process for new projects is to reach out to more students and work together on a national level.

This past year, we were also contacted by high school students in Florida who wanted to take some action to prevent cuts to arts programs at their school. It was great to be able to share some of what we’d learned through trial and error with them.

What advice did you give them?
Well, they were planning to stage a rally to protest, and we suggested that before they did, they should set up meetings and talk to administrators. Protests can be extremely effective, but what we’ve learned is that sometimes when you sit down and talk to people face-to-face, you may find that you have some allies. They may share some of your concerns, or need more information about your cause. They appreciate the opportunity to work on the problem before it gets to the protest stage, and sometimes, they may even welcome solutions or support from advocates – all you have to do is ask.

It’s really useful to forge those relationships with decision makers, and in the end, you may have more leverage that way. Rallies are powerful, but they probably shouldn’t be the first option you reach for.

About Student Advocates for the Arts:
Student Advocates for the Arts was founded by students in the Arts Administration program at Teachers College, Columbia University. Today they have chapters across the country. This video is part of SAA’s most recent campaign to reach new audiences of students and young voters who want to support the arts, but don’t know how. The video was a project created by SAA and produced pro bono by Dan Wiener and Tim Mattson at Sweet Victory Entertainment.

Get involved:
Student Advocates for the Arts has two events this month:

Arts Degree: October 14, 2010
Meet with student arts administrators from programs around New York City for some laid-back networking and arts talk over drinks!

America: Now and Here, October 21st, 6:30-8 p.m.
Arts leader Dorothy Dunn, in conversation about America: Now and Here, a community-centered traveling project to promote America: Now and Here.

For more information on either event: email or visit