From 0 to $13K: How the Medford Arts Council Used Grassroots Support to Boost Arts Funding
Photo: Josh Perry/Hometown Weekly
Late last year, the Medford City Council and Mayor Michael J. McGlynn allocated $13,000 in the city budget for arts programming. It was the first time in Maria Daniels’s six-year tenure on the Medford Arts Council that City Hall dedicated any money at all to the arts. For a small city like Medford, the move was an extraordinary show of support for the work that the arts council routinely engages in to enrich and enliven the Boston suburb.
But that’s not all the good news. McGlynn recently announced that he would add a $15,000 arts line item to his Fiscal Year 2015 budget proposal, demonstrating the city’s renewed investment in the arts in a more permanent way. The Medford City Council still has to approve the budget before it can take effect. But the ongoing support from the mayor and many city councilors has encouraged and excited local arts advocates.
The investment by the city of Medford shows a clear example to other municipalities cross the Commonwealth of the need to invest in the arts. (The Town of Medfield also voted at their spring Town Meeting to add $4,600 to the Medfield Cultural Council budget, matching the MCC’s annual contribution to the town and doubling the amount of grants they can make to their local arts community.)
So how did the Medford Arts Council get city officials to put arts and culture back on their agenda?
In a recent interview, Daniels, the council’s chair and interim treasurer, offered up three keys to their triumph: a good political strategy, coalition and relationship building with local allies, and publicizing their cause. In other words, good old-fashioned grassroots advocacy.
The Medford Arts Council began by launching their efforts during an election year. With the mayor, city councilors and other municipal officials running for re-election, the media and the voters were focused on city issues. Inserting arts funding into the campaign discussion was an effective way to raise visibility for the cause and muster support inside and outside City Hall. The arts council did this by creating two key rallying points for their supporters that were also shrewdly designed to educate municipal leaders on the need for arts funding, demonstrate public support for the funding, and pressure city leaders to take action.
The first was working with allied city councilors Paul Camuso and Michael Marks to sponsor a commendation honoring all of the Medford Arts Council’s grantees for their contribution to the cultural life of the city. The council read out the names of 34 artists or organizations, all of whom were invited to the meeting, and who took advantage of the opportunity to meet with council members and get their faces on local TV. Additionally, the arts council enlisted the support of CACHE, an all-volunteer, non-profit coalition of Medford arts and culture organizations that sponsors two major annual events and advocates for a robust arts scene. Representatives from CACHE’s member organizations filled the seats of the chamber.
“It was a kind of visibility that was important in that situation,” said Daniels.
The commendation also gave Daniels a chance to make her case directly to the council. “I sort of challenged the council to put their money where their mouth is,” she explained. Acknowledging the crowd of CACHE volunteers, Daniels told city councilors, “We can feel good about the vitality of the arts and we can pat ourselves on the back about it, but the reality is, there is no significant funding from the city. This is a need that’s been demonstrated. The attendance at arts events has been fantastic, the demand for art classes and programs is very high, and it’s an important part of our community―not just for individuals but also for economic development.”
The second rallying point came when Councilor Robert Penta and Marks co-sponsored a resolution asking the city to allocate $10,000 in the existing fiscal year’s budget for arts programming. In the run-up to the meeting where the proposed resolution was to be discussed, the arts council launched a petition drive to demonstrate public support, mustering more than 200 signatures in the 48 hours before the Oct. 1 meeting. Teachers, seniors, parents, and other beneficiaries of local arts programming included comments about the importance of arts funding.
“We turned the comments into a PDF and sent them to the city council and the mayor so they could see there was public support for the idea,” said Daniels. “We also explained that the Arts Council had an established, fully accountable, public process for allocating state dollars, so we could be entrusted with the fair allocation of city funds too.”
And once again CACHE members packed the council chamber for the vote. What happened next even surprised Daniels: councilors began debating whether they should actually be designating more than $10,000 for the arts.
“Some councilors wanted to go to the mayor and ask for $20,000,” she recounted. “What ended up happening is they passed the original resolution for $10,000, with a strong hint to the mayor that he could increase it. We lobbied the mayor to add the funding to the existing fiscal year’s budget, right away, telling him we could allocate the funds immediately for 2014 projects if he took action before we started our annual grant review process in late October. We also invited him to make use of the stage at a conveniently timed public arts festival to announce the new funds. Just weeks before his re-election, he ended up giving us $13,000, which has allowed us to fund a significant number of additional arts programs and projects. It really enabled 2014 to take off in a great way.”