Texas Lens: Ann S. Graham on Arts Advocacy

Hot-button issues may have dominated the headlines out of Austin, but the Texas Legislature this past spring made a quiet move that some of us will appreciate: It expanded the Texas State Artists Award program, which includes the poet laureate and such, to include a slot for a classical musician.

In a more tangible vein, legislators provided the Texas Commission on the Arts—the state office that channels money to arts groups and individual artists—with more than $15 million for each of the next two years. Victories like that didn’t just happen, of course. Arts advocates such as Texans for the Arts helped get the politicians on board.

After a decade at the helm of the Austin nonprofit, Executive Director Ann S. Graham will retire this fall, and Chris Kiley—now the group’s associate director—will take over. In a recent interview, Graham looked back over her years of “speaking up,” as she calls it, for the arts and other causes. Comments have been edited for brevity and clarity.

Arts and Culture Texas: Do you have an elevator-pitch explanation of what Texans for the Arts does?

Ann S. Graham: Texans for the Arts is a statewide arts-advocacy organization that works to secure, protect and grow the public investment in the arts. One of our main goals is to have the public lead this conversation within their communities, helping us develop champions who will speak out to public officials across our (legislative) districts, across our state. We’re all passionate about the arts, and we truly believe the arts transform our lives and communities.

ACTX: What do you enjoy about tackling all this?

ASG: So much of the work we do is behind the scenes. Texas has a biennial legislative calendar. You have a session that lasts 140 days. Then, for a year and a half, it’s quieter.  First, you regroup, then you start to plan (for the next session). I enjoy synthesizing what we’re trying to accomplish and how we’re going to get there—the language we’re going to use, the juxtaposition of data and stories. There’s great joy and challenge–and certainly frustration, at times–in seeing this through.

ACTX: How do you mobilize the arts community?

ASG: During every session, we host an Arts Advocacy Day (which brings artists and arts backers from across the state to meet with legislators). We had about 250 people this past session. At first, there’s this nervousness among them. “I don’t know if I can do this.” “Why me?” We do training sessions, and we schedule office visits with legislators. We try to set them up to succeed.

They go on the legislative visits, and when they’re done, there’s this (mood of) amazement and celebration. “Oh, it was so empowering!” “Everybody listened. They had good questions.” The feedback after that 8- or 10-hour day feeds the soul for the next year and a half until the next session.

ACTX: What kind of progress have you seen during the past 10 years?

ASG: Collectively, we have increased the budget of the Texas Commission on the Arts from a little over $3 million a year to well over $15 million. Those increases make it directly to artists and arts groups across the state.

I hope and I believe that Texans for the Arts has raised awareness (of state funding for the arts). We’ve grown the number of communities that take advantage of the hotel occupancy tax for the arts—up to the 15 percent allowed by law (for grants). One of the things Texas does well is the cultural district program (which designates areas that harness arts resources for economic and community development). When I started, there were 26 cultural districts. Now there are more than 50.

ACTX: How would you like for things to develop from here?

ASG: I would absolutely like to see significantly more financial resources (from the state to the arts). The Texas Commission on the Arts is a very small agency for the size of the state. When I look at our peers across the country—both red and blue states, we’re nonpolitical—I see much smaller states that are distributing significantly more money.

ACTX: What drew you to this work?

ASG: In hindsight, I’ve been speaking up for the better part of my life. I started in middle school. I go back to starting an ecology club around the founding of Earth Day, which will tell you how old I am. I was getting involved in my neighborhood to make it better—picking up trash, running recycling programs. No one used the word advocacy. Today, I organize people, and we come together to work. We’re not looking for credit. We’re just trying to make this a better place.