State of the Arts: Talking the Talk

The Fine Arts Fund's Margy Waller wants to have a conversation with you about the kind of community you live in and want to build. About how you want your children to grow up. About how the region's arts and culture resources help you accomplish those go

Aug 27, 2008 at 2:06 pm

Margy Waller wants to have a conversation with you about the kind of community you live in and want to build. About how you want your children to grow up. About how the region's arts and culture resources help you accomplish those goals.

As the daughter of two Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra musicians, Waller grew up immersed in the local arts community. She's intimately familiar with the economic and social impact of arts and culture in Greater Cincinnati, and — even though she didn't follow her parents' career path — she's been a champion of the arts her entire life.

Waller will be holding lots of community conversations now that she's been hired as vice president of the Arts and Culture Partnership, the Fine Arts Fund's new initiative to strengthen the region's cultural assets. She'll lead a new approach to building local support for the arts from the bottom up rather than, as with past failed efforts, from the top down.

"(This job) is about how we start a public conversation — or continue but change the conversation — with the goal of building more public will and public support for arts and culture as an important part of our community and a piece that makes the community more sustainable, more viable, a better place to live," Waller says. "We need to reach people who are with us on this but haven't acted as if they're with us."

Waller's new position is a tangible result of the process begun by the Greater Cincinnati Foundation in 2002 to promote local arts and culture and to address the internal and external needs of arts organizations.

A new structure, the Arts and Culture Partnership, was created under the Fine Arts Fund to carry out four specific priorities: increase the influence of the arts and culture throughout the region; build sustainability by increasing operating efficiencies; increase participation in the arts and culture; and strengthen arts education efforts.

(See CityBeat's State of the Arts roundtable discussion with arts education/outreach coordinators here.)

The Greater Cincinnati Foundation stepped in to coordinate arts promotion when a similar process fizzled out in 2001 after many years of work. The Regional Cultural Alliance collapsed when Hamilton County Commissioners pulled their $600,000 pledge, which was supposed to nudge other local governments to contribute their own public funds (see "RCA R.I.P.," issue of Aug. 30, 2001).

Those involved in the RCA blamed the collapse on an overemphasis of back-room dealing among government and corporate types, which allowed the funding question to become a political football in the wake of the 2001 riots. Several key RCA leaders regretted not taking their case for increased arts support directly to the public.

The new Arts and Culture Partnership seems intent on not making the same mistake, and that's where Waller comes in.

This new position seems unrelated to her past 10 years spent in public policy roles in Washington D.C. — from domestic policy advisor in the Clinton administration to an economic studies fellowship at the Brookings Institute to her most recent position as executive director of The Mobility Agenda, a think tank that builds support for the labor market and for workers. As she explains it, though, her experience in hosting public dialogues about complex policy issues is exactly what's needed at the Fine Arts Fund right now.

Waller starts full-time in January and until then winds down work for The Mobility Agenda while traveling to Cincinnati once or twice a month. CityBeat spoke with her on a recent trip to town.

CityBeat: How does your Washington experience inform this new position?
Margy Waller: Most of my career has been working on economic justice issues. A few years ago, after a heated congressional debate over reauthorization of the 1996 welfare bill and right after Hurricane Katrina and the policy debate over what we should do about concentrated poverty, I thought there needed to be a different way of doing what we were doing. I went back and gathered literature about poverty and tried to look at it differently. What I ended up with was a shift in communication strategy for how the public processes information about economic justice issues. Basically the answer is you don't talk about poverty, which is very difficult for someone who cares deeply about anti-poverty strategy to do.

We know how that issue is defined in this country, how people understand it, how they react when they hear the word "poverty" or similar words, and we're never going to get the policy results we want if we keep talking about it the same way we always have. And there's some very useful information about other ways to talk about poverty that's not designed to change anyone's mind but to help them see something they already know just by presenting it to them in different ways.

So when I heard about this position in Cincinnati and read the job description, I realized in many ways it's an effort to do the same thing with arts and culture.

CB: How do you talk about the arts in a different way?
MW: The very first step is we need to know how people think about arts and culture now and what happens when we have a conversation with them and use language like "arts" and "culture" or what might happen if you use some alternative. It's a different methodology that tests when you start a conversation this way and you interject with this piece at this point what happens and how people process it. In the end, we want to find out how it impacts their willingness to see arts and culture as something important to the community and something they would participate in, support financially and support public financing for.

You're not trying to change people's minds or trying to be the facts that will somehow change their minds. You're actually putting a lens on this conversation that's easy for them to see through.

CB: How do you conduct this sort of public conversation?
MW: You want a whole bunch of people to be involved and be talking with each other. You want it to be a viral thing in which everyone is talking with everyone in this language that will resonate. People do a lot of things, but you try to help them realize, "Yes, I do these things and they make my life better and I value being able to take my children to them."

CB: So this is a "bottom up" approach.
MW: I think it's important to have relationships with your elected and appointed decision-makers so that on this year's city budget or state budget you can make deals with people who understand your situation and value what you do. But you shouldn't depend on that. Ultimately what we want is so much public demand that there's no question that these things get funded. And the way to create that sense of public will and public demand is to have a conversation that resonates with enough people that the public demand is there.

In the end the bottom line is having that kind of public will that creates the political space for the decision-makers to provide resources and develop policy that's supportive of arts and culture as a critical part of a sustainable and viable community.

CB: Has any other community tried to have this type of civic conversation about the arts?
MW: This approach hasn't been tried anywhere before. I've talked to researchers who have become my friends because of the other work I’ve been doing, and interestingly arts is this kind of gap in that kind of research. So I'm hoping that we can put Cincinnati at the forefront of a new way of having this conversation. The academics and researchers are anxious to do this project and really feel like this could make a huge difference and has worked in other areas like environmental issues, global warming issues and economic justice work. ...

My experience of doing this with the economic justice work is that once we put it out there the demand for it was unbelievable. It's why I travel too much. People are really hungry for a new way to have the conversation because they're frustrated with the way they've been having it.

CB: Local anti-tax activists say what you're really talking about is a new tax to support the arts.
MW: The goal is to have a conversation that's not an argument but in fact resonates so much more than the anti-tax talk that this COAST stuff (Coalition Opposed to Additional Spending and Taxes) becomes irrelevant. If the question is "Do you want another tax?" people will always say "No." That's not how you want to have that conversation. It's all about what kind of community we want to live in and how we want our children to grow up.

CB: Why is Cincinnati a good place to try this new approach?
MW: If you were going to pick one place to do this research, Cincinnati is pretty ideal. Cincinnati is unusual for its commitment to arts and culture that you wouldn't expect to find in a city its size, and that's wonderful. I've been back a number of times this year, and I'm amazed by how much has happened even in the 10 years since I've been gone. There's so much more.

The state and local political environment has changed in the past 10 years, and I don't mean the parties exactly. There's a focus on Ohio now nationally that makes it possible for us to not only get support for doing things here but sort of become a national model that people are watching. And the way people are looking at cities right now is also changing, and the role of cities in metropolitan areas is changing, so you have a much deeper conversation than we've had for a long time about the importance of the central city for the region.

CB: How does this effort benefit from your knowledge of Cincinnati and people's familiarity with your parents, particularly your father Dick Waller (founder of the Linton Chamber Music Series)?
MW: It's a total plus that I grew up here, and people love my parents and that rubs off on me in a really nice way. I have to just not mess that up. That opens a lot of doors. Plus I also worked with the Fine Arts Fund before.

My parents always felt fortunate that they were able to have careers playing music, which they loved. They used to tell my three sisters and me, "You want to be like us and have a job doing something you love so that when you get up every day and go to work you'll be happy to do it."

CB: How will you transition to the Fine Arts Fund from your current situation?
MW: There may be some limited ongoing Washington work, but only to the extent that it's helpful to this job to keep those contacts. The only reason I'm not moving right away is that I have foundation grants and deliverables for The Mobility Agenda I want to fulfill.

Mobility won't shut down completely. We have a lot of great info on our web site, a lot that will be helpful to the next administration in Washington. Part of the transition plan involves trying to keep our work in front of the right people and respond to requests for information. I do a lot of public speaking and traveling in this job, and a little bit of that might be able to continue, but I really need to leave that to the next person.