This week, a group of MMA members and I will be headed to our nation’s capitol to talk about museums with those who represent us in Congress. The event is coordinated by the American Alliance of Museums and has been taking place for almost a decade.
This will be my fifth time participating in Museums Advocacy Day and I look forward to it every year. I thought you might like to know a little more about what happens when we are there.
The first step to participating in Museums Advocacy Day is getting there, and sometimes this is the hardest part of the trip. The event is always at the end of February, which is a good time to connect with our legislators before they get too far into the year, but can be a challenge weather-wise. I used to fly out of the Pellston airport, which is only 20 minutes from my house, but after several years of being stranded during one part of the trip or another, I now fly out of Detroit. This can also be a challenge, but at least I have a little more control of where and how I am stranded!
One of the ways MMA can attend Museums Advocacy Day each year is because I stay with family, who live in Ellicot City. Each day of the event I commute into the city on a train with hundreds of other people. It is a bit different from my work commutes the rest of the year!
Museums Advocacy Day 2014
The Museums Advocacy Day event is three days long. The first day, Sunday, has smaller group activities for some event attendees. There is also an opening reception on Sunday evening. I haven’t been able to attend that event before, but this year I am receiving an award so I will definitely be there. This year the reception is at the Museum of the Women in the Arts.
The main part of the event begins on Monday. Hundreds of museum professionals, board members, volunteers, and others will gather in a large hotel ballroom to spend the day getting ready to hit the halls of Congress. We will hear from representatives of the federal funding agencies that are connected to museums, like the NEA, NEH, and IMLS. We will also hear from policy experts who will tell us about bills and actions being considered by Congress, and how that will impact museums. Finally, we will get specific training about what to do and expect when we meet with our legislators. AAM will provide us with specific “asks” and they will talk about how best to do that. At the end of the day, each of the state’s delegates will gather together, compare schedules, and form a gameplan. We will all be scheduled to visit our Senators, Debbie Stabenow and Gary Peters, so at the meeting we decide who will talk about what. We will break up into smaller groups to visit the Michigan’s representatives, and during this meeting we coordinate sending extra people along to meetings, especially for new people. By the end of the day, our brains are exhausted.
We're Michiganders! Snow won't stop us at Museums Advocacy Day in 2014
Tuesday is the big day! Several of us usually attend a Constituent Coffee at Senator Stabenow’s office. This is an event she hosts most Tuesdays, and it is open to the public. We will wait in line with other groups visiting Washington DC. One year, we were behind a veterans group. Another year it was 911 operators. It’s so interesting to hear the “asks” of the other people at the coffee. Eventually, we get near the coffee pot and fill our cups. A little while later, the line will bring us into Senator Stabenow’s office, where we will get to introduce ourselves and have a short conversation. Finally, we will all line up and get a photograph, which the Senator’s staff posts on her website by the end of the day. It feels a tiny bit like a cattle call, but is a really cool experience as well. The delegates that don’t attend the coffee can go to the kick-off breakfast hosted by AAM, where they will be fed a light meal and hear inspiring speeches. After breakfast, our work begins!
Our first meetings of the day are always with our Senators. Sometimes they are combined, but most years we meet at each office separately. It is rare to meet with our actual senator or representative at any of these meetings, but one year we did get to meet with Senator Peters, which was exciting. But we don’t mind meeting with the staffers alone. They are the ones who do all the research for their senator or representative, so the information we share with them is put to good use. Many of the staffers are from Michigan, so I always like to remind them of the museums in their district. I usually heard one or two school field trip stories at that point.
Lisa and Sanam at Museums Advocacy Day in 2015
Once we’ve had a chance for introductions, we will settle in to the meeting. We usually talk generally about museums in Michigan (that’s my job) and what sort of value we know they add to their communities, and then we focus on the “asks”. Most of the time we talk about the Institute for Museum and Library Services and ask for authorization and funding. I like to be able to tell a representative about MAP and CAP grants they have gotten in their districts, because they don’t usually know what they are or what they do, as well as regular IMLS grants. Another regular “ask” is about the charitable deduction. There is usually some kind of plan being considered that would totally eliminate it, or change it in a way that would impact giving in museums. We like to talk about how museums are funded and how we all depend on charitable contributions.
Once we’ve had a chance to talk for awhile, the person we are meeting with, who has been smiling and nodding as we are talking, usually says something positive that related to what we’ve said. In some cases, the staffer will totally support everything we’ve asked for and we talk specifics. In other cases, they staffer will acknowledge our concerns and talk about the need to trim the budget or balance other needs, and gives more of a neutral response. Everyone is always polite and civil, and even when I know that the representative will not likely support our requests, I never feel disrespected.
This same meeting will take place again and again during the day. For the past couple of years, Michigan delegates have been able to visit at least half of our legislative offices. My hope is that some day, we will have meetings with them all.
Erin, Tobi, and Marilyn with Senator Debbie Stabenow in 2016
Unfortunately, we can’t visit ALL of Michigan’s offices, but we make sure everyone knows we’re in town. AAM provides a packet of materials for us to bring to our meetings, and for the past several years, MMA has added our own materials. We collect thank you notes and letters from our members, and include them as a packet. This year we will also include the MMA brochure and information from Creative Many about Michigan nonprofits..
I bring a cheat sheet along on my meetings. The sheet includes a list of IMLS grants that have gone to the district, and the names of at least some other museums as well as some interesting programs or projects that have been done. My cheat sheet is usually scribbled on the back of the schedule but this year, thanks to a group of volunteers, we will each have a printed list of all grants that each district has received from IMLS, NEA, and NEH over the past several years. That is going to be great to have.
Michigan Museums advocates with Senator Gary Peters in 2016
Once we’ve spent the day scurrying from one office to another, we will gather for a reception for all of the delegates from every state, as well as any legislators or their staff who come. They are all invited throughout the day in our meetings. At the reception, there are speeches, but AAM also presents several awards to people who have done something amazing related to museums. One year, we met a veteran who started a gardening program to help other veterans heal from PTSD. Another year, we met a little boy who spoke to the state legislature in Illinois to help save the state museum there. I’m not going to lie, I am usually exhausted by then, but I still love hearing the stories. Once the reception is over, everyone heads back to the hotel or starts their journey home.
Flying back to Michigan the day after the event is always contemplative for me (of course I am also trying to figure out how I will get home because there WILL be bad weather). But I also think about the democratic process and how it all works. I am somewhat cynical about how much of a say the “little guy” really has in our government, but I never leave Museums Advocacy Day without a sense of optimism that maybe I am wrong. I never fail to learn something new, and to hear new ways of talking about the value of museums in our communities. I'm sure this year will be no different!
Lisa Craig Brisson
Executive Director, Michigan Museums Association