Arts and Philanthropy: Unpacking Public Funding

WMA introduces a new interview series in 2022, focusing on connections between the arts and philanthropy. In this interview, Melissa Rea, the museum’s Director of Advancement, chatted with Alabama Representative Paul Lee, who has represented the State’s 86th District since 2010.

Melissa: Paul, thanks for taking the time to talk with us and explore some questions about public funding. Before we jump into it, I’m curious – What’s a day in the life of a state representative like, especially now that you’re in session? 

Rep. Lee: It sometimes feels as if I’m burning the candle at both ends. Most of us Representatives also have a job and in my case, a fairly large business to run. From Tuesday through Thursday I’m in Montgomery, and so I only have two days a week that I’m here in Dothan to catch up. Fortunately, I have a really great staff that helps me handle it. The legislative session is only four months out of the year, but leading up to the session, there is a lot of work that takes place. That preparation period is when most folks are calling with their concerns, trying to get a law passed, or they have a request for funding, or need help getting things lined up. It’s a busy time and many times we are working well past midnight, until 3 or 4 in the morning, because the work has to be done. We have to get a lot done in a very short amount of time.

Melissa: That sounds intensely busy, and I imagine that many of your constituents don’t know the full scope of the time commitment that it takes to do that kind of work. 

Rep. Lee: And that happens all throughout the year. Many residents from our district reach out needing direction to resources, so much of my work is to help figure out what I can do next to help them, or who I need to get them to talk to. 

Melissa: Speaking of helping people, we’re talking about the arts and philanthropy today, and you see first-hand how public funding happens at the State level. Is there anything that you hear often from your constituents about the public funding process? What do you wish people knew more about?

Rep. Lee: I think it’s important for our residents to know that in Alabama, we have a balanced budget act, so we can’t spend more money out than comes in. Fortunately, the State of Alabama is in really good economic shape, and was even prior to the pandemic. We’re as solid financially as we’ve been in some time, and we have received some federal funding over the past few years, with strings attached, to help during the pandemic. In a normal year, we do get many requests for certain types of funding. In certain areas of the budget, the amount of funding is restricted and has to be used specifically for certain departments or priorities. Now, special grant funding is different from that, and often people don’t really understand that unless it’s new money, we’re having to prioritize what can be disbursed, and that can be really challenging. 

Alabama is also one of four states that have two budgets. Most only have one, but we have a regular budget and an education budget.

Melissa: When we’re talking about the arts and philanthropy and state funding, there are a few opportunities through special grants, and probably the most familiar opportunity for arts organizations in our state is funding through the Alabama State Council on the Arts (ASCA). The Council’s funding is supported by the state legislature, and they also receive funding from the National Endowment for the Arts. Whenever you see local arts organizations receiving Council grants, what impact do you hope to see come from those? 

Rep Lee: One of the things that I hope happens with some of these smaller grants is that the  art programs and events they support can help get people there. These get people interested in what you have to offer, and get interested in a long term relationship with the organizations. These are people inside of your own community, not people just popping in and out, but people whose support will be in it for the long haul. And even though people can contribute financially, we also hope that they contribute to an artistic community in a way that is meaningful to them.

Melissa: Right! Whenever we talk about community support, that often means members and donors, but it also means people who give their time. At the end of every year, we have a long list of people who have volunteered their hours and days at the museum, and that is often just as valuable as monetary support.  

Rep. Lee: Agreed. You can’t always put in money, but you can give your time. 

Melissa: On this topic of grants, we receive project grants from ASCA, supporting an average of 4 projects per year, totaling anywhere from $20-25,000, and these projects vary from year to year. Almost always, there’s a matching fund requirement, where the museum has to supply a 1:1 match for any funds received. I’m curious – Do you think that matching funds are important for grants from public funding, and why?

Rep. Lee: It can be, but a 1:1 match may be a little high, as many federal grants are an 80/20 split. I do think that matching grants help to show the integrity of the organization, that they have some skin in the game, and are willing to put forth the effort to make it work. It helps the community to see the organizations are invested in the long-term success of the project.

Melissa: Yes, and it can be a motivating force in a comprehensive fundraising plan. I think that even these smaller grants are good examples of public private partnerships. We ask individuals and corporations from the private sectors to come alongside the public funding support that we receive. And, it helps organizations to build great communication skills, to be able to talk to diverse audiences about why their work is important. 

Rep. Lee: We see that idea of matching funds working in all forms of philanthropy, and the United Way is another example of that. 

Melissa: Specific to WMA, in addition to state funding that we’ve received from ASCA, we’ve also received grants from federal funding sources in recent years, including the National Endowment for the Humanities, and the Institute for Museum and Library Services. These have helped us to care for our collection so that art is more accessible for future generations within our community. We’re grateful to receive this support and attention, but it is often uncommon that small to midsize museums, especially in the Deep South, are awarded with these types of grants. Have you seen good examples of how geographically isolated and smaller communities successfully advocate for their needs? And what can arts organizations learn from those examples of success?

Rep. Lee: It is always important to identify areas with needs that are consistently overlooked. Organizations with like-minded issues and missions should collaborate to have at least a short-term presence in Montgomery during the budgeting process, because of the pace of work in the weeks leading up to legislative sessions. What is a big issue to your organization might be unintentionally overlooked without that advocacy. We see rural hospitals and physicians, nurses, nursing homes all advocating for their needs in these regions, and all need representation. This is a good conversation for arts organizations to have. 

Melissa: We see advocacy as a necessary part of any funding conversation. We have just recently participated in Museums Advocacy Day on March 2nd, and elected officials at the school board, City, and County level visited the museum, learning about our work and mission in the Wiregrass. And in advocacy work, we really do have to find and create those opportunities to have face to face conversations about the impact of our work, just to cut through the noise of mail and email. It’s definitely a priority for us at WMA to communicate not just with our members about our impact, but also the general public and our community stakeholders. Do you have any final thoughts about the arts and philanthropy when it comes to public funding, or state appropriations?

Rep. Lee: My biggest piece of advice on advocacy for public funding is this – timing is everything. For those who are asking their representatives to take up an issue, whether it’s for the arts, or any other issue, the conversations that you have with your own community, and with your state officials, should be relevant to funding cycles. That takes time but is worth the effort in planning. 

Melissa: Representative Lee, we appreciate your time and your work on behalf of the residents of the Wiregrass. Come visit us soon at WMA!

Rep Lee: Thanks to all of you at the museum!


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