Americans for the Arts

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Americans for the Arts

1000 Vermont Ave. NW, 12th Fl.
Washington, DC 20005
Telephone: (202) 371-2830
Fax: (202) 371-0424
Web site:



In 2002 the nonprofit arts-advocacy group Americans for the Arts (AFA) teamed up with the Advertising Council, the producer of a myriad of public-service advertising campaigns, to present the "Art. Ask for More" campaign. The organizers believed that the arts were a valuable component in the education of children and were concerned that, in an age of budget cuts, it was receiving short shrift. In order to make the case for increased funding for arts education in public schools, the campaign targeted parents and community leaders.

Texas-based ad agency GSD&M created the campaign, which was funded by a $1 million grant and was the recipient of approximately $30 million in donated media each year. It consisted of television and radio spots, print ads, outdoor advertisements, and Internet elements. Many of the advertisements highlighted Americans' lack of arts knowledge, claiming, for instance, that trumpet player Louis Armstrong was often confused with astronaut Neil Armstrong, the first man to walk on the moon. They also humorously illustrated the effects of too little art in a child's development. One television spot showed a child boring everyone at the dinner table by reciting a typical day at school, minus art; another depicted a child whose idea of a fun bedtime story was a volume of arcane zoning regulations.

The "Art. Ask for More" campaign, according to organizers, succeeded in raising awareness about the importance of the arts in education. It was also successful in attracting a great deal of free national media as well as participation from local arts groups. In 2003 the print campaign won three ATHENA Awards, which were given out annually to honor newspaper ads.


Americans for the Arts (AFA) was formed in 1996 through the merger of the National Assembly of Local Arts Agencies and the American Council for the Arts. Their combined resources allowed AFA to better advocate for greater emphasis on arts education in the United States. The state of public education in America in the final decades of the twentieth century had come under question, as it appeared that U.S. students were falling further behind their foreign counterparts in a number of areas. Because so many jobs of the future were related to information and technology, most of the remedies for fixing school systems called for a greater emphasis on reading, math, and science. Many schools had never offered much in terms of arts education, but now, because of budget cuts, schools had to make difficult choices about how to allocate funds, and in many cases art programs were slashed or eliminated altogether.

AFA and other arts advocates argued that the elimination of art programs—including the visual arts, music, dance, and drama—in public schools was shortsighted. Their position, backed by various studies, was that arts education played a vital role in the development of children and that building cultural awareness was just as important as improving math skills and an understanding of science. AFA argued that art education was important to early childhood development and was especially valuable in shaping brain and motor coordination. As children grew older, involvement in the arts helped increase self-esteem, improved problem-solving skills, instilled a sense of discipline, and promoted the concept of teamwork. A quality arts education often led to a strong overall academic performance, as reflected in College Board research that indicted that students who studied the arts for four years scored 89 points higher on the Scholastic Aptitude Test. Moreover, AFA contended that after-school arts programs were an effective way to reduce the problem of delinquency and truancy in youth.

To make its case for the arts to the general public, AFA received a $1 million grant from the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation. It then enlisted the services of Texas advertising agency GSD&M and the Ad Council to develop an ad campaign. "Art. Ask for More" was released in February 2001. Nearly 300 smaller arts organizations agreed to promote the campaign on the local level, although many more ultimately participated.


According to research cited by AFA, 9 out of 10 parents agreed that it was important to teach art in the schools. What they failed to understand, AFA asserted, was that a cursory exposure to the arts was not sufficient and that schools needed to do more than simply fend off further budget cuts; they also needed to add more to their arts programs. Because only 7 percent of funding for public education came from the federal government, the focus of the "Art. Ask for More" campaign was on civic leaders and on parents with children in public schools. AFA wanted to impress upon this audience the value of an arts education and to urge them to put pressure on their local school boards, where a great deal of budgetary decisions were increasingly being made. In addition AFA sought to encourage parents to expose their children to the arts outside of the school by, for example, making sure that the home included an abundance of pictures and books, taking advantage of local cultural resources, enrolling in art classes as a family, encouraging children to draw at home, singing songs together, and making up stories. The campaign was also intended to encourage people with an artistic skill to share it by serving as a volunteer to help teach children.


While it was hard to argue that art education did not have its place in public schools, AFA was not without its share of critics, who questioned the underlying assumption of the "Art. Ask for More" campaign. Writing for Arts Education Policy Review, Constance Bumgarner Gee noted that AFA "does not mention what type of art is important for kids to 'get' or what desirable knowledge or experience is to be had by getting more art." Regarding the campaign's goal of generating press coverage about art education, Gee commented that "no explanation is offered of the value or purpose of getting more art for kids other than to 'gain local media attention for your organization.'"


The Advertising Council, the nonprofit organization responsible for distributing the "Art. Ask for More" campaign, had a long history of involvement with public-service announcements before working with Americans for the Arts, the campaign's sponsor. Over the years the Ad Council was involved in a wide range of issues, including the selling of war bonds in World War II, fighting drunk driving, and preventing forest fires. In 1995 the Ad Council decided to focus much of its resources on a single topic: children. It launched "Commitment 2000: Raising a Better Tomorrow," a 10-year effort to pursue a range of issues relating to children, including violence, education, and health care. Some of the ongoing campaigns, such as drunk driving, were recast to include children. The "Art. Ask for More" campaign was part of this new targeted strategy.

In addition, AFA's attempt to make art programs a panacea for all manners of societal ills was also debatable. Of course, after-school programs helped to reduce problems among at-risk youths. That was a lesson learned a century prior, when Boys Clubs were established to provide an after-school alternative for disadvantaged urban youths. There the emphasis was on sports, but the clubs also offered reading rooms and art activities. It could be argued that after-school art programs were not necessarily more effective than, say, a boxing program such as the Gold Gloves, which over the decades had developed a proven track record in curbing youth problems in the inner city. Boxing could also make the claim that it instilled discipline and a sense of accomplishment. According to Karen Libman, also writing for Arts Education Policy Review, arts advocates "have often garnered support for the arts through any means necessary, even unsupported advocacy claims. It is time to own up to this…. Advocacy cannot mean that we portray ourselves as all things to all people … while art can do many things, it cannot do everything. If we promise that, or try to prove it, we will certainly fail."

Aside from questions about its premise, "Art. Ask for More" had to compete for attention with something that also assumed the mantle of art: entertainment. A study conducted by the Columbia School of Journalism revealed that coverage of the arts had in recent years been replaced by entertainment news, much of which was dominated by celebrity gossip. In fact, the largest category of arts coverage was obituaries of artists and entertainers. The blurred distinction between entertainment and art was yet another challenge facing the campaign.


"Art. Ask for More" was released in January 2002 and included television and radio spots, print ads, outdoor advertisements, and Web banners. The strategy of the advertising was to demonstrate, often in a humorous way, the effects of having too little art education. The first television spot, for example, featured a young boy who encountered a street musician playing a violin and told him, "Get a job!" Next the boy was shown at a party; when a clown made a giraffe out of balloons, the boy commented, "I don't see it."

Later TV spots showed other children affected by the lack of art in their lives. In the spot called "Dinner" a young boy was asked about his day at school. His parents were dismayed by the monotony of his routine: "I went to lunch and then I ate it, and then lunch was over …" A voice-over by actor Alec Baldwin interrupted the boy's narrative, commenting, "The less art a kid gets, the more it shows. Are yours getting enough? Art. Ask for more." In another spot, "Girl," a young girl riding in a car with her mother changed radio stations, switching from music to financial news. Then before going to bed she asked her father to read from a thick volume titled "Zoning and Variances." Other television spots relied on celebrities such as rapper Chuck D, who stressed the role that art played in a child's development.

The campaign's radio spots took a man-in-the-street approach, as an interviewer recorded people's misidentification of famous artists. Thus, the ballet dancer Rudolph Nureyev was confused with a hockey player, jazz musician Louis Armstrong was mistaken for the first man to walk on the moon, and modern-dance pioneer Martha Graham was credited with the invention of the graham cracker. The print ads also played with the same idea using the same artists. In one ad a picture of Louis Armstrong playing his horn was accompanied by a headline that read: "No wonder people think Louis Armstrong was the first man to walk on the moon." The text of the ad offered a brief biography of Armstrong, who learned to play the trumpet at a reformatory for boys, and then commented, "the arts are dismissed as extravagant in today's schools," before making the case that the arts made better students. Other print ads focused on the sixteenth-century painter Caravaggio and the composer Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky.

Another major facet of the "Art. Ask for More" campaign was local participation. Area arts groups contacted local media to draw attention to the resources of the campaign's website. An example of local initiatives was the commissioning of a bus in Chicago to showcase the artwork of area students by allowing them to decorate the outside of the bus, essentially turning it into a rolling mural. The idea was also taken up in Hampton Roads, Virginia. On the backs of the buses the national "Art. Ask for More" campaign was promoted.


"Art. Ask for More" became a long-term campaign for AFA and the Ad Council. After two years the organizers announced that they were pleased with the results. Polling indicated a strong increase in support for arts education in U.S. schools. The campaign had also received a great deal of media support, in two years garnering $110 million in national media donations for television and radio airtime and print space. It also received time from major broadcast TV, cable, and radio networks in America's top 100 media markets as well as placement in such publications as the New York Times, USA Today, Parade, and Time. In addition, the campaign was bolstered by the support of 367 local partners across the country. In June 2005 AFA began to modify the focus of the campaign. Having made its point about the need for arts education, it began attempting to educate people about how they could effectively serve as advocates for the arts in their own communities.

The "Art. Ask for More" campaign was also well received by the advertising industry. In 2003 GSD&M was honored by the Newspaper Association of America in its annual ATHENA Awards, which recognized excellence in newspaper advertising. The agency won a gold award for the campaign as well as a gold award and silver awards for individual print ads.


"Ads Suggest the Pitfalls of Losing Art Education." New York Times, January 26, 2002, p. B12.

"Alec Baldwin Stars in Arts Ad Campaign." Long Island Business News, February 8, 2002, p. 13A.

Burck, Jodi. "Teach Aims to Ignite Art 'Spark' for All." Grand Rapids (MI) Press, April 8, 2002, p. D1.

Charski, Mindy. "Print Honors Go to Richards, DDB, GSD&M." Adweek (southwest ed.), September 25, 2003.

Gee, Constance Bumgarner. "Spirit, Mind, and Body: Arts Education the Redeemer." Arts Education Policy Review, March-April 2004, p. 9.

Houston, Allen. "Nonprofit Group Presents Arts to American Children." PR Week, February 11, 2002, p. 7.

Libman, Karen. "Some Thoughts on Arts Advocacy: Separating the Hype from the Reality." Arts Education Policy Review, January-February 2004, p. 31.

Messina, Debbie. "City Buses Showcase Artwork of Students to Promote Courses." Norfolk (VA) Virginian-Pilot, March 22, 2002, p. B4.

"Mining Arts' Value in Austin." Back Stage, June 16, 2005.

Riley, Kevin W. "Art: A Recreation Thing." Parks & Recreation, July 2002, p 22.

                                    Ed Dinger

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Americans for the Arts

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