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The Cleveland Arts Prize Honors Veteran Arts Advocate Barbara Robinson

Barbara Robinson: "There is a path that people can take in which they work together."

The Cleveland Arts Prize will honor Barbara Robinson with a new award in her name dedicated to arts advocacy next week.

Over the course of 88 years, arts and culture have defined Robinson’s life.  She took violin lessons at the age of three, she headed the Ohio Arts Council for 13 years, and served four terms as chair of a Washington-based assembly of state arts agencies.

Robinson also helped spearhead an effort in the 1980s that saved the National Endowment for the Arts when congressional critics tried to shut it down.

In a recent conversation, she chalked up her success through the years to having a personal touch with politicians.

“I began to realize that the legislators were just like us,” Robinson said. “They were people and they wanted to be re-elected, they wanted to be seen as somewhat of a good guy.” 

So, she tailored her arguments to those needs.  She brought them statistics on the number of people employed in arts-related jobs.  She documented how many teachers used the arts within their various disciplines.  She’d even ask lawmakers if they sang in their church or synagogue.  Robinson said she used a similar approach with regular citizens when she was lobbying for passage of an arts levy.

“People didn’t realize how large of an art sector there is,” she said.  “If you asked, ‘Are arts important,’ there are many, many people who would say, ‘Yes.’  They haven’t done anything about it, in terms of advocacy, but they think it’s important.” 

So, she tried to find the personal connection that each person had to the arts and build communities of grassroots advocates.  This technique was put to the test during the so-called “culture wars” of the 1980s, when congressional leaders like North Carolina Senator Jesse Helms attempted to shut down the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) for occasionally supporting controversial artworks.

As chair of the National Assembly of State Arts Agencies, Robinson marshalled a massive lobbying campaign to preserve the NEA, which involved "going across the whole country to every single region, urging the people there to [talk to] their elected officials and get them to fight Jesse Helms,” she said. 

Robinson said the divisive nature of political discourse today makes it challenging to build similar coalitions to protect arts funding. She finds it particularly disturbing that Republicans and Democrats don’t seem to talk to each other anymore. 

“We talk about identity politics, these days, and we talk about, ‘if you’re not with me, you’re against me,' using terrible language about people and being very disrespectful of differences,” she said. 

As such, she hopes the Barbara S. Robinson Prize for the Advancement of the Arts will help seed a new generation of arts advocates.

“It gives a certain awareness that there is a path that people can take in which they work together, in which they get other people to work together,” she said.  “I do hope that it does encourage others to step forward, not to stand back from the challenge and say: ‘Oh, it’s a challenge, I can’t do anything about it,’ but to say, ‘Yes, there’s something I can do.’”

David C. Barnett was a senior arts & culture reporter for Ideastream Public Media. He retired in October 2022.