Museums Advocacy Day

Every year during the last week of February, hundreds of museum staff, volunteers, and supporters from across the US gather in Washington, DC and meet with legislators and their staff for Museums Advocacy Day. This event is organized by the American Alliance of Museums (AAM), and for the last four years, CWAM has had at least two members attend to talk to legislators representing both Colorado and Wyoming.

The ultimate goal of Museums Advocacy Day is to have conversations about the importance of museums and cultural organizations in our communities. Advocates also ask for legislators’ support for the Office of Museum Services (OMS) at the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS), which need to have funding renewed every year, and other pertinent issues to museums and cultural organizations. Museum advocates (who are also usually constituents representing their own districts or states) are well suited to speak to legislators, because legislators want to know what is going on in their areas and how it impacts their constituents.

What is it like to participate in Museums Advocacy Day?

Museums Advocacy Day is a two-day event at the end of February. Anyone interested in participating has to register, the deadline for which is usually around the end of January. You can indicate your advocacy level (beginner, intermediate, advanced), and you can also specify what area(s) you want to represent: your home district, your work district, your whole state, and/or another state. About a week before the event, AAM provides digital copies of the year’s Advocate Handbook, which includes: summaries of the most pertinent issues for museums that year, congressional office contact info and voting records of legislators in regards to museum-specific issues, a map of Capitol Hill, and general facts about museums and the impacts on their communities. They also send individual agendas for everyone detailing when and where the office visits will be, and with whom they will be meeting. The night before the event officially begins, there are meetups and opportunities for networking.

The first full day is “advocacy bootcamp,” where speakers who specialize in advocacy and politics teach everyone how to communicate effectively with legislators and staff, with emphasis on the importance of how to “make the ask.” There are also additional speakers who delve into more detail about the topics in the Advocate Handbook, as well as analyses of the current state of Capitol Hill. At lunchtime, everyone breaks to go eat at tables with other advocates from their state, and it is a good time to get to know colleagues. At the end of the day, there is more time to get together with the state delegation to go over the plan for the office visits, and also practice talking points. AAM provides sample scripts, and it is always encouraged to personalize them to talk about your museum or organization, issues that directly affect the community, and topics that specific Congresspeople are interested in.

The second day is office visits. Members of the House and Senate are divided across five different buildings on Capitol Hill; while underground tunnels connect some of them, access may vary, and sometimes you get to go topside and walk at the street level. It’s a great opportunity for exercise and to view historic buildings, but it’s definitely advised to wear comfortable shoes! The visits themselves can be a little nerve-racking at first, but after the first couple of meetings, everyone eases into a sort of “talking routine”: everyone exchanges business cards (which are very important to obtain from staffers so that you can follow up later), advocates present folders of information provided by AAM, and if there are multiple people in the delegation, everyone goes through the talking points chosen for that meeting. It’s most likely that advocates will talk to a staffer, and they will be engaged in the conversation and take notes to pass on to their bosses. At the end of the day, there is a Congressional Reception with food and beverages, which staffers and Congresspeople are also invited to attend. During the Reception, AAM also takes time to honor a legislator that has worked to benefit the museum community.

After Museums Advocacy Day, the “advocacy” isn’t over yet; indeed, the post-visit follow-up can be more important than the visit itself. Legislators and their staff see many visitors and advocates for all sorts of causes in a given week, and it is important to touch base again to remind them of the visit. Additionally, because Museums Advocacy Day is largely about renewing funding for the OMS or reauthorizing IMLS, a big “ask” is for legislators to indicate their support for these offices. Shortly after Museums Advocacy Day, specific Congresspeople in the House of Representatives and the Senate will initiate the circulation of “dear colleague” letters, and part of the follow-up is to ask them to sign these letters. Staffers also will sometimes have asked questions that you didn’t know the answer to—and it’s ok to not have all the answers—so it’s important to make a note of it, do research after the visit, and follow-up as soon as possible.

Advocate from work or home!

Museums Advocacy Day is a very rewarding experience, but you don’t have to go to DC to be an advocate. Indeed, advocating from work or home has never been easier! AAM has a number of resources on their website dedicated to general advocacy skills, topics specifics to museums advocacy, and how to invite local, state, and federal Congresspeople to visit your museum.

While having in-person visits is the most effective form of advocacy communication, phone calls are a close second, as well as emails directed to specific staffers. Social media is also starting to make bigger waves with Congresspeople, particularly when you @ them and post positive comments about your interactions with them or their staff, but having direct contact with a person is always best. Phone calls are not only efficient, they also only take a couple of minutes! Staffers are putting issues from callers into a tally, so calls don’t need to be argumentative or persuasive. Just choose 1-2 subjects, and have a short script or bullet points to help keep you focused and calm. Here is what a sample call can sound like:

“Hello, my name is ___, and I am a constituent in [city, state, zip code]. I am calling today to ask that Senator/Congressperson support… [OR] I would like to voice my concern about…”

When you are finishing up the call—or any interaction with legislators or staff—be sure to thank them!

by Stefani S. Pendergast


Let’s Talk Labor

In late 2018 the CWAM board convened a sub-committee to foster critically-needed dialog on labor issues. Our intent was to gather data on how paid, under-paid, and unpaid labor vary between our states. The sub-committee committed to: an online survey, follow-up interviews with those who expressed willingness to answer more detailed and nuanced questions, and an in-person town hall. We hoped that these research strategies would inform efforts to create space for honest dialog, and perhaps ‘tool-kits’, workshops, annual meeting sessions, or other ways to support museum professionals in addressing labor issues.

For my part, I must say that it was an honor to speak with museum professionals who openly shared their successes regarding volunteer and internship programs, while also candidly discussing past failures or current shortcomings of their organizations. There were many encouraging conversations about ways to improve, and some truly inspirational ideas for how CWAM can help! This blog post is only the beginning of what I hope will be a multi-year effort.

One takeaway that is already clear is that there is strong desire to learn more about estimated cost of living, with 66% of respondents indicating an interest in the topic. Respondents from museums of all sizes and governance types, from across both states expressed interest. Cost of living, especially when compared with salaries for job postings, was a hot topic. This is an area CWAM can easily address by providing access to, and consultation on, cost of living compared with salaries offered for positions. As there is great economic variance within our two states, this could provide a valuable service to our members by promoting transparency.

Pay inequity was also a big topic, interviewees pinned this as one of the biggest issues facing their area. However, it proved multi-faceted. Some interviewees were concerned with implicit devaluing of departments that typically received lower salaries than others (education or visitor services, for example). For others, the ratio of pay between top-tier management and mid-level management vs the responsibilities of the positions was the core. Still others cited the inequity of pay between museums and other industries with similar educational requirements or skill sets (marketing and communications or project management, for example).

A lot of the labor issues discussed boiled down to a need for greater transparency. Interviews with employees of municipal/university institutions inspired a new tactic: let’s look to these types of institutions for benchmarks on salaries. Since the salary information for these types of institutions is publicly available, CWAM could compile a report with this data to guide private non-profits in setting salaries. Such a report would empower job seekers to evaluate salaries listed for positions they may be considering. We hope to prototype this report soon!

Another ongoing tactic CWAM will continue to utilize is to hold space for dialog on labor and salary transparency so that there are opportunities for museum employees to ask questions and seek guidance among peers. As these issues will undoubtedly evolve with the field and with the changing economic realities of both states, CWAM is committed to supporting dialog on unpaid labor (and museum labor more generally) at the state level, in both states. Stay tuned for more updates, and please reach out if you have questions, concerns, or ideas!

by Jessica Brunecky


About the author:

Jessica Brunecky is vice president of the Colorado–Wyoming Association of Museum’s board of directors, and Director of Visitor Experience for the University of Colorado Art Museum. In 2018 she co-authored two white papers for the University of Colorado’s Academic Futures Initiative: “Is It An Art? A Case Study of Teaching at the CU Art Museum” and “Informal learning at CU Boulder’s museums and the impact on student experience: now and for the future”. Her 2015 paper “Enticing and Engaging the Millennial Audience” was included in the University Museums and Collections Journal Volume 8.