“If you want to become a polling place, press one.”

Four arts leaders talk about opening their doors to voters on Election Day (and how you can, too).

Cornerstone Theater Company on California Primary Day (June 7, 2016) | Photo: Ilia Lopez

While the 2016 election promises to be an historic event regardless of its political outcome, this year may also be noted for a rise in civic engagement activities by arts organizations. Four of our grantee-partners — Cornerstone Theater Company, Movimiento de Arte y Cultura Latino Americana, the Santa Cruz Museum of Art and History, and Yerba Buena Center for the Arts — in the New California Arts Fund initiative each independently chose to become a polling place in the California primary and general elections this year.

Nearly 7 million people are expected to show up to a California polling place on November 8, making it an opportunity to reach a significant portion of our state. Polling places can be almost anywhere — from schools to synagogues, community centers to city hall. So why not a museum or theatre?

– Stephanie Brown, The James Irvine Foundation

YBCA Election Night Party 2012 | Photo: YBCA

Why is civic engagement important?

Arts organizations connect civic engagement to their missions in many different ways and place varying emphasis on the value of becoming a polling place for the primary and general elections. For some, it’s an opportunity to build bridges into their community alongside many other audience engagement efforts.

For others, civic engagement has become so core to their institution that their mission statement has changed to reflect it. Each of our four grantee-partners spoke about why they chose to become a polling place for the 2016 elections.

P“People might be coming in to vote, but they might also stop to see the artwork and engage with what we have here at the space,” said Anjee Helstrup-Alvarez, executive director of Movimiento de Arte y Cultura Latino Americana (MACLA) in San Jose. “It’s an area of pride for our staff and our board to be a neighborhood polling center. It’s an opportunity for us to get to know people in our neighborhood, welcoming them into MACLA’s space. Being a polling center is a great opportunity to become woven into the fabric of a community, on a very local, micro level.”

Ilia Lopez, director of strategic relations at Cornerstone Theater Company based in downtown L.A.’s arts district echoed similar sentiments. “Being a polling place reaffirmed for us that our community wants to know about us. They’re curious what happens beyond our gates. It’s a challenge for Cornerstone because we’re community based, so we spend a lot of time on the road. Sometimes it’s been hard to gain the support of our local neighborhood. Being able to open our doors as a polling place and invite our neighbors in is an opportunity to build audiences, as well as future donors and supporters of Cornerstone. The fact that we can open our doors to offer our community a place to vote says, ‘We’re here for you. We might not be providing art in the arts district all the time, but we’re thinking of other ways we can support our community.’ Becoming a polling place has definitely opened up some options for us and has inspired us to pursue other civic engagement paths.”

The Santa Cruz Museum of Art and History (MAH) has served as a polling place since before executive director Nina Simon arrived. But for her the museum as a civic institution goes far beyond being a place to cast a ballot. “We want to help underrepresented voices and stories in our community to shine,” Simon shared. “It’s very important for our mission that art and history is at the heart of our community. If you have that mission, you have to ask yourself, where beyond our building should we be helping to catalyze art and history…One way to choose to step up is as a voting location. But that’s only one tactic among many. Voting is symbolically important, but being a voting location is just one marker of the kind of civic engagement that we want to work on.”

“Vote at YBCA” Poster at a San Francisco Transit Stop | Photo: YBCA

San Francisco’s Yerba Buena Center for the Arts (YBCA) is similarly working to bring civic engagement to the core of their organization. “We want to see people who are empowered because we have used our creative skills as an arts organization to make change happen,” said Jon Moscone, chief of civic engagement at YBCA, “It’s important for organizations to bring people in [as audience and donors], but that’s not where my head is. We want to redirect the assets we have as arts organizations to have greater impact in the neighborhoods around us.”

He continued, “I think as a standalone gesture, becoming a polling place may be a small thing, but it’s a pretty significant concept. It’s a big deal to overtly make it possible for people to gather in our space…We’re taught that we can’t lobby, we can’t get involved in politics, but actually we can within certain limits. If arts organizations don’t identify impact greater than their own survival, they will not survive. That is the question of relevance.”

MACLA on California Primary Day (June 7, 2016) | Photo: MACLA

How do you become a polling place?

Becoming a polling place for the primary or general elections might be easier than you think.

“If you want to become a polling place, press one,” intoned the automated menu when Moscone called San Francisco’s department of elections. He left a short voicemail message noting YBCA’s interest and within a week the elections staff was poking around the YBCA lobby.

“They were so excited,” Moscone remembered. “They said, ‘This is the most beautiful space to ever be a polling place. They’re usually in basements of churches or garages, but this is really meant for people to congregate in.’ And I’m thinking, is it really? It feels so straightforward.” He advised, “You just call them up and do it. Arts organizations don’t know what they are capable of doing, other than advocating for their needs. Google their phone number, say we’d like to be a polling place. They pay you $150 and give you a kit to do it.”

BSometimes it takes a little nudging from a partner to take that first step. “We were inspired to become a polling place after an email from Arts for LA,” recalled Cornerstone’s Lopez. “We contacted the registrar’s office and two gentleman came out to our space and took pictures and measurements. They were really surprised how perfect our location was for the polling place. They decided we were big enough to be a polling location for two districts, and we were more than happy to oblige. They sent me some paperwork to sign. They were really helpful through the whole process.”

Lopez also saw an opportunity to extend Cornerstone’s message to citizens across the city. “We sent a press release out wanting everyone to know we were a polling place, and that we believed it was important for arts organizations to open their doors to their neighborhood. We were contacted by Brian Sonia-Wallace who manages the Melrose Poetry Bureau; they had received funding to create poems with people that had just voted so they were thrilled to partner with another arts organization. They set up right in front of Cornerstone and brought a lot of attention to the polling place. We got so much support from people who came to vote.”

As an opportunity to engage new audiences, Lopez thought that Cornerstone’s first venture as a polling place was a success. “It definitely introduced new people to Cornerstone and got them excited about our work. I set up my desk in the lobby area with brochures and flyers. I made myself available all day to direct people, answer any questions they had about Cornerstone, and invited them to our next event. Channel 7 News picked up our press release and was there for half of the day. It was a very exciting time for Cornerstone. We heard from Channel 7 the morning of the primaries letting us know they were going to be hanging out at our place for four hours. It was really cool to have that kind of coverage.”

MACLA became a polling place for the first time in 2010. “In the last presidential election our precinct covered one of the dorms for San Jose State University,” Helstrup-Alvarez said. “That was really fun for us; a lot of young folks were coming in and voting for the first time and seeing MACLA for the first time.”

On the learning opportunities possible on Election Day, she noted, “We’re here at 5:30 a.m. to let in the poll workers so they can set up. Sometimes we bring our interns in so they can experience it too; we have them sit with the election folks to learn. I think it’s important to take the opportunity to welcome with open arms everyone that comes in, including the election officials and all of the volunteers. Make sure they know you’re grateful for their work; they are part of our community too. I think every arts organization should be a polling place. I don’t see any downsides to it.”

Nina Simon from the MAH detailed the resources it requires to be a polling place. “You have to have people on site for a long day and put up a bunch of signs. It’s not hard. We’re the downtown Santa Cruz voting location so it gets pretty busy. The Friday before the general elections in November, we’ll be screening a 1917 silent film about women’s suffrage that was filmed in Santa Cruz. It’s a nice programmatic tie-in. But one thing about being an election site is you can’t get too cute. You can’t have inappropriate material around that would advocate for a particular candidate or issue.”

YBCA Election Night Party 2012 | Photo: YBCA

Take your next step toward civic engagement.

If you’re interested in understanding more about how arts organizations can get involved in the civic process, our grantee-partners recommended two organizations:

  • Alliance for Justice. “They have everything you need on their website,” said YBCA’s Moscone. “They will do trainings for any arts organization on all the ways that you can be involved politically, how far you can go, and what the rules are. They’re focused on unleashing the power of nonprofits’ capacity to be politically active. They have endless reams of downloadable information. You just pick up the phone and they have a person who will tell you everything you need to do.”
  • Center for Performance and Civic Practice also offers informational resources on their website on how artists and communities can work together to build civic health, equity, and capacity.

If you’re interested in becoming a polling place, you should reach out to your local elections office soon. Application deadlines vary, but many are in September. Here are the application instructions from a few local voter registrar offices in California:

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This is the fifth in a series of stories on Medium exploring how arts organizations are adapting to reflect the changing demographics of California, engage with their communities, and become more resilient organizations.

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Special thanks to the Irvine Foundation’s New California Arts Fund grantee-partners whose staff contributed to this story: Cornerstone Theater Company, MACLA, Santa Cruz Museum of Art and History, and YBCA.

If you would like to contribute to future stories, please email us at communications@irvine.org.