The Long Tail of Arts Advocacy: Why Isn’t It Helping Us?

Our numbers are large. Our influence is small. What is wrong with our advocacy?

I’ve been working on an arts research project lately. This kind of project is catnip for me: long dives into the arts world, finding interesting stories, relevant outcomes, new people. It dawned on me how vast the arts field is. And I began to wonder, when it comes to arts advocacy, if our vastness is perhaps our problem.

A quick Internet search reveals dozens and dozens of organizations delivering some form of arts advocacy, from the national level down to your hometown, along with every art form you can think of. The same is true for organizations that advocate for gender equality. Dozens pop up.

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Here’s what Chris Anderson wrote in his book, The Long Tail:

…the story of the Long Tail is really about the economics of abundance — what happens when the bottlenecks that stand between supply and demand in our culture start to disappear and everything becomes available to everyone.

Have the arts reached a “Long Tail” in terms of its advocacy? Is the abundance of arts organizations hurting our goals, such as overall financial stability and the ongoing growth of individual artists?

Please understand: I am not rehashing the supply/demand argument of nearly a decade ago. I’m all for the Long Tail: more products coupled with ease-of-access means more artists can connect with more audiences.

But in our hurry to parcel out interest groups into smaller and smaller factions, are we serving our end goals as wisely as possible? Isn’t it possible that we overlap and duplicate our efforts, and that when we do, we make each organization less effective than if we all worked together?

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It’s all well and good when 700 people show up in Washington, DC, for Arts Advocacy Day during the spring. Yet how does that compare to more than 470,000 people showing up in Washington, DC, for the Women’s March last January? Or the nearly 1,000,000 people who advocated for stricter gun control at the Million Mom March in 2000?

The Long Tail for product delivery is inversely proportional to the success of the Long Tail in advocacy efforts. While each organization may have slightly different core memberships or geographic areas of focus and influence, the similarity of their missions and goals cannot be overlooked. We should push these people together in their advocacy work, not pull them apart. Building the numbers of people who visibly, audibly say that the arts are important to them is how the nation’s general sentiment will change, and how the votes of a politician will change, and how policy will change, and so forth.

The National Rifle Association functions as well and as powerfully as it does precisely because of its size. Can you think of another organization as dedicated to our rights under the Second Amendment? Yes, the organization has very wealthy donors and a war chest available as needed and can easily bend the ears of very influential politicians.

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Apples and oranges, though, since the arts aren’t codified into our Constitution, right? I don’t think this is an oversight: more recent government leaders have documented cultural policies precisely because we have seen the benefits of doing so. Arts are encoded into our human DNA. Arts are so ubiquitous in our daily lives, in our learning and our teaching, that to try to encapsulate arts in a single law would be akin to reducing War and Peace to an infographic. We have the thorny issue that the US doesn’t have a single culture to enshrine into policy. Freedom of speech, freedom of religion, freedom to peaceably assemble — all of these can be about the arts, as the arts are intrinsic to all the rights and responsibilities we have as American citizens.

If we truly want to make headway in terms of changing how artists are supported in America — and how gender is perceived within that discussion — we have to come together to get our story straight. Women in the Arts and Media, League of Professional Theater Women, Americans for the Arts, the National Organization for Women and the hundreds of other arts and women’s equality organizations have to overlap their work, talk to each other — and each other’s memberships — and then they have to advocate for all of us.