Harnessing the Spirit of a Cockroach

Posted by Chris Audain, Apr 15, 2013 8 comments

Chris Audain Chris Audain

The Chicago nonprofit arts and culture sector is a $2.2 billion industry. You’d be hard-pressed to go more than a couple of blocks without seeing a theater, dance company, museum, art gallery, or some other nonprofit arts organization, small or large.

And yet I still hear about new ones popping up quite frequently. Given that, the community of artists and arts administrators is extensive, and diverse—it’s a bona fide place of convergence for the creative types and transplants from across the country.

So why then, with such a vibrant arts community, is Illinois the 29th ranked state in per capita spending on the arts?

The answer is a problem that plagues not just Illinois, but permeates through the entire creative sector on a national level.

When I first moved to Chicago after graduating from college, I wanted to pursue an acting career. Even equipped with my political science degree, I had very little understanding about the relationship of public funding for the arts, and the importance of advocacy.

It took a graduate course at Goucher College, Principles of Arts Administration, for me to fully comprehend the power and necessity of arts advocacy. Therein lies the problem: an information gap for artists on the importance of advocacy. A possible solution? Giving artists a more easily accessible entry point to advocacy.

Ra Joy, executive director for Arts Alliance Illinois, is one of the best leaders of advocacy out there. I sat in on a small group at the University of Chicago when he gave a lecture entitled, “Give Voice to a Creative State: The Future of Arts Advocacy in Illinois.”

There were number of takeaways—arts are part of the solution to many societal problems, can strengthen communities, and are a necessity, not a luxury—but let’s focus on what he called people power.

Advocacy is democracy in action; it is showing up, and raising your voice for something you believe in. The power of one is incredible, but the power of several individuals in solidarity can accomplish anything. The capability of a unified people should never be underestimated. Julie Hamos once imparted wisdom to Joy that he explained as “The Cockroach Theory of Advocacy.”

If you wake up one morning and see one cockroach, you will smash it and not think much of it. If you wake up the next morning and see two cockroaches, you’ll maybe smash them both, have a slight concern but forget about it. If you wake up again the next morning and see three cockroaches, then you’re probably going to do something about it, because you know there are more than just those three—it’s about all the little bugs you can’t see! If we get to our legislators by numbers, they will respond.

Let me also say that this is no easy feat. We’re all busy. The general withdrawal from the political process is a well-documented phenomenon, touched on by scholars from Alexis de Tocqueville to Robert Putnam.

If we create more events of awareness, and utilize social media better, perhaps we can find a way for more people to get involved. I wouldn’t characterize it as a lack of will, but just a lack of comprehension. Can you or I answer succinctly, what exactly, the entry points are to participation in advocacy?

As advocates we have to be resilient and persistent, but above all else, we need to stand together. We need to continue to raise our voice, while the seasoned advocates help guide those new to the world of advocacy.

We know we have the people power to make an extraordinary difference, but how can we harness the immense power of artists into one consolidated force of advocacy? How do we broaden the participation of artists in advocacy?

Share your thoughts in the comments below!

8 responses for Harnessing the Spirit of a Cockroach


April 15, 2013 at 9:41 pm

Great post, Chris! While I'm usually hesitant to be compared to an insect that can outlive a nuclear explosion, in this instance, it makes me inspired. It is funny what some people are careful to advocate for openly and others quietly- the arts have a long history of being something that everyone inherently thinks should be saved, but not a lot of people are willing to protest in the streets for it.

To an arts cockroach nation!

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April 15, 2013 at 10:39 pm

More than thrilled that the analogy inspired you, Christy. An interesting thing to consider is that a lot of people would be willing to "protest in the streets," or do whatever it takes to make the arts more ubiquitous. When/how do we get that sense of urgency though? Also, advocacy is a long-form endeavor: our efforts have to be consistent, over time. That's where the metaphor truly runs deep. It's a squeaky wheel kind of situation.

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April 15, 2013 at 1:17 pm

"That ability to welcome people and invite them into whatever conversation we’re having may be one of the best things we arts professionals have going for us." So true! We are, inherently, collaborators.

Today, we have studies that show, concretely and with strong data, how the creative sector helps the economy (http://www.artsusa.org/information_services/research/services/economic_i...) That information helps advocates drive the message home, that the arts are vital to our prosperity as a nation. The keynote is that there is an immeasurable potential for artists and advocates to reshape the dialogue on how much funding should be given to the arts. I'm no saint, and need to stand up more too, but if we all joined in and raised our voices just a little louder, a little more often, the results, I believe, would be staggering.

Other routes of advocacy: letter to elected official in your area, knowing the facts, supporting your local arts councils, attending cultural planning, voting!

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Jaime Kauffman says
April 15, 2013 at 1:02 pm

YES! That sea of red still lingers. That was an EXCELLENT use of social media.

Maybe the issue lies on quantifying and qualifying the importance of the arts. But, it's so hard to press the issue when we have so much other noise grabbing our attention, from the economy to education. Maybe it's about taking a different approach entirely?

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April 15, 2013 at 12:57 pm

Thanks, Jaime. HRCs much acclaimed recent gay marriage campaign comes to mind. I remember seeing a sea of red when Facebook profiles changed to the special equals sign. Where is the equivalent for the arts movement? I think there's an untapped power, waiting to be unleashed, especially with social media.

We can all agree that the arts are invaluable, and incredibly important in society, but they do not get the funding that is commensurate. I know that I can do more advocacy--I think we all can.

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Kacy O'Brien says
April 15, 2013 at 12:47 pm

Right on, Chris! I think you put your finger on the major issue: understanding what advocacy is/can be. I will unabashedly admit that until recently I sprinted away from anything that seemed like advocacy, but what I ran from was my misapprehension of what advocacy actually means: it can mean something as simple as telling people what you do and why you love it. It can mean listening to the interests of someone who is exploring arts and culture for the first time.

This richer, more accessible meaning of advocacy was brought home to me at an event I helped plan through NJ Emerging Arts Leaders. One of our guest speakers was a young ED from a local chamber of commerce. She'd expressed concern about having interesting things to say to a group of arts practitioners, but she had nothing to worry about - her insights were a welcome addition to the conversation. At the bar afterward, she said how much she enjoyed speaking and -- here's the kicker -- how incredibly nice, fun and welcoming we all were. She was genuinely surprised and delighted to be drawn into our circle.

That ability to welcome people and invite them into whatever conversation we're having may be one of the best things we arts professionals have going for us. It's something we all do in one form or another and every arts advocate I've met knows advocacy starts at this basic level of ambassadorship.

However, I don't think the wider population of arts professionals shares the same viewpoint (particularly since politics-as-usual has left such a bad aftertaste in recent years). Educating ourselves about the broader meaning of advocacy will likely show us that we can all be advocates: some of us will get up in front of Congress (a huge thank you to those who do!), and some of us will invite a student backstage to see how the magic works.

I'm a better, more genuine advocate now than I ever was before because I have found a form of advocacy that fits me. Would love to thoughts from you and others about joining up the different kinds of advocates out there to create the rich tapestry you're suggesting!


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Jaime Kauffman says
April 15, 2013 at 12:45 pm

I am so glad that you identified advocacy as a inherent need in the arts. Most artists, presenters and administrators are concerned with the work, the process, and keeping the arts machine (big or small) well-oiled with all the parts working. But, you have identified a necessary component of the arts machine, and to extend my analogy further, perhaps arts advocacy is the oil that keeps those cogs running slick and smooth.

And, you ask some pertinent questions. Somehow, we need to create arts advocacy behaviors. We need to illicit responses from the people on the streets all the way to the top.

We are a creative sector so we should think creatively. Perhaps it's a matter of mobilizing. Any app developers out there want to take a stab at this? Graphic designers? Web developers? Videographers and the like? While the Arts Action Fund is an excellent start, maybe we need to go a bit more grassroots on this one. Work from the bottom, up.

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May 17, 2013 at 1:03 pm

Dear Chris,

I love the points you make in your blog. Thank you for being such a creative thinker and articulate advocate for the arts.

As you pointed out,there are millions of people involved in the arts around the country -- as staff, board, funders, and audience members. Collectively we have a very loud voice but the challenge is to help us all understand why arts advocacy is important and to remind us that it is an ongoing responsibility.

In your blog, you exhibited three very important aspects of advocacy in building public support. 1) you spoke up and called attention to it, 2) you gave us information we can all use in our own advocacy efforts, and 3) you involved all of us in working toward a solution (you didn't blame anyone).

In addition, your creative reference to an insect -- the name of which sends bad chills down my back -- is a reference that I will not soon forget.

Thanks for your inspiration and thanks for modeling what strong arts advocacy looks like.


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