Toward the Development of a National Cultural Policy Research Agenda

January 21, 1999 - 9:00am to January 23, 1999 - 5:00pm

Rubloff Auditorium, Art Institute of Chicago

Sponsored by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, Joan and Irving Harris, and the Division of the Humanities and the Irving B. Harris Graduate School of Public Policy Studies at the University of Chicago

Conference Mission



Breakout Groups Summaries

Conference Mission


The University of Chicago Division of the Humanities and the Irving B. Harris Graduate School of Public Policy Studies held a conference in January of 1999 on "The Arts and Humanities in Public Life." The conference was devised in response to a deeply felt need for a more intensive, analytically rigorous discussion of the role of the arts and humanities in contemporary civic life. Motivated by a sense that public policy on the arts and humanities has been driven by partisan politics more than by informed understanding and research, the conference organizers sought to provide a forum where some of the complex issues central to cultural policy could be more fully and objectively explored and understood.

The conference involved a wide range of participants-including scholars from the humanities and social sciences, artists, museum directors, legal scholars, public policy analysts, and journalists-and thus brought together experts who are not habitually in conversation with one another but whose shared knowledge is crucial to understanding the issues at hand. By drawing upon this range of expertise, we sparked a dialogue that will not only help reinvigorate public discussion, but also make clear where further research on the public dimensions of the arts and humanities might best be directed. Ultimately, we have envisioned the conference as the first step in a larger endeavor: the creation of a research center, located at The University of Chicago and dedicated to the sustained exploration of the value, function, and meaning of the arts and humanities in public life.


That the national discussion surrounding the arts and humanities has suffered from a palpable impoverishment of analysis can perhaps best be demonstrated by the debates which began in the mid-1980s on the National Endowments for the Arts and the Humanities. Dominated by partisan political agendas, these debates tended to focus on a few controversial works, such as Andre Serrano's Piss Christ or Robert Mapplethorpe's photographs. The political posturing which ensued left aside any detailed exploration of the many other projects and artists supported by these agencies. Moreover, it also foreclosed any broader investigation into the meaning and purpose of the arts and humanities in contemporary American society. In their diatribes against the "moral values" of particular works, politicians did not pursue how culture itself might have a "value," might offer something important to individuals, to communities, or even to the nation as a whole. Questions of how the arts and humanities might contribute to education, citizenship, or the economy were thus largely ignored. Compounding these omissions was the fact that so few of those who could have substantively contributed to the conversation -- artists, legal scholars, public policy analysts, humanists, museum directors, the private philanthropic community -- were heard in the debates. In the absence of a truly informed discussion, an alarmingly narrow picture of the NEA and NEH -- and, by implication, of the purpose or place of the arts and humanities in American life -- emerged. Everyone involved in the debate claimed to be able to say with absolute authority what art and humanistic scholarship should and should not be and what each meant to Americans, but their claims reflected a startling lack of analysis and empirical data. Equally discouraging was the fact that the public debate surrounding these questions faded quickly from media attention once the NEA and NEH budgets were cut. Indeed, public debate has been nearly non-existent since then.

The NEA and NEH debates revealed first, the woeful inadequacy of research or data needed for an informed arts and humanities policy and second, the paucity of thoughtful analysis questions about culture have received. These deficiencies become particularly apparent when one compares arts and humanities policy to other policy areas. The environment, education, and health sectors are constituted as fields, with their own set of research institutions and policy specialists. Public policy in these areas can therefore rely on the analytic intelligence produced from detailed research, the methodology of which is held to a shared standard. Because cultural policy lacks a similar analytic infrastructure, recommendations concerning it have been mired in speculation and political posturing. Without any sustained, interdisciplinary effort to analyze the issues, to pursue detailed research, or to enforce clear standards for the methodology employed in this research, policy discussions concerning the arts and humanities are doomed to recycle the same unsubstantiated, fragmented, and polarized conclusions. Clearly, it is time for arts and humanities policy to be established as a field of its own.

This is not to suggest that no work has been done in this area. In fact, remarkable studies have been produced since the early 1980s on arts management, public participation and non-profit enterprise in the arts, as well as on the job crisis for humanities PhDs, the benefits of a liberal arts education, and the effects of new technology on humanistic teaching and research. Several universities, government agencies and foundations have created centers related to or devoted to cultural policy studies. But such sites are not common, especially considering the range of questions and research protocols possible in the area of cultural policy. For a field to emerge, focused and sustained research needs to address many different problems and questions. Only in the context of a larger effort can we hope to address the genuine complexity of the ways in which the arts and humanities intersect with people's lives.

The creation of the environmental policy sector is instructive in this regard. Thirty years ago, there was no such entity as the "environmental sector." While individuals and groups may have expressed concern about environmental problems and even lobbied for changes in environmental policies, there was no coherent field within which research could be organized and contested or from which policy could be regularly informed. Today, with the environment having emerged as a designated policy sector, multiple institutions and organizations exist to produce and organize environmental research and to hold one another to a certain standard of accountability. As a result, the discourse surrounding environmental issues has been raised to another level: a rigorous standard is now enforced which governs the production of research and ensures that policy decisions are based on solid evidence.

Using the environmental sector as a model, we at The University of Chicago are trying to imagine the creation of a "cultural policy sector." The creation of such a sector would serve a variety of constituencies: just as environmental research is valuable and even necessary to a wide range of interests-from private industry to the local and national government-cultural policy research would not only inform governmental policy recommendations, but would also serve as a resource for museums, arts organizations, educational institutions, and the philanthropic community. Such research would enable each of these constituents to evaluate better their public roles and responsibilities and understand better the impact of their policy decisions. For example, cultural policy research would help museums understand and address the profound changes produced by globalization: how is the function of a museum affected by a new focus on global, as opposed to national, communities? Which publics is the museum organized to serve, and in what ways should it serve them? By the same token, sound information on the economic, pedagogical, social, or psychological effects of the arts and humanities could help government funding agencies, university administrators, and even business executives make wiser policy decisions.

Believing that the creation of a cultural policy field would thus serve a number of crucial needs, interested University of Chicago faculty gathered for a series of meetings to explore how they could help establish such a field. The faculty members represented a diversity of viewpoints -- some, for instance, support federal funding for the arts and humanities, some fundamentally oppose it -- but all are committed to addressing the question of culture's public value and humanities in the sustained and rigorous manner that such inquiry demands. This group determined that the most productive first step would be a conference that draws together a wide range of participants to discuss a few key issues. By showing how such complicated questions might be addressed most effectively by a particular kind of collaborative academic work, the proposed conference helped establish cultural policy as a nascent field. 


The exploration of a topic as complex and multifaceted as "the arts and humanities in public life" requires tools and knowledge from fields as diverse as law, sociology, history, literary criticism, political science, art history, anthropology, and public policy. Because of its academic strengths across this wide spectrum of fields and its strong interdisciplinary tradition, The University of Chicago is ideally suited for an inquiry whose very nature cuts across disciplinary boundaries. Chicago's diverse community of scholars will be able to address the real complexities involved in conceiving of a "cultural policy field." In particular, they will be able to lend crucial historical and comparative perspectives to the inquiry, exploring the roots of debates over sexually explicit art, for instance, or examining the American cultural landscape alongside that of countries like France, India, or England.

The diversity of this body of work, combined with the University's culture of intense debate, ensures that any one framework of thinking or any particular political agenda does not dominate the conference. The conversation we envision promises to be far more interesting and rigorous. Indeed, even in our planning meetings, we have found that the most provocative and thoughtful questions emerge from moments of contestation. For example, disputes about whether the federal government should support the arts financially open up a whole set of complex questions: What is the effect of government patronage on the arts? In what different realms could that effect be charted (the social, the economic, etc.) and how could it be reliably measured? Should a national policy on the arts and humanities exist, or would such a policy necessarily be exclusionary in troubling ways? What publics should we imagine as the subjects of a cultural policy: local, national, or global? How might our answers to this question change depending upon whether the institution adopting that policy is the national government, a state government, a museum, an academic organization, or a corporation? What kinds of assumptions or problems are inherent in deploying the term "cultural policy"? Should public policy analysis proceed as if the arts and humanities formed a single entity, subsumable under the term "cultural," even though the two are distinct in important ways? Such questions help to illuminate just how complex the field of cultural policy could be, and also point to the role that the University could play in helping to formulate and define that field.


The conference on "The Arts and Humanities in Public Life" had two main goals: to focus public attention on crucial policy questions involving the arts and humanities and to foster a discussion about cultural policy that will ultimately lead to the creation of a research agenda. The conference provided a forum where disparate groups involved in the production, dissemination, and interpretation of culture -- including humanists, social scientists, practicing artists, policy analysts, legal scholars, and those working in cultural organizations and foundations -- could share knowledge and identify future work that needs to be done for arts and humanities policy to emerge as a viable field. From the research agenda generated at the conference, we began to work on plans for a center at The University of Chicago that is now working to frame the broad range of issues in the field, articulate questions that need to be researched, and gather the data needed to contest or confirm policy recommendations.


John Brewer, "Patronage, Beyond Panegyric and Jeremiad"

Richard Epstein, "Maintaining the Status Quo in Intellectual Property Rights"

Marian Godfrey, "Remarks on the Role of Foundations in Cultural Policy Development"

Bill Landes, "Copyright and Appropriation Art"

James Schamus, "The Pursuit of Happiness: Making an Art of Marketing an Explosive Film"




Rubloff Auditorium, Art Institute of Chicago

230 South Columbus Avenue

Robert Hughes, speaker, Art Critic for Time magazine, author of American Visions and The Shock of the New

Homi Bhabha, interlocutor, Chester D. Tripp Professor in the Humanities, English Language and Literature and Art History, The University of Chicago



This panel will evaluate the decision-making processes associated with forms of patronage-national, state, local, corporate and individual-and the successes and failures of each. Panelists will discuss various ways of defining the civic costs and benefits of arts and humanities patronage policies, and the competing ideas about the relationship between citizenship and culture that underlie these policies. They will also examine the effect of patronage on artistic innovation. How do different forms of patronage affect the artistic process, with what consequences for the polis?

Moderator: Mark Schuster, Associate Professor of Urban Studies and Planning, Massachusetts Institute of Technology


  • Milton Cummings, Department of Political Science, Johns Hopkins University
  • John Brewer, Professor, European University Institute
  • James Schamus, Producer/Co-President, Good Machine, Inc. and Assistant Professor, Film Department, Columbia University
  • Jed Perl, Art Critic, The New Republic


Moderator: Philip Gossett, Dean, Division of the Humanities, The University of Chicago


  • Gigi Bradford, Executive Director, The Center for Arts and Culture
  • Glenn Wallach, Deputy Director, The Center for Arts and Culture
  • Marian Godfrey, Director, Culture Program, The Pew Charitable Trusts


The information age makes it possible to reproduce and distribute, in virtual form, works of art and literature that once were available as real property (embodied in works of fine art, in books, etc.) and covered by copyright codes designed to protect the owners of intellectual property of this sort. Now that such property can be reproduced, "morphed," and sampled at speeds and in ways never before possible, what are the possible directions copyright law might take in the future, and with what economic implications for authors, researchers, publishers, museums, and audiences? Conversely, how is the evolution of copyright law for cyberproperty likely to affect the Internet as a commercial venue? More generally, how does one draw a line between public and private domains in a virtual space? How, if at all, can someone reclaim something which was once private but which falls into the public domain with the click of a mouse? And what policy will best serve the economic interests of the public as a whole? How should these property rights be construed, not just as a matter of precedence but of policy? What would be the best laws, in these situations?

Moderator: Kimerly Rorschach, Dana Feitler Director, Smart Museum of Art, University of Chicago


  • Richard Epstein, James Parker Hall Distinguished Service Professor, Law School, University of Chicago
  • Joel Snyder, Professor and Chair, Art History, Committees on General Studies in the Humanities and Visual Arts
  • Bill Landes, Clifton R. Musser Professor, Law School, University of Chicago
  • Richard Kurin, Director, Smithsonian Institution Center for Folklife Programs & Cultural Studies


Working sessions consisted of audience members and focused on the needs of six constituencies in the arts and humanities:

  • Artists and arts organizations
  • Print and broadcast media
  • Educators, public policy researchers, and scholars in related fields
  • Non-governmental arts funders: foundations, corporations, and philanthropists
  • Cultural institutions
  • Government agencies 



Very much in the news at the moment (with major extensions to MOMA and the Tate, the global plans of the Guggenheim, the new Getty, etc.), the museum is a visible and vital network for many of the issues raised in the context of arts and humanities public policy concerns. Perhaps most pressing is what a museum's policy might be in an increasingly global environment. Should the museum teach us out what is good art regardless of its national or ethnic origin, or should the museum represent various cultures? Should its mission be elitist or anthropological? Will globalization necessarily lead to cultural commodification, the development of a "heritage industry," and the withering-away of those arts and humanities that are not easily "museumified"? Or does globalization open up new opportunities for intercultural understanding and a new social function for museums?

Moderator: Arjun Appadurai, Samuel N. Harper Professor, Anthropology and South Asian Languages and Civilizations


  • Neil Harris, Preston and Sterling Morton Professor, Department of History, University of Chicago
  • Thomas Krens, Director, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum
  • Alberta Arthurs, Cultural Consultant and former Director for Arts and Humanities, The Rockefeller Foundation
  • Catherine David, Curator, Documenta X

Breakout Groups Summaries

Themes Emerging from Conference Breakout Sessions, The Arts and Humanities in Public Life Conference at the University of Chicago, January 21-23, 1999

David Karraker, formerly of the Edmund Muskie School of Public Service
University of Southern Maine


Government officials, non-government funders and educators expressed particularly strong interest. Two related subcategories emerged:

(1) Program evaluation studies look at the impact of any discrete program or cluster of closely related programs with regard to their real and intended effects (er.g. a foundation or government grant program designed to hit a specific programmatic target, such as increased artistic activity, increased audience, or increased local public investment).

(2) Impact studies examine the impact of policies and programs more broadly (e.g. the success of matching grant programs in leveraging financial support that is truly new; the impact of government support, or non-government support, on the kinds of arts and cultural activity that results; the impact of various vehicles by which resources are transferred from government and philanthropy to the worlds of arts and culture; the influence of philanthropic 'power brokers' over what gets funded and what does not; the 'non-economic' effects of the arts and humanities.) Research of this kind might also include comparative studies of existing working models, such as community level efforts to achieve collaboration among artists and between artists and non-artists.


Artists and arts organizations, government officials and non-government funders expressed interest here. The area encompasses such topics as the ways in which artists and humanists are perceived and by whom; public perceptions of arts and cultural activities and products and their implications for marketing; the values attached to arts and humanities in this country and in other countries with related cultural traditions; the value of arts and humanities beyond their economic or social utility (er.g. economic development; 'good grades' for public school students); the viability of various efforts to encourage diversity among artistic and cultural activities and among participants and consumers.


A huge area, touched on narrowly in A.2 above, and capturing the interests of every group in one way or another.

Artists and representatives of arts organizations were concerned for ways artists and arts organizations might be integrated more deeply into the fabric of community life. They wanted to explore the prospects for developing 'homes' for artists outside university settings. Participants from cultural institutions reported that institutions are fearful of collaborating with each other, and said they could make good use of information about incentives to collaboration and successful methods for bringing it about. They also called for mechanisms of mediation among cultural institutions and between cultural institutions and funders. Non-government funders tied the prospects for survival for small groups and artists on the margin to collaboration with more established organizations. Educators identified the lack of a commonly accepted interdisciplinary 'language' as a major barrier to communication within and between artistic and cultural domains. For starters, they proposed that definitions be developed for both 'the arts' and 'the humanities' that clarify what each includes, how they overlap, and in what ways they are distinct from one another.