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Cultural Policy: In the board rooms and on the streets

Cultural policy is connected to all the major issues of our society: economic stratification, race relations, globalization, technology, education and community development. It happens at places ranging from a family’s dinner table to the board rooms of foundations, corporations and public agencies. The choice of a family to educate their child in the language, traditions and history of a particular ethnic group is cultural policy. A grantmaker’s criterion for quality and excellence is cultural policy. A community-development corporation’s decision to focus on cultural tourism or historic preservation is cultural policy. A city council’s decision to cut arts in the schools is cultural policy. The consolidation of the media corporations Time Warner and America Online is cultural policy. People often say we don’t have a cultural policy, when in fact we have many — we just don’t talk about them.

Cultural policy is both a product and a process, a framework for making rules and decisions that is informed by social relationships and values. It is not easily defined in the United States. In fact, for much of our history, our government has had an official policy of not having a cultural policy, and has opted out of the international cultural-policy dialogue led by UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization). But not calling something a policy does not mean there isn’t any. Cultural policies — public and private, implicit and explicit — are made all the time. In the United States, policy and policymaking are more often implicit than explicit, and thus they are frequently invisible. This prevents us, as a country, from being able to have a conversation about the value of art and culture within our society. And de facto or invisible policies can become undemocratic and unaccountable.

The United States has a history of connecting culture and public policy. Art and culture were tied to foreign policy as a weapon of the Cold War. The public works programs of the WPA (Work Projects Administration) in the 1930s and of CETA (Comprehensive Education and Training Administration) in the 1970s supported workforce and community by providing opportunities for artists to help rebuild the nation with their art. Over the years, attitudes about this public cultural policy have shifted. In the ’60s, an understanding of art and culture as a scarce resource that needed proactive government support led to the creation of the National Endowment for the Arts. In the ’80s and ’90s, the culture wars positioned the arts and culture as a lightning rod for debate on the increasingly diverse nature of America. And now, in the post 9/11 21st century, diplomats argue for a U.S. reentry into UNESCO as "a real opportunity to advance the ideological interests of the international coalition against terrorism." [1]

People often think about policy as public policy, but cultural policy does not operate solely in the public realm. The United States has a unique combination of support to arts and culture from the government (at all levels), private foundations, commercial sponsorship and individual donors (including a significant contribution by artists themselves). Government dollars are often tied to leveraging private support. There is much talk now of the strategic synergies among the public, not-for-profit and commercial sectors. But a diverse cultural ecology is threatened on the one hand by the privatization of culture and on the other by the hegemony of mass commercial media and culture. Technology, globalization, corporate consolidation and demographic shifts, including cultural diasporas, all add to the complexity of a cultural policy that can no longer be understood solely in a local or national framework.

Most of us think cultural policy means spending money for a particular cultural purpose, but much more is involved. Sometimes the cultural policy is embedded in decisions about other issues in which culture is inextricable, such as education, health, environment, community building or economic development. This includes tax policies related to charitable deductions, sales-tax exemptions and municipal development. Policies about copyright and intellectual and cultural property have become more intricate with the development of new technologies and with varying definitions of individual and community ownership in different cultures. Cultural policy ranges from trade agreements to real-estate subsidies, from freedom of expression to transportation. Decisions about protecting public space on the broadcast spectrum and the Internet are cultural policies. And, on another level, so are decisions about what histories, languages, identities and authorities are recognized and validated, as well as what processes of cultural reclamation and reconciliation are offered to those who have been ignored or silenced.

Values, cultural policy and the politics of inequality

Gigi Bradford, former director of the Center for Arts and Culture, describes cultural policy as "not a set of rules or recommendations per se, but an approach toward complex and mutable relationships, a way to think about issues, a set of tools for a rapidly changing future." To make cultural policy involves the redefinition of terms and the questioning of assumptions in order to effect change, and it begins with "clearly articulated values and a framework for discussing those values." [2] What concepts might make up a framework for discussing values related to cultural policy in the context of community arts? To start, I would suggest the concepts of an interdependent cultural ecology, cultural democracy, cultural citizenship, cultural equity and cultural rights.

An interdependent cultural ecology is increasingly invoked in the national dialogue about cultural policy, as the definition of culture becomes more inclusive and dynamic, encompassing unincorporated and commercial groups as well as nonprofit organizations. This concept challenges the cultural hierarchy based on socially and historically constructed distinctions between high art and low art. [3]

"Cultural democracy" promoting the participation of all people in both culture and cultural policymaking, and "cultural citizenship," tying culture and identity to civic participation, are based on the key values of access, equity and rights. In the context of human and civil rights, the World Commission on Culture and Development states: "The core cultural right is that of each person to participate fully in cultural life" and includes "empowerment based on the principle of cultural self-determination." [4] (Also see writing on the Community Arts Network We site by Maryo Ewell, Don Adams and Arlene Goldbard).

The discussion of values and cultural policy does not happen in a vacuum. Issues of power and inequality are very much a part of cultural policy, though an often unspoken element of it. At the Western States Arts Federation symposium of 1999, "Cultural Policy in the West," scholar and foundation officer Tomás Ybarra-Frausto described how in the United States of today "the politics of inequity, asymmetry and social exclusion persist." [5] Equity issues in arts and culture cannot be understood outside the context of the increasing gap between haves and have nots. In this country, arts and culture can engender a deeper understanding of prosperity, one that goes beyond the Gross Domestic Product to assess the social, economic, and cultural health of the democracy and to imagine an alternative to a system of social inequality. [6]

Culture and policy: a contradiction or a catalyst for democracy?

At a New York talk about arts and social activism, Habib Tanvir, director of the Naya Theater in India, said: "If culture is what we are, it can’t be a department. Culture is not just doling money out here and there." [7] Too often culture and policy seem to contradict one another in cultural policy: the first dynamic and inclusive, the second tied to a political system from which the majority of people have become alienated.

Policy making needs to be understood in a broader framework of social change and action that involves grassroots civic participation and not just government legislation. The inter-relationship between arts and culture and democracy also needs to be understood more fully. Benjamin Barber describes this inter-relationship in his essay "Serving Democracy by Serving the Arts and Humanities:"

Democracy is not just a matter of formal governing institutions and a constitutional framework of popular sovereignty. A free press and a ready sense of rights are necessary but hardly sufficient conditions for democratic practice. As Dewey noted, democracy is as much a way of life as a form of government, and its success rests on the existence and heartiness of the civic domain — understood as distinct both from the government and the private commercial domain.

Indeed the arts are civil society’s driving engine, the key to its creativity, its diversity, its imagination and hence its spontaneousness and liberty. As democracy depends on civil society for its liberal spiritedness, so civil society depends on the arts. [8]

In her CAN essay "Some Historical Threads of the Community Arts Story (and why they are important)" Maryo Ewell describes community art as being "about the meaning of citizenship in a democracy." [9] As such, community arts are not only the subject matter of cultural policy, they can also provide a creative vehicle for those who often feel excluded from the political process to engage in democracy and impact policy. Community arts can engage policy issues in a way that is not separate from everyday life but rather is informed by and accountable to it.

Moreover, the structure of art itself can provide a model for the workings of democracy. Ron Penn, director of the John Jacob Niles Center for American Music in Kentucky, spoke of the call-and-response nature of music when responding to a question about how community based artists could influence policy: "Look at the music structure itself as the embodiment of negotiation in a community. You can pull apart structures, create new structures, recreate society. It’s a democratic, accommodating public forum." [10]

The following offer examples of some intersections between community arts and policy:

A video made by teenagers in Appalshop’s Appalachian Media Institute was distributed by their local congressmen to each member of the U.S. Congress, bringing the stories of people whose lives have been devastated by the misuse of the prescription painkiller oxycontin to a national policy realm.

Also at Appalshop, WMMT radio joined with an open-minded county official and a Virginia state representative to organize a series of dialogues that informed new legislation about the polarized issue of resource management. These dialogues included field trips joining landowners, scholars, journalists, timber workers, environmentalists and state and federal foresters.

The Educational Video Center in New York City’s youth video "Unequal Education" has been used regularly by the Urban League and the Campaign for Fiscal Responsibility in its court case against New York State to create a more equitable funding structure for the schools in New York State.

Dell’Arte, an ensemble theater company based in Blue Lake, California, explored the economic impact and cultural and political conflict surrounding the construction of a Native American casino in their small rural community through community dialogues, video production and theater. This project brought community members together to explore the future of their town, and inspired one person to run for the city council.

In their recent project "Is There a History on Skid Row?" the Los Angeles Poverty Department ensemble interrelated performances, installations, interviews and workshops to reveal the hidden (and not so hidden) societal forces shaping the neighborhood and drew a connection between the validation of history and policy. By bringing together artists, some of whom lived on Skid Row, people living on the streets and in shelters, students, local activists and policymakers the LAPD revealed the multiple and at times, contradictory, perspectives, experiences and expertise that coexist on Skid Row.

Creating an inclusive and pluralistic vision for culture and policy

At a seminar hosted by the Urban Institute in Washington D.C., policymaker Jim Gibson asked participants working in the arts to examine why they wanted to connect with people from other fields. What did we want to talk to them about — was it to be an art-centric conversation or was it to include their own concerns about the environment or community development? [11] This question needs to be faced by those working in the field of cultural policy — are we reaching out to our colleagues in other fields only to strengthen the arts, or are we committed to a broader conversation about the needs of our communities and the strength of our democracy? The two are not mutually exclusive. Our challenge is to articulate a clear, pluralistic vision for policymaking that recognizes the integral connection between culture, art, and the rest of our lives.

Here are some of the things I think we need to do to meet this challenge:

  • Examine the decisions we make in our own arts organizations and programs within the context of cultural citizenship, and recognize the policy implications of these decisions. Who do we present and how do we represent them? Who has access to the work and how do we relate to them? Who do we develop partnerships with and what is the nature of these partnerships?

  • Make our voices heard and support the work of associations and unions, such as the National Writers Union and the American Library Association, who are engaged in policy discussions for our fields. Arts-service organizations, such as the National Association of Artists Organizations (NAAO), the Alliance of Artist Communities, and Alternate ROOTS have in the past been important voices on behalf of artists in the policy realm. In recent years, as a result of funding cuts they have grown to be more fragile and less present at the formal cultural-policy tables. We need to be part of efforts to strengthen these grassroots service organizations and develop other alliances to ensure that community arts are a part of all cultural-policy discussions.

  • Learn about the policy research that is happening in academic centers, foundations and think tanks, and make sure that the perspective of community arts is represented in this work. The Center for Arts and Culture is a good resource, with an informative e-mail digest of news and articles, new Web site and a "Cultural Commons" opportunity for dialogue. Advocate for participatory research shaped by and involving the knowledge and experience of artists and community members to become a more integral part of the research effort. Initiate and take part in this research.

  • From the newly forming National Visual Artists Guild (NVAG): The real battles of concern are in the neighborhoods, school boards, city council and state legislatures. Artists must be represented at these tables; if we do not run for these offices then we must elect those who agree with (pro-art) issues. ...Artists must train to be leaders for effective social and political action."

  • Be a sustained part of policy discussions about the other issues besides the arts that are of concern to our communities. Acknowledge and reject priorities set by cultural policy efforts that are not in the interests of a community. For example, arts districts can bring gentrification and cultural development can impose another definition of culture than that which is embraced by community members. Recognize the common struggles and goals of artists and communities and work in multiple policy realms to support them.

  • Understand that all of this work happens within a political and economic context and that the role of the arts may also be one of confronting and deconstructing structures of power. This has happened in the cases of the Esperanza Center for Peace and Justice, who sued the city of San Antonio over city funding, and the Out North theater, who challenged the city of Anchorage on an ordinance prohibiting visual-arts exhibitions in the library. We need to understand the connection between policy and politics, and learn to be effective within both of these realms. This means knowing how to both seize a moment and to sustain an effort. It can also mean acknowledging when the political moment overwhelms what art and culture can accomplish.

  • Reframe the issue. In "Lessons Learned from the History of Social Indicators," Clifford Cobb and Craig Rixford conclude that the greatest power in public policy debates lies in being able to change the definition of a problem." This echoes the question posed by Maryo Ewell "Are we truly changing thinking through our work?" [12] We can not simply be satisfied to be part of a policy conversation that is irrelevant to the needs of our communities. We need to be clear about our purposes and frame policy conversations to connect to people’s everyday lives, respond to root causes of problems, and support substantive social change.

  • Learn from international cultural-policy experiences and writing, including that of UNESCO. Don Adams and Arlene Goldbard and their Web site "Webster’s World of Cultural Democracy" are good resources in this area. Learn from community-arts discussions in Latin America that include activist anthropologists and sociologists. Be inspired by the examples of artists throughout the world who are committed to creating a space for civic engagement.

  • Support the innovative ways that arts inform democratic engagement and policy, making policymaking more inclusive, transparent and accountable to community members. Cobb and Rixford note that none of the quantitative studies of working and living conditions of the working class in the 1870s had the same impact on the political scene as the writings of Victor Hugo or Charles Dickens. Carlos Fuentes emphasized this powerful role of the imagination in a letter he wrote to Czech novelist Milan Kundera on his 70th birthday,: "But amid the Russian tanks in Czechoslovakia, the youthful corpses in Tlatelolco, and the police billy-clubs of the Latin Quarter, our words, my dear Milan, did affirm the need for imagination in order truly to understand history. Yes, our words affirmed that literature is indispensable to keep the language and the imagination of a society alive and that without imagination, without language, no society can survive." [13]


1. James H. Ottaway Jr. and Ronald Koven. "The New UNESCO," The Washington Post (July 27, 2002) [return]

2. Gigi Bradford, "Defining Culture and Cultural Policy," in "The Politics of Culture," ed. Gigi Bradford, Michael Gary and Glen Wallach (New York: The New Press for the Center for Arts and Culture, 2000), pp. 12-13. [return]

3. Lawrence W. Levine, "Highbrow Lowbrow: The Emergence of Cultural Hierarchy in America," (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1988) [return]

4. "Our Creative Diversity, Report of the World Commission on Culture and Development" (Paris: UNESCO Publishing, 1995), p. 240 [return]

5. Tomás Ybarra-Frausto, "Mutual Recognition of Diverse Cultural Contributions," Cultural Policy in the West Symposium Proceedings (Denver: WESTAF, 2000), p. 97 [return]

6. Ybarra-Frausto, "Mutual Recognition" 99 and Fordham Institute for Innovation in Social Policy "The Social Report, A Deeper View of Prosperity," (Tarrytown: Fordham Institute for Innovation in Social Policy, 2001) [return]

7. The talk took place at Columbia University on July 18, 2002, and was sponsored by the INSAF (International South Asia Forum), SALAAM Theater (South Asian League of Artists in America), and SAMAR (South Asian Magazine for Action and Reflection). [return]

8. Benjamin R. Barber, "Serving Democracy by Serving the Arts and Humanities (Traditional Perspectives, Unique Modern Conditions)," in "Creative America" (Washington, D.C., Presidents Committee on the Arts and Humanities, 1997) [return]

9. Maryo Ewell, "Some Historical Threads of the Community Arts Story (and why they are important), Community Arts Network (www.communityarts.net) [return]

10. This discussion took place during a national convening of the Voices From Home partners held at Appalshop in Whitesburg, Kentucky, June 6, 2002. [return]

11. The seminar took place at the Urban Institute, July 11, 2002. [return]

12. Ewell "Some Historical Threads" [return]

13. Carlos Fuentes, Correspondence, Book Review, Los Angeles Times, April 25, 1999 [return]

Caron Atlas is a an independent consultant who connects art, culture, and social change and develops creative support systems for this work.

This essay draws significantly on "Cultural Policy: What Is It, Who Makes It, and Why Does It Matter?" written by Caron Atlas as part of "Culture Counts: Stategies for a More Vibrant Cultural Life for New York City." Culture Counts is a report of the New York Foundation for the Art's special initiative, "A Cultural Blueprint for New York City." It marks the first comprehensive study of New York's cultural life in almost 30 years. Culture Counts can be found on the NYFA Web site. The author would like to acknowledge the contributions of Maria-Rosario Jackson and Holly Sidford to "Cultural Policy: What Is It, Who Makes It, and Why Does It Matter?"

Original CAN/API publication: August 2002


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