Crowdsourcing Cultural Policy

The U.S. Department of Arts and Culture

Arlene Goldbard

What comes to mind when you hear the phrase cultural policy? Given the GIA Reader’s audience, I imagine answers that run the gamut from dry-as-dust studies to brilliant proposals for weaving new cultural fabric.

But in my role as Chief Policy Wonk for the U.S. Department of Arts and Culture (USDAC), when I set out to write about our new generative cultural policy proposals in An Act of Collective Imagination: The First Two Years of the USDAC’s Action Research, I had a whole different audience in mind: people who may never have heard the phrase before.

You see, the USDAC is all about the public interest in culture, and when we say public, we mean it.

The USDAC is an action network of artists and cultural workers mobilizing creativity in the service of social justice. Locally, we support individuals in leading arts-infused civic dialogues and change-making initiatives, connecting them to training, resources, and one another. For example, check out the two dozen Imaginings — arts-infused community dialogues — USDAC Cultural Agents have hosted so far. In November, we called for applications for a third cohort of Cultural Agents, and just as in response to the first two calls, we received a hundred applications from a remarkably impressive range of activist artists for eighteen volunteer posts.

Nationally, we amplify impact through large-scale actions and calls for creative response, building momentum for positive social change and democratic cultural policy. For example, #DareToImagine in October 2015 dispatched Emissaries from the Future to Imagination Stations nationwide, where everyone could exercise the audacity to dream in public of a future they wish to inhabit, then upload their images and texts to an online repository where they could be shared. Why did we call the action #DareToImagine? Because not everyone’s social imagination is welcomed in our society. With vivid dystopian futures saturating mass media (and inboxes) these days, there are powerful reasons to be scared silent. Refusing to go along takes daring.

As the third point in the USDAC Statement of Values says,

Cultural diversity is a social good and the wellspring of free expression. Its support and protection require equitable distribution of public resources, particularly to correct past injustices and balance an excess of commercialization. Cultural equity means full inclusion, participation, and power-sharing in all of our communities and institutions.

There’s no equity in a culture of silence.

A People-Powered Department

We like to say the USDAC is the nation’s first people-powered department. It is not a government agency; rather, it playfully performs the work of a department, harnessing artists’ skills to address the issues of our day while also nourishing the artist in us all.

After two years of research and interviews with key activists and cultural organizers, the USDAC launched with a press conference at Imagining America in October 2013. We were instantly attacked by Glenn Beck for our culturally democratic values. Since then, our diverse, intergenerational team has logged more than thirty thousand volunteer hours and hosted participatory community events in forty states, drawing more than ten thousand participants.

We see the USDAC as simultaneously an arts project, an organizing project, and an ongoing learning community. Each community-based event and National Action builds new partnerships with organizations sharing our commitment to cultural democracy; to date, more than 250 organizational partners have worked with the USDAC, and that number is growing.

As Chief Policy Wonk, one of my responsibilities is to oversee the National Cabinet, currently comprising thirty-three amazing members (and growing), who embody a wealth of policy-related knowledge grounded in lived experience. One of the USDAC’s foundational principles is to link the local and national, generating a constant flow of information and energy in both directions. We pay close attention to what community members are saying about their cultural concerns and aspirations, and in the responses we propose based on their stories, we pay close attention to impact on the ground. In essence, we are crowdsourcing cultural policy.

The contrast with cultural policymaking-as-usual is pretty stark. Too often it is abstracted from on-the-ground cultural life — and the resulting policy mostly suffers from responses running the gamut from indifference to opposition. Conventional arts advocacy is frequently (and correctly) seen as special pleading by the direct beneficiaries for their own subsidy, which is not likely to excite popular support. To pick a single benchmark, the real value of the National Endowment for the Arts’ budget has declined by well over half since 1980; it would have to be more than $400 million today just to equal 1980s spending power. Add up the numbers, and it is startling to realize that the victory announced each year when the NEA has again been “saved” amounts to a clear defeat.

We are calling for a paradigm shift in cultural policymaking, as described in An Act of Collective Imagination:

We need cultural policy that reflects the true nature of our urgent need for a new story. It must emerge from broad public engagement, grounding it in people’s concerns and aspirations, in lived knowledge rather than abstract or distanced expertise. We need to understand community-envisioned cultural policy as an instrument of community-directed development rather than something imposed on communities.

Which brings me back to the audience for our report. For decades I have had conversations with people I meet in dentists’ waiting rooms and on airplanes. Sometimes it starts with them asking what I do — answering that requires a bit of give-and-take. I get around to asking if they care about things like how their communities are depicted on television and in the movies, how their heritage cultures are reflected in their kids’ education, and whether their children’s schools still offer theater and music classes along with math, science, and standardized test prep. So far, everybody has said they care.

Then I get around to asking if they care about cultural policy. That usually brings a puzzled look or an indifferent shrug. It is a moment that carries an important message, as I explained in An Act of Collective Imagination:

The thing is, the first response cancels the second. Both questions are one and the same.

People care greatly how they are represented, how their surroundings and society embody — or reject — their heritage, whether or not they feel a deep sense of belonging, and how those things are expressed in the sounds, images, and experiences human beings create. As in every social realm, the conditions that determine these things are created by countless individual and collective actions, and also shaped by laws, regulations, articulations of value, by investment and disinvestment — in short, by policy.

Yet except for aficionados, the phrase “cultural policy” conjures something so dry, obscure, and removed from daily life that the two questions may seem to have no connection.

In reality, everyone makes cultural policy.

  • When a local planning commission approves the destruction of a long-standing Latino neighborhood for the construction of a new freeway or sports stadium, cultural policy is being made, policy that prizes revenue while devaluing cultural fabric woven over decades of family and community life.
  • When a state government denies undocumented workers the right to an education, a driver’s license, and other signifiers of belonging, it is making cultural policy, withdrawing full cultural citizenship from those who lack legal papers.
  • When parents and teachers introduce students to heritage cultures through classes and holiday celebrations sharing music, stories, and food, schools are making cultural policy, prioritizing the school’s commitment to cultural competency.
  • When music venues ban hoodies, they are making cultural policy, establishing who is welcome to take part in local cultural life — and who is not.

Through the USDAC, thousands of Citizen Artists are striving for a society that honors full cultural citizenship, where everyone has a right to a voice in this critical policymaking realm. That requires audacity and prospective thinking. Most domestic cultural policy studies still focus on quantification of what is (e.g., audience studies and expenditure analyses) rather than proposing and enacting what could be. Clearly, it is time to turn that around, adopting policies and initiatives that truly embody the public interest in culture, as expressed by people coming to grips with big questions right in their own communities.

The USDAC’s work is based on seeing those people as fully dimensional, simultaneously individuals and community members. We understand art and culture as a continuum, encompassing all that people do to express themselves, celebrate heritage, recognize milestones, build communities, communicate, and connect. We see culture as the crucible in which a society works out identity, shared values, and a way of living that bring us closer to a loving and just future. So when we talk about policy, it is not just arts funding: just as culture is a whole, we need holistic responses to social conditions.

Generative Cultural Policy Ideas

To prepare An Act of Collective Imagination, we reviewed hundreds of stories that community members contributed to the USDAC National Action that took place in January 2015, our first People’s State of the Union (PSOTU). The PSOTU, which includes story circles across the United States and a collaboratively composed Poetic Address to the Nation, has a motto that says it all: “Democracy is a conversation, not a monologue.” (The second iteration, #PSOTU2016, happened in late January of this year.) First-person testimonies from the 2015 action helped us bring the issues to life. Stories touched on many topics, but seven themes stood out: community and belonging; racial and cultural equity, inclusion, and justice; displacement and placekeeping; migration and immigration; education and youth; macroeconomy and creative economy; environment and climate. I will give you a taste of two.

Basic Income Grant

Imagine the United States adopting a universal, publicly funded basic income grant (BIG) covering economic needs, benefiting every person equally without any means test. Here is how we described it:

A universal basic income grant (BIG) — the policy initiative we propose here — can benefit all equally, regardless of the fields in which they work. But it is especially promising for artists committed to community cultural development and cultural democracy, because so many of them struggle to cover living costs in a society — and philanthropic culture — that devalues their work. There is a standing joke that unemployment insurance is the largest source of subsidy to performing artists, for instance, because dance and theater companies routinely employ artists during the performance season and lay them off afterwards so they may collect benefits. BIG delivers the same help, but obviates the need for an army of bureaucratic enforcers to vet, police, and deny benefits to those deemed unworthy. That saves a huge amount of public resource that can be channeled into basic income.

And here is a bit of a story illustrating the need, told by a PSOTU 2015 story circle participant from Houston:

We have been renting this same house since 1999, and have probably paid more in rent than the house is worth. My thirty-two-year-old son has refused to leave home in order that he may continue to support us through these tough times. That’s not fair to him. I have maintained and increased my computer skills; I am actively involved in social media. I am daily seeking real opportunities for income, but am convinced that self-employment is my only solution. I have recently been through eviction proceedings, and am gathering funds to prevent such action. I am also wondering how I am going to pay a $330.00 electricity bill for one month. And forget about health care for my wonderful wife of thirty-three years. It is simply unaffordable. Recently, a trip to the grocery store had this old man in tears when looking at the meat prices. I never thought that I’d have to make such penny-pinching decisions. As a Vietnam-era veteran, I am increasingly disappointed with the direction the current administration has taken. Their unenthusiastic support of veterans, seniors, and Americans in general leaves much to be desired. I refuse to give up… We are tired, worn out, but not finished. Something good has got to happen soon.

Cultural Impact Study

Now imagine every community instituting a cultural impact study (CIS) analogous to environmental impact studies — only instead of assessing the potential impact of proposed development on the environment, it focuses on cultural fabric. The model resolution and process included in our report give value to the sense of belonging, sites of public memory, gathering places, and expressions of heritage culture that are otherwise so often ignored, as when a long-standing neighborhood is razed to make way for a new freeway or sports stadium.

The National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) of 1969 has made a profound difference, ameliorating the cost of development to the air, water, and land, and the life they support. Yet forty-five years after its passage, human culture has no comparable legal standing.

The four additional generative policy ideas we offer — a Bureau of Cultural Citizenship, Rapid Artistic Response, Bureau of Teaching Artistry, and EcoArts Fund — address the needs and aspirations people shared in PSOTU story circles as well as other USDAC initiatives. For instance, Cultural Agent Betty Yu hosted #Imagining: Creative Strategies to Fight Gentrification, drawing three hundred participants in New York City on June 6, 2015. There have been several follow-up events, including a series of #DareToImagine activities and an interactive evening of participatory art making called “City of Justice: New Year, New Futures” at the Brooklyn Museum on January 2, 2016.

Before the June Imagining, Betty described her intentions in an interview with Next City. Here is an excerpt in her own words:

Why has gentrification become such an important issue for you?

I grew up in Sunset Park’s Chinatown in Brooklyn and grew up going to Manhattan’s Chinatown. Within the 12-year reign of Mayor Bloomberg and his over 120 rezoning plans, he effectively put in place a master plan to massively displace working class, immigrants and people of color from their own neighborhoods. These effects will be felt for generations to come. We must take it back now and fight back now.

I am seeing neighborhoods being uprooted of their culture, language, sense of history and people. I also believe we are at a crossroads in the organizing work where we have to come up with new creative ways of organizing. These real estate developers are accelerating gentrification and are trying to pit poor working-class residents against other residents who also need a place to live and have more flexible income to pay higher rents. But the real culprits are the real estate developers. We need to figure out how to shift the public debate and to push for just housing policies.

What idea made the most impact on you?

The event was presented in two major acts. The first act was a presentation of organizers, cultural workers, media makers and activists who talked about the creative ways they have tackled gentrification. Part two had participants break into groups by borough and do a visual imagining and mapping exercise. Participants used only symbols and pictures to express the current conditions in their neighborhoods, what housing justice looks like in 20 years and the path it would take to get there.

The ideas rolled out in An Act of Collective Imagination are just a taste of the full cultural policy platform we will be releasing in a year or so, when we have a critical mass of information from national actions and local initiatives. We welcome allies from the philanthropic community who want to explore how this culture shift can be actuated in their spheres, moving cultural policy from a special-interest subject to an instrument of community-directed development, guided by lived experience and designed for maximum utility and impact on the broadest and most inclusive public interest in culture.

Don’t hesitate to call on us: we are happy to share what we have learned.