Who Can We Be?

by Arlene Goldbard

In my first post, my goal was to expand our narrow debate over arts funding to include the large and urgent questions of value that should drive cultural policy. I brought up really big issues (such as the fact that we spend more than two annual National Endowment for the Arts [NEA)] budgets on war each day, seven days a week). But even if you want to stay more tightly focused on questions of art and culture, it’s a big landscape.

Every public sector has a cultural policy, whether they say so or not. In some places, it’s explicit. For instance, some nations mandate a certain amount of domestically produced content on TV or in movie theaters, to support their media sector and keep from being overwhelmed by U.S. product. In other places, policy is implicit: what can you deduce about U.S. cultural policy from looking at arts education in elementary schools today? No one has to say it’s totally expendable for us to get that message; public actions do the talking.

Cultural policy is always driven by values. As a nation, what are our goals for cultural development? Whose culture counts? What do we want to preserve, protect, or promote? Values are encoded in the way we allocate funds, in zoning and regulations, in the priorities reflected by our history books and museums.

A couple of years ago, I teamed up with other artists and activists to articulate Art & The Public Purpose: A New Framework putting forward five key elements of a new national policy recognizing culture’s central role in stimulating social imagination, empathy, and national recovery.

The Framework didn’t take off the way we hoped. It turned out that the Obama administration was as reluctant as its predecessors to invest in artists and cultural development. The right has been successful in making the arts a toxic issue, and no administration has been brave enough to buck that. But despite officials’ trepidation, the five initiatives articulated there are still key to a viable, democratic cultural policy. And if I had to name the three most important things to do to improve U.S. cultural policy, I’d choose these three underlying principles of the New Framework:

Create a “new WPA,” a public service jobs program addressing all our national goals—clean energy, excellent education, sound economy, good health and more. It should include putting artists and creative organizers to work for the common good using every art form and way of working: providing well-rounded education, sustaining and caring for the ill, engaging elders in creativity, rebuilding community infrastructure to reflect our best. Seventy-five years ago, the WPA supported five arts programs as part of FDR’s program to recover from the Great Depression. It worked. Today, unemployment is a scandal and a shame, and jobs are still the engine of prosperity; when tied to public purpose, no investment brings greater impact.

Invest our resources to promote cultural equity. The right to culture—to honor those who came before, express ourselves and take part in community life—is a core human right. Our national policy should mandate equal opportunity to contribute to and benefit from cultural life, whether our families are indigenous to this land, have lived here for many decades or just arrived; whether we live in cities or the countryside; regardless of color, creed, orientation or physical ability. The way we support, protect and promote culture should reflect our best, our national commitment to equity, fairness and inclusion, instead of favoring the wealthiest and whitest institutions above all others.

Make culture count in public policy. Every community’s cultural fabric is made of shared places, customs, values and creative acts. The stronger it is, the more likely that kids will stay in school, businesses will thrive, neighbors will celebrate and learn from each other. When we forget this, we pay a price. How would our cities be different if policy-makers had considered the cultural lives of the neighborhoods leveled to make way for new stadiums, performing arts complexes and freeways? Cultural policy should be modeled on laws assessing environmental impacts, considering the human and cultural cost of public actions—and not just dollars and cents—before approving plans.

Sometimes simple solutions are the most powerful. Just adopting these three principles would completely transform our national cultural policy from a weak and vulnerable system modeled on private patronage to an engine of cultural democracy.

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Arlene Goldbard is a writer, speaker, consultant and cultural activist whose focus is the intersection of culture, politics and spirituality. Her blog and other writings may be downloaded from her Web site: www.arlenegoldbard.com. She was born in New York and grew up near San Francisco. Her most recent book, New Creative Community: The Art of Cultural Development was published by New Village Press in November 2006. She is also co-author of Community, Culture and Globalization, an international anthology published by the Rockefeller Foundation, Crossroads: Reflections on the Politics of Culture, and Clarity, a novel. Her essays have been published in In Motion Magazine, Art in America, Theatre, Tikkun, and many other journals. She has addressed many academic and community audiences in the U.S. and Europe, on topics ranging from the ethics of community arts practice to the development of integral organizations. She has provided advice and counsel to hundreds of community-based organizations, independent media groups, and public and private funders and policymakers including the Rockefeller Foundation, the Independent Television Service, Appalshop and dozens of others. She is currently writing a new book on art’s public purpose. She serves as President of the Board of Directors of The Shalom Center.

Don’t miss Reframing the Arts : Advocating for the Public Culture at Oakland Museum of California (OMCA) on Saturday, April 16! Register here.

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