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“2016 #PSOTU” by flickr user Ted Eytan

Title: An Act of Collective Imagination: The USDAC’s First Two Years of Action Research

Author(s): Arlene Goldbard

Publisher: The U.S. Department of Arts and Culture

Year: 2015

URL: http://static1.squarespace.com/static/5220c2ece4b0407999540a76/t/560ca93ee4b093206c084ed8/1443670334742/An+Act+of+Collective+Imagination+9-30-15.pdf

Topics: cultural democracy, arts policy

Methods: participatory action research, policy analysis

What it says: “An Act of Collective Imagination” is a look back at the first two years of the U.S. Department of Arts and Culture’s (USDAC) existence. The USDAC is a participatory art and community organizing project designed to open up space for public dialogue about cultural policy. The USDAC takes the position that everyone is naturally interested in cultural policy, they just don’t have the lingo to realize that that’s what it is. This is in part because the USDAC defines cultural policy broadly, not just as actions by the government, and not just about “the arts.” For example, the USDAC views racism, human rights, etc. as cultural issues. The USDAC espouses values that are mostly about full representation and freedom of expression, but also include some explicitly progressive ideas such as “equitable distribution of public resources, particularly to correct past injustices and balance an excess of commercialization.”

The USDAC engages in participatory action research, instigating events such as locally distributed “Imaginings” and the national “People’s State of the Union” to source first-person, often arts-based narratives about what is culturally important and what an ideal future might look like. A synthesis of the most popular topics arising from these activities is included in the report, as follows:

  • Community and Belonging
  • Racial and Cultural Equity, Inclusion and Justice
  • Displacement and Placekeeping
  • Migration and Immigration
  • Education and Youth
  • Macro-economy and Creative Economy
  • Environment and Climate

The report offers a selection of six “generative policy ideas” in anticipation of the USDAC’s more fleshed-out policy report (“Standing for Cultural Democracy,” published in 2016). These specific ideas appear to have come primarily from the report’s author, USDAC’s “Chief Policy Wonk” Arlene Goldbard, though they may have been influenced by the action research. The policy ideas are as follows:

  • A Bureau of Cultural Citizenship supporting long-term neighborhood artist residencies and both permanent and pop-up community cultural centers
  • A Rapid Artistic Response Manual to help artists mobilize direct action and institutional support in the face of natural disasters and cultural crises like the Baltimore Uprising
  • A requirement for government and other planning agencies considering actions like transportation initiatives, real estate development, etc. to conduct a Cultural Impact Study analogous to environmental impact reports
  • A Bureau of Teaching Artistry that would work with school districts to create funding for teaching artists in schools and promote arts integration in all subject areas
  • A Universal Basic Income Grant to bolster the social safety net for artists and everyone else
  • A public-private EcoArts Fund that would employ arts-based strategies to shift public attitudes toward climate change

“Collective Imagination” concludes with a few proposals to pay for the initiatives above, including a tax on advertising, a “Robin Hood” tax on bank expenditures, and having federal agencies hire artists to help with things like disseminating public information. An appendix includes a full model resolution for adopting a Cultural Impact Study policy in one’s community.

What I think about it: “An Act of Collective Imagination” is several things at once, but for the purposes of this review it is most useful to think of it as a policy brief. Viewed through that lens, it makes several contributions of note:

  1. It offers an example of a novel method by which to crowdscource areas of policy concern and policy ideas;
  2. It offers several specific policy ideas, a mix of original creations and adaptations from other sources; and
  3. It offers a few strategies to create funding streams for the policies in #2.

Of these three, the first contribution is arguably the most intriguing in concept. The USDAC sets itself apart by pursuing a radically different method for understanding public attitudes toward policy than traditional think tanks and research initiatives. Unapologetically qualitative, decentralized, and improvisational, it coopts the language and methods of art in the pursuit of knowledge, resulting in rich, overlapping narrative tapestries on a wide range of topics. That said, the weaknesses of this approach are at least as salient as its strengths. Two in particular threaten to drain the usefulness of the exercise. First, given that there is no formal sampling method employed and no information is provided about the participants other than their total number and some of the locations, it’s a strong bet that participants in the Imaginings and other USDAC events are not representative of the US population as a whole. Given the political leanings of the founders and their networks, for example, along with the project’s generally urban focus, I would be very surprised to learn that there were more than a handful of self-identified conservatives included in the action research – a philosophical conundrum for a project that prizes inclusion and holds “culture is created by everyone” as a core value. This is especially so since political identification is presumably more likely to correlate with differences in one’s priorities and vision for the future than other vectors of diversity such as race, gender, geography, or age. An Imagining session held exclusively among Donald Trump supporters might well yield some very different narratives and areas of concern.

Second, the funnel from the action research to the policy ideas is never fully explained, leaving one to wonder whether there is much connection at all. Some of the ideas, such as Universal Basic Income and the Robin Hood tax, are borrowed from other sources not specific to the arts; others, like the Bureau of Teaching Artists, appear to have been generated by the USDAC’s own leadership. If part of the point of doing the action research in the first place is to learn from the people, it would have been more compelling to see the people’s thinking transparently represented in the policy proposals.

As for the proposals themselves, they are a mixed bag. The Cultural Impact Study is the clear highlight here, as it is among the most realistic, innovative, and fully fleshed out of the ideas presented. Though there are inevitably details to be worked out, I would love to see a version of the CIS piloted somewhere and evaluated. While not as original, connecting Universal Basic Income to cultural policy is another wise move. By contrast, many of the other suggestions, like the Rapid Artistic Response manual and the proposal to hire artists to organize public meetings, come across as half-baked.

What it all means: “An Act of Collective Imagination” paints a portrait of a promising and inventive organization that is figuring things out on the fly. The notion of democratizing policy development is a tantalizing one, and while there are legitimate questions and concerns to be raised about the way in which that process has unfolded to date, it’s not difficult to imagine a more seasoned (and perhaps better-resourced) iteration of the USDAC successfully addressing some of these concerns in the future. That said, it’s probably best to consider this kind of participatory approach a complement to traditional, expert-driven policy analysis rather than a replacement for it. Citizens of the world are very good at being experts on themselves, but it takes specialized skills to bridge the disparate narratives to construct truly collective wisdom and broker difficult compromises between competing values, interests, and worldviews. It may be true that everyone cares about cultural policy, but USDAC hasn’t (yet) made a convincing case that everyone should be developing it.