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“2016 #PSOTU” by flickr user Ted Eytan

Title: Standing for Cultural Democracy: The USDAC’s Policy and Action Platform

Author(s): Arlene Goldbard

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

Year: 2016

URL: https://actionnetwork.org/user_files/user_files/000/010/392/original/Standing_for_CD_12-7-16.pdf

Topics: cultural democracy, arts policy

Methods: participatory action research, policy analysis

What it says: “Standing for Cultural Democracy” is the U.S. Department of Arts and Culture’s (USDAC) official policy platform. The USDAC is a participatory art and community organizing project designed to open up space for public dialogue about cultural policy. “Standing” is a follow-up to 2015’s “An Act of Collective Imagination,” which offered a look back at the USDAC’s first two years of existence along with a preview of a number of the policy ideas included in the current report.

The USDAC defines culture as “all that is fabricated, endowed, designed, articulated, conceived or directed by human beings,” and thus in USDAC’s view, topics as diverse as racism, human rights, and social attitudes toward climate change are all cultural issues. Its definition of cultural policy is similarly broad: “the aggregate of values and principles guiding any social entity in matters touching on culture.” 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. The “Standing” cultural policy platform purports to be inspired by this action research, though the exact mechanisms by which this crowdsourcing took place are not made clear in the report.

The ten-point policy platform includes the following recommendations:

  1. Institute a new public service jobs program. In addition to direct funding for jobs that address cultural infrastructure, the platform recommends that percent for art initiatives be expanded to include community-engaged art projects and that existing public service job programs target artists for outreach.
  2. Support a culture of justice and equity by distributing resources in representative fashion for the benefit of all communities, and by creating a “national learning community” for allies for social justice.
  3. Redeem democracy with creativity by integrating arts modalities into political dialogue and democratic decision-making processes, and organizing hackathons aimed at designing political reforms.
  4. Reform the culture of punishment by adopting Campaign Zero’s ten-point policy platform, supporting prison arts programs, and creating art that spreads awareness of related issues and potential solutions among the broader public.
  5. Invest in belonging and cultural citizenship by encouraging governments and private institutions to adopt a “policy on belonging,” supporting long-term artists’ residencies at the neighborhood level, supporting community arts centers, and repurposing disused and underused spaces for creative activities.
  6. Integrate community cultural development and the work of artists into all social programs affecting culture. In addition to direct involvement of artists, “Standing” advocates developing curricula for explaining the value of artists to professionals in “community building, social service, and public policy” settings.
  7. Support artistic response to artistic and natural cultural emergencies by promoting the value of arts-based interventions in crisis situations, offering training to artists to provide these services, and integrating artists into emergency planning processes.
  8. Adopt a cultural impact study in communities where physical developments are planned that might disrupt the existing cultural fabric.
  9. Reconceive education to support creativity’s central role by advocating for arts integration at the national and local levels, bringing teaching artists into schools, and training artists to work in educational settings.
  10. Adopt a basic income grant at the federal and state levels to increase the social safety net for artists and everyone else.

Since most of the policy recommendations require (in some cases substantial) new resources, “Standing” offers several ideas for how those resources might be acquired. The ideas include a tax on media advertising, a “Robin Hood tax” on bank transactions, a Creative Breakthrough Fund that functions as a kind of venture philanthropy resource for arts-based social innovation, and social impact bonds in which private investors pay for the success of social programs that would otherwise be sponsored by local governments.

In an appendix, “Standing” provides model resolutions for two of the policy ideas: the cultural impact study and the policy on belonging. A call to “hack democracy with creativity” is also included, elaborating on idea #3 in the list above.

What I think about it: “Standing for Cultural Democracy” functions as a kind of revision and extension of the USDAC’s first publication, “An Act of Collective Imagination”; indeed, a substantial amount of text is shared between the two documents. But whereas “An Act of Collective Imagination” was framed first and foremost as a case study of the USDAC as an organization with a handful of policy ideas tacked on at the end, in “Standing for Cultural Democracy” the policy platform takes center stage. And appropriately so: the platform now covers far more ground and feels reasonably comprehensive, and some of the zanier or more random ideas in the first edition have been jettisoned or folded into larger categories.

This is not to say that “Standing” is an unqualified success. For one thing, there is still little reason to trust that participants in USDAC programming are fully representative of the United States population, especially with respect to geography and political orientation, and if anything “Standing” is even less clear than “Collective Imagination” about the connection between the organization’s participatory action research and the final product. As for the platform itself, while on the whole it represents a step forward from the previous edition, the proposals still vary widely in quality. Some are premised on highly questionable assertions backed by the flimsiest of evidence; for example, the policy on supporting artistic response to natural and civil emergencies claims that community-based artists “[help] communities to heal in the aftermath of a crisis.” That is an impressive superpower if true, but “Standing” seems to take it completely on faith that it is: it mentions a few case studies of artistic interventions following Hurricanes Katrina and Sandy and the unrest in Ferguson, but discloses only what the activities were – not whether those activities led to any sort of outcome as meaningful as “healing a community.”

Even when the logic behind them is clearer, most proposals offer little clue about how exactly the ideas should be implemented or who is best positioned to do so. While extending the platform to 10 topic areas and dozens of specific proposals makes its coverage more robust, that advantage is accompanied by a corresponding decrease in focus. The USDAC might enjoy more success bringing its ideas to fruition if it chose two or three priority initiatives to emphasize in its initial phase.

Of the ideas presented, I remain most bullish about the Cultural Impact Study, a smart and easily envisioned add-on to any creative placemaking project. In addition, I give the USDAC credit for being smart enough to realize when it doesn’t need to reinvent the wheel: Signing on to Campaign Zero’s policing reform agenda and the substantial literature and practice around Universal Basic Income are savvy choices that broaden the accepted circle of what is relevant to culture and the contexts in which culture is relevant. Among the ideas for raising revenue, the Creative Breakthrough Fund is the one that I find most appealing – its utility is obvious, it could relatively easily be set up with support from private funders, and the resources required could be fairly modest.

What it all means: “Standing for Cultural Democracy” well epitomizes both the value and the limitations of the USDAC’s participatory approach to policy development. As a standalone document, the platform disappoints: the uneven quality is a distraction, and at times it comes across as overly optimistic about the value of integrating arts-based approaches into contexts and spaces where they’re not usually seen. Moreover, though the document purports to be an example of the sort of arts-based, people-powered democracy-hacking that the platform itself calls for, we’re not given much reason to believe that its authorship is all that democratic in the end. Indeed, the very notion of having a “Chief Policy Wonk” who is the platform’s sole credited author seems a bit of a mismatch with the ideals and rhetoric that drive the enterprise. (One wonders: Is the Chief an elected position?)

But if we think of the USDAC and “Standing” as existing within a larger ecosystem of analysis, dialogue, and thought leadership around cultural policy, their added value becomes much clearer. The USDAC’s broad definitions of culture and cultural policy, despite stretching the boundaries of usefulness on their own terms, serve as a needed counterbalance to the professional nonprofit arts sector’s bias toward looking after the interests of specific institutions and art forms. Its welcome-all-comers engagement strategy helps to establish the relevance of cultural policy with a potentially greater and far more diverse audience than any traditional think tank or foundation-commissioned white paper will ever reach. And even if most of the actual ideas in the platform turn out to be dead ends, that hardly matters if the remaining ones offer real potential for impact.

It would be interesting to think how the USDAC’s creative, brainstorming-driven approach can be deployed within that larger ecosystem to the maximum benefit of all. “Standing” offers ideas for how to improve the world without a whole lot of evidence to back them up; others wait for evidence to arrive and may leave promising ideas on the table in the meantime. Much like Y Combinator’s basic income pilot with 100 Oakland residents, an environment where generative cultural policy proposals can be tested and evaluated before receiving a wider rollout could give us the best of both worlds. Combining the kind of creative energy and willingness to think outside the box demonstrated by the USDAC with an appropriate degree of skepticism and open-mindedness around treasured assumptions sounds like an ideal way to develop any kind of policy.