Image by Nicholas Raymond

“Acrylic DC Capitol – Red White & Blue” by Nicholas Raymond

Several months ago, I gathered in a room with a few dozen funders to imagine “the Philanthropia of our dreams.” Among two days’ worth of mostly traditional breakouts at the Grantmakers in the Arts conference, this workshop was a clear outlier. Over the course of nearly three hours, we told remarkably personal narratives about our relationship to philanthropy, recounted moments that had reminded us why we do what we do, and mused about what the coming decades might hold for our field (shared with the group, in at least several cases, in the form of a drawing). Summing up the tenor of the afternoon, the session concluded with nominations for inspiring songs to comprise the “Sound of Philanthropia” playlist.

The aforementioned intervention was concocted by the U.S. Department of Arts and Culture, a participatory art and community organizing project designed to generate public dialogue about cultural policy. The USDAC engages in participatory action research, instigating events such as locally distributed “Imaginings” (of which the workshop at Grantmakers in the Arts was one) 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 organization grew out of a collaboration between founder Adam Horowitz and longtime community arts activist Arlene Goldbard, who now bear the colorful titles of “Chief Instigator” and “Chief Policy Wonk” respectively.

Createquity has been following the USDAC’s progress with keen interest. Its work has scored an honorable mention in our annual roundup of the top 10 arts policy stories twice in the past three years – once marking its launch in 2014, and the second time in recognition of the release of its policy platform late last year.

It’s the latter effort that is of particular relevance to this audience. Most self-styled think tanks and research initiatives, Createquity included, are expert-driven: we seek to understand the world through finding and/or commissioning research and analysis of the highest quality possible, prioritizing methodological rigor and scientific standards. In the USDAC’s case, although the research questions it sets out to explore are fundamentally the same as Createquity’s – what are the most important issues, and what can we do about them? – it arrives at the answers via a radically different path. Unapologetically qualitative, decentralized, and improvisational, the USDAC coopts the language and methods of art in the pursuit of knowledge, resulting in rich, overlapping narrative tapestries on a wide range of topics.

The USDAC has produced two publications thus far reporting the results of these activities: 2015’s “An Act of Collective Imagination,” which offered a look back at the USDAC’s first two years of existence, and “Standing for Cultural Democracy,” the official policy platform released in December 2016. Both documents offer a mix of information about the organization itself and its programming, along with some philosophical context-setting that bears repeating here. The USDAC is, fundamentally, a project to understand and advocate for the role of artists in the broader cultural sphere. That project defines culture extremely broadly, as “all that is fabricated, endowed, designed, articulated, conceived or directed by human beings,” and thus topics as far-flung as racism, human rights, and social attitudes toward climate change are all deemed 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.” Therefore, the USDAC reasonably argues, interest in cultural policy among the population can be assumed to be universal, and because of that, it’s important to try to involve literally everyone in its formation.

That philosophy explains the USDAC’s inclusive and participatory approach; indeed, as a bystander to the organization’s activities, I’ve consistently been impressed by the wide swath of people who engage with its programming. In particular, it seems to reach lots of folks who don’t typically engage with the sort of expert-driven processes described above. Still, there’s a difference between open access and true inclusivity, and in the absence of any formal sampling procedures, there’s reason to question how representative the organization’s participatory action research truly is. (No information is provided in the reports about the participants other than their total number and some of the locations of the Imaginings and other events.) Given the progressive political leanings of the founders and their networks, for example, along with the project’s generally urban orientation, I would be very surprised to learn that more than a handful of self-identified conservatives contributed to the various discussions. If true, this represents a philosophical conundrum for a project that prizes inclusion and holds “culture is created by everyone” as a core value, 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 held exclusively among Donald Trump supporters might well yield some very different narratives and areas of concern than what we see from the USDAC today.

My other concern with the USDAC is that the funnel from the action research to the policy ideas is never fully explained in either publication, or any other materials that I’ve come across. Both publications are solely credited to Goldbard, though certain sections acknowledge other contributors and “An Act of Collective Imagination” includes a suite of quotes from participants in USDAC programming. I certainly find it plausible that the Imaginings may have helped shape areas of focus for the platform, and perhaps yielded a proactive suggestion here and there. But if the Imagining that I attended and the post-event writeups on the USDAC’s website are any indication, detailed discussion of the sorts of policy proposals included in the platform was not on the menu at these events. In a fully citizen-driven process, one might have expected the platform content to come from, say, something like the petitions on combined with a public vote, but that doesn’t appear to be how the document came together.

All of this raises some legitimate questions about “Standing for Cultural Democracy”’s claim to be a true and full representation of the people’s voice. (A claim which, I should stress, would have been a remarkable achievement for a three-year-old grassroots organization with barely any budget.) But leaving that aside, the USDAC’s cultural policy platform is also a compendium of ideas that deserve thoughtful consideration, regardless of the process that led to them. Specifically, “Standing for Cultural Democracy” 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 proposals require (in some cases substantial) new resources, “Standing” offers several ideas for how those resources might be acquired, including 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.

While these proposals cover a lot of ground, they vary widely in quality. To me, the standout is the Cultural Impact Study, which could easily be implemented as a smart add-on to any creative placemaking project. Modeled after the environmental impact statements that have gained wide adoption nationally, the USDAC has gone so far as to include a template resolution for a Cultural Impact Study in an appendix to the platform that could be deployed in a local government or other context. The Creative Breakthrough Fund is likewise a strong idea with immediate potential for application.

By contrast, some of the other proposals seem to take the value of citizen artists on faith in a huge range of contexts. It could be true, for example, that “artistic response” to natural disasters and other civic emergencies is sufficiently effective in healing trauma to warrant the kind of scaling up that the USDAC calls for, but we’re not given much guidance for why we should believe that’s the case. And the notion of employing/deploying artists to liven up public hearings and other administrative functions of government sounds like it could be disastrous as easily as it could be great. Indeed, these ideas are symptomatic of an odd myopia in the USDAC’s vision of success: despite the incredibly broad problem space created by its wide-ranging definition of culture as all human activity, the solutions it proposes are nearly all rooted in artistic practice. By its logic, systemic ills like racism and environmental injustice not only can be solved by citizen artists, they won’t be solved without them.

That said, the platform is not completely dogmatic in this respect and admirably draws upon other policy agendas where appropriate, most notably by embracing Universal Basic Income and Campaign Zero’s policing reform agenda. I likewise appreciate another aspect of the platform’s general construction: it assumes very little new legislation or cooperative action at the level of the federal government, which could have easily made the proposals moot in an era of partisan gridlock and Presidential hostility to the little infrastructure that does exist.

“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 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. And my questions around the degree to which the process accurately represents the aggregate desires of the people, participants and non-participants alike, put a damper on the enthusiasm I would otherwise have for its innovative approach.

Still, I have to say that I am glad an organization like the U.S. Department of Arts and Culture exists. If we think about the role of the USDAC within the larger ecosystem of analysis, dialogue, and thought leadership around cultural policy, its 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, offer a desperately 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 “Standing for Cultural Democracy” 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 (like Createquity) wait for evidence to arrive and may leave promising ideas on the table in the meantime. As with 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 to me like an ideal way to develop any kind of policy.