Cultural Policy

Two Recent Meetings

Published in: GIA Newsletter, Vol 8, No 2 (Fall 1997)

Marian Godfrey

The Arts and the Public Purpose 92nd American Assembly

From May 29 through June 1 of this year, seventy-eight individuals interested in the arts in the United States came together for the 92nd American Assembly at Arden House in Harriman, New York to debate "The Arts and the Public Purpose." The American Assembly was established by Dwight D. Eisenhower at Columbia University in 1950. Each year it holds at least two nonpartisan meetings on topics related to United States policy, each of which gives rise to a book on the subject discussed.

The purpose of the 1997 American Assembly, "The Arts and the Public Purpose: Reimagining the Cultural Infrastructure," was to identify and explore the areas in which commercial and not-for-profit artists and enterprises might better meet the public interest in culture, and to suggest means whereby public purposes might be more effectively encouraged. The Assembly aimed specifically to examine structures and support systems that may help achieve the public interest more effectively than existing systems do.

Present at the 1997 meeting were artists, nonprofit arts professionals, governmental representatives (including NEA Chair Jane Alexander, national and state legislators, and mayors of several cities), executives of media conglomerates and other multinational corporations, arts grantmakers, policy scholars, cultural economists, and journalists. The meeting was co-chaired by Alberta Arthurs, former director of arts and humanities at the Rockefeller Foundation and Frank Hodsoll, former chair of the NEA.

The theme and the agenda invited explorations of the roles and responsibilities of the arts in the life of this country with an accent on what the arts have to offer. The list of invitees was purposely more inclusive than that of past arts-related Assemblies, and participants included a smattering of conservative thinkers as well as representatives of the world of commercial culture. Extensive background materials were provided to all participants and included eight papers commissioned for the meeting on subjects such as the economics of the cultural industry in the U.S., the "career pipeline" for artists in this country, and policy arguments for government support of the arts.

The meeting was structured as are all American Assembly meetings. Opening and closing plenaries bracketed two and one half days of smaller meetings in which the attendees broke into three subgroups (ranging in size from fifteen to twenty-five). Each group stayed together and debated the same set of questions posed by the meeting agenda. Each evening, the entire Assembly heard special presentations, including two panel discussions and, on Saturday night, an improvised performance collaboration by U.S. poet laureate Robert Pinsky and country singer-songwriter Pat Alger. These two artists galvanized the meeting and reminded us viscerally of the reason for our presence there.

Over night on Saturday, the meeting organizers, together with the chairs and rapporteurs of the three subgroups, drafted a report summarizing the findings and recommendations of the assembly. The draft report was circulated on Sunday morning and was debated and edited in plenary until mid-day. Usually, American Assembly meetings adjourn with a completed and approved report in hand. In this instance, the topics were complex enough, the opinions of participants were diverse enough, and the desire for both eloquence and precision in language was intense enough, that a finished report could not be produced on Sunday. Part way through the meeting, several individuals and small groups broke away to develop additional language for the report, based on the plenary debates. Their language was left with co-chairs Alberta Arthurs and Frank Hodsoll who rewrote the report over the course of the summer. The final report was published and disseminated in late August.

One of the principle findings of the American Assembly was that the arts should be defined inclusively and that the definition should encompass the nonprofit professional arts including visual, literary, and performing arts; the commercial arts including film, television, and publishing industries; and a third arts segment that was variously described as unincorporated, volunteer, and informal. Although no single taxonomy proved to be satisfactory, the participants understood this third area to embrace a wide range of artistic endeavors. On the one hand, it includes arts that are deeply embedded in a community and that are pursued with a professional focus and seriousness but that are unincorporated. On the other hand, it also includes avocational arts participation.

This expansive definition of the arts in the United States emerged as a sine qua non of further discussion, and is viewed by the co-chairs as the key finding of the Assembly. In my group at least, the discussion kept circling back to the need to remember and act on this definition in considering the public purposes of the arts. Some of us who work in the nonprofit arena experienced a sense of elation at the prospect of breaking out of the limiting parentheses of the 501(c)(3) — at least in principle. Representatives of commercial cultural enterprises welcomed the increased willingness on the part of nonprofit arts representatives to acknowledge that although structures and motivations may be different, we are all engaged in art. Many artists at the meeting made it clear that their artistic processes may be constrained in differing ways by nonprofit or by commercial situations, but their work is not defined by either. Those who spoke for the “unincorporated” sector (the compromise language settled on by the writers of the report) had less success in keeping it at the forefront of our collective consciousness. We tended to default to a binary, profit-nonprofit, institutional formulation in our discussions.

Related to the expansive definition of the arts, a chief finding of the Assembly is that the arts are a legitimate economic sector: “a large, ubiquitous, economically and socially significant aspect of public life in this country, comparable in scale and importance to other sectors, such as the health, education, and science.” Using the briefing papers of several cultural economists, the Assembly concluded that the sector can be conservatively estimated at $180 billion, or 2.5 percent of the Gross Domestic Product. Most of this activity is commercial (film, television, and publishing). Graphic design and architecture were also included by some analysts, and the Assembly's report mentions public policy considerations raised by architecture and city planning as they affect our quality of life aesthetically. The economic analyses did not include the “unincorporated” arts since these have tended to be below the radar of data collection efforts. For this reason among others, the unincorporated arts are less well defined.

Not discussed at length in the report, but of profound importance for any serious new contribution to the public policy debates about the arts, is the very problem of definition, and the degree to which the Assembly's inclusive definition of the arts still needs to be parsed. What do we mean by “the arts?” Visual and performing? (The general public and arts grantmakers include both more often than not.) Literary? Media? (These are cited far less often in opinion surveys and funded less frequently by arts grantmakers, perhaps because most literary and media activity take place in the for-profit arena.) What do we mean by “culture?” (Consider, for example, the diverse meanings embedded in the terms “commercial culture”or “cultural heritage.”) How do the definitions influence government and private arts grantmakers? And are our definitions serviceable beyond our own somewhat rarified context? Recent research by several arts policy scholars indicates that most Americans surveyed aren't sure what “the arts” are without prompting, and are even less sure what “culture” means. Anecdotal evidence suggests that the public makes little distinction between nonprofit and for-profit arts activities.

A great advantage of the omnibus definition of the arts adopted at the 1997 meeting is that it allows for the Assembly's argument that the arts sector is of significant size and economic impact. At the same time, disagreement among cultural economists about the exact size of the sector, based on a lack of consensus about what it includes, undermines the strength of the argument. Further, some Assembly participants raised concerns that this inclusive approach could obscure profound differences between nonprofit arts and commercial culture, and could obscure as well the unequal economic relationship between the two.

Defining public purposes for the arts, as the Assembly was charged to do, became much more challenging when the consideration included commercial culture and avocational activity along with formal noncommercial arts, whether incorporated or unincorporated. At the same time, including all of these segments of the arts sector was absolutely essential to the participants' ability to articulate a full range of public roles and responsibilities inherent in the arts to their own satisfaction. The inclusive approach led to a much more robust picture of the public purposes of the arts than would have been possible had only the formal nonprofit sector been considered.

The public purposes of the arts as delineated in the Assembly's report include, in brief: 1) The arts help to define what it is to be a citizen; they build a sense of the nation's identity, and they advance democratic values at home and abroad. 2) The arts contribute to the quality of life and to economic growth. 3) The arts help to form an educated and aware citizenry by promoting understanding, developing competencies, and advancing freedom of inquiry. 4) The arts enhance individual life by enhancing creativity and providing entertainment. This summary description necessarily smoothes over the differences of meaning and interpretation that emerged from a richly nuanced discussion over the four days of the meeting. Unquestionably, for example, not all participants would interpret either our nation's identity or the means by which the arts build that identity in the same way. And not all would agree that our nation's cultural identity is unambiguously benign, especially as that identity is seen in other nations through the lens of our exported commercial culture.

I was one of a few contrarians who objected to the inclusion of entertainment as a public purpose of the arts, and I was roundly shouted down for my Puritanism. Perhaps the real question is not whether or not entertainment, or any other function noted in the report, does or does not meet public purposes. For the sake of argument, I will stipulate that they all do. However, central questions remain about whether, when, and how public purposes should be upheld by government intervention, and which mechanisms for government support or regulation are appropriate to which public purposes of which arts activities.

These questions extend beyond the brief American Assembly discussion. I raise them here for two reasons. First, it is important to guard against the temptation to elide the persuasive case that the arts have valid public purposes with an assumption that, thereby, a blanket case is automatically made for government support of the arts. The meaning of “public purposes” as a general concept or value in the United States was not clearly delineated at the meeting. The links among public purposes, public policy, and government support, including direct funding, were assumed but not made. It is arguable that any public purpose is a fit subject for public policy consideration, but that does not in turn make it automatically eligible for governmental intervention. Policy analysts argue that simply providing a public good, is not itself a sufficient argument for government support. I believe that the case for such support can be made in some instances—with local, state, and federal governments having different potential involvements based on different benefits gained through the arts. But the merits of each case will still need to be argued, especially in light of today's fierce competition for government resources and of the political climate of downsizing and devolution.

Second, answering the whether-when-how questions can form a basis for richer and more expansive policy dialogues about the arts, dialogues that are predicated on a more precise and differentiated understanding of the many forms and functions of the arts. Such discussions would need to be built upon a strong knowledge base and would need to engage a chorus of voices both objective and opinionated from other sectors of society. One of the recommendations of the Assembly's report is that further meetings both large and small be convened to continue the exploration begun at Arden House. A key factor in the success of such additional meetings will be the inclusion of individuals representing more points of view from outside the arts. Although it was probably essential for this American Assembly to concentrate on broadening the discussion among those already interested in the arts, it was still very much a meeting of the arts community in discussion with itself. Consequently, the report is primarily an insider document that challenges those within the arts community to rethink basic assumptions about the arts infrastructure as well as about the public purposes of the arts. The crucial next step will be to broaden this thinking to include those whom the arts serve.

Building and Sustaining a Cultural Policy Community: A Meeting at the White Oak Plantation

One outcome of the 1997 American Assembly meeting on The Arts and the Public Purpose was the convening of a smaller meeting in August to discuss whether and how an organized and conscious cultural policy community could be developed in the United States, and what it should comprise. As we at the Assembly thought hard about the public (and private) policy implications of questions about the arts' public purposes, a number of participants concluded, in sidebar conversations, that a more systematic approach to the development of cultural policy will be required if we are to identify and articulate compelling answers to these questions.

The August meeting, convened at the White Oak Plantation in northern Florida, was co-sponsored by The Howard Gilman Foundation and The Pew Charitable Trusts. Over three days, fifteen policy scholars, arts grantmakers, and representatives of arts advocacy organizations explored questions including 1) what currently exists in the cultural policy field, 2) what are the obstacles in building a cultural policy field, 3) how are other policy fields developed and what can be learned from their experience, and 4) what resources and actions are necessary, in the short, medium, and long terms, to build and sustain a cultural policy community? The discussion was aided by a briefing book including readings on public policy formation in mature policy arenas and on the increasingly complex models of public policy formation being developed by scholars, as well as readings specifically related to arts policy.

Present at the meeting were Alberta Arthurs, co-chair of the American Assembly; Gigi Bradford, Center for Arts and Culture; Milton C. Cummings, Jr., Johns Hopkins University; Andrea Sanseverino Galan, Center for Arts and Culture; Michael Gary, The Howard Gilman Foundation; Marian A. Godfrey, The Pew Charitable Trusts; Maria-Rosario Jackson, The Urban Institute; D. Carroll Joynes, University of Chicago; Ellen Lovell, the White House; Robert Lynch, Americans for the Arts; Malcolm Richardson, President's Committee on the Arts and the Humanities; Joan Shigekawa, Rockefeller Foundation; James Allen Smith, The Howard Gilman Foundation; Page Snow, The Pew Charitable Trusts; and Margaret Wyszomirski, Case Western Reserve University.

As noted in a brief overview of the meeting subsequently circulated to participants by The Gilman Foundation, arts policy has historically remained underdeveloped and marginal to most policy discussions in the United States. However, taking special note of the approaching millennium (and emerging plans in Washington to reflect on and celebrate it), we concurred that there is a “window of opportunity” for shaping policy and forming a more developed cultural policy community that will encompass the entire spectrum of arts and humanities activities from the volunteer to the commercial. Collaborative thinking among diverse individuals and groups holds the promise of building a robust field, gathering systematic data, maximizing contributions to overall policy making, and advancing new concepts that will move onto the policy agenda. Foundations, associations, universities, service organizations, corporations, nonprofit organizations, think tanks, government agencies, the media, and concerned individuals all have contributions to make in this emerging policy field. If a vibrant and active cultural policy community is to be formed, the collective knowledge and action of all these organizations and individuals must be tapped.

Through the background reading and presentations at the meeting, we learned that the academic framework for analyzing public policy is roughly thirty years old. We tested various metaphors used by policy scholars to explain the complex processes of public policy adoption, and moved from linear models to policy streams, policy subgovernments, issue networks, and policy community webs. The metaphor, developed by Galan and Gary, that framed our last day's discussion about specific action steps was that of the cultural policy forum: a combination of civic center and marketplace, a site for myriad intellectual and practical transactions. Reflecting as it does the center of public life, a “forum” encompasses all public purposes—the political, the economic and financial, and the philosophical. Planning in a forum is decentralized, is responsive to community needs, desires and demands, and is consistent with the democratic nature of the public space. When activities grow stale or have dwindling attendance, new citizens are called into the forum by policy entrepreneurs to demand programmatic changes. Although apt and useful, “cultural policy forum” like all metaphors is incomplete in its description of reality, but it is capacious and embraces the multiplicity of voices and ideas that must inevitably characterize a cultural policy community in the United States.

On the last day of the meeting, we began to set out a matrix that could be used to map the tasks involved in building and sustaining a cultural policy community, or forum: 1) activities related to four specific areas of endeavor—building an intellectual foundation through research, building knowledge through data collection and analysis, building a national dialogue through convening and discourse, and building public awareness and support through dissemination and public affairs activities; 2) the resources—individual and institutional—that will participate in these activities, including independent scholars, academic research centers, think tanks, cultural organizations, service organizations, advocacy organizations, journalists, philanthropies, public intellectuals, and governmental agencies; and 3) timelines—short term, medium term, and long term—in which these activities will be undertaken.

A first step in moving forward will be to communicate the work begun at this meeting to other potential stakeholders of a cultural policy community, and to begin building the networks that will create a policy infrastructure. A detailed report on the White Oak meeting will be compiled. We encourage interested arts grantmakers to participate in building and sustaining a cultural policy community.