Arguments for Cultural Democracy and Community Cultural Development

Arlene Goldbard

The following piece is excerpted from the second of a two-part article written for the Community Arts Network, “The New New Deal.” Part one, published in December 2008, was titled, “the New New Deal: Public Service Jobs for Artists.” It described some of the things artists could do with public-service jobs. This excerpt is from part two, published February 24, 2009, “A New WPA for Artists: How and Why.” In this excerpt, Goldbard takes up the question of “why,” what are all the good reasons to support a new WPA for artists.

We need to make a strong argument for cultural democracy and community cultural development, using multiple realms of knowledge to show how this work advances essential public policy goals. Our task is to bring community arts and cultural activism into the public policy arena as potent ways to embody full, multidimensional citizenship and stimulate the participation needed not just for economic recovery, but to recover democracy from the near-fatal wounds inflicted by generations of corporate rule and commercialization of the public sector. In that spirit, I've summarized nine brief arguments that can be powerful tools in that campaign.

1. Things are changing in a way that elevates culture's role. We are on the cusp between two cultural eras. The old system treats everything like so much material that can be weighed, measured, assigned a number and dismissed. The new system is grounded in human stories, recognizing abundant diversity and the power of relationship. In the old system, art and culture are dismissible as nice, but not necessary; in the emergent system, culture is the crucible for all positive development. At this transitional moment, many of us see the shift happening, but the news hasn't yet broken through to people who operate many of our social institutions, which is why it is often so easy to describe the new paradigm to ordinary people and so hard to get bureaucrats and officials to see it. 1

2. Community arts contribute powerfully to community development; they are essential to success in remaking damaged communities. One bit of proof that things are changing is the impact of new thinkers within established institutions. Consider Jeremy Nowack, president and CEO of The Reinvestment Fund and a board member of the Philadelphia Federal Reserve Bank. About a year ago, he authored a report on culture's intrinsic and powerful role in community development, based on a review of the findings of Mark Stern's and Susan Seifert's Social Impact of the Arts Project at the University of Pennsylvania. 2 Nowak wrote:

Community arts and cultural activities, through their intrinsic expressive and exploratory processes and products, have the capacity to catalyze or reinforce place-making through each component of the architecture of community: through the coalescing of social and civic relationships around creative activity; through the creation and reinforcement of quality public assets that incubate or nurture art and culture; through market demand for commercial and residential space used by artists and the creative sector in general; and through networked enterprises of cultural institutions, artist/entrepreneurs and community collaborations.

His report isn't just the usual stuff about how arts make places nicer: In terms any investor or public policymaker can understand, it explains how they are necessary for the best development to take place.

3. For our brains to serve the future, we must develop our creative imagination and empathic capacities through arts participation. Antonio and Hanna Damasio of the Brain and Creativity Institute and Dana and David Dornsife of the Cognitive Neuroscience Imaging Center at the University of Southern California are leading brain scientists who have also become advocates for arts education. “[M]ath and science alone do not make citizens,” they write. “And, given that the development of citizenship is already under siege, math and science alone are not sufficient.” Rapid and intense changes in the way we spend our time, the way we communicate and process information, have created… a growing disconnect between cognitive processing and emotional processing… It has been classically claimed that cognition and emotion are two entirely different processes for the human mind and for the human brain. And that, somehow, a rational mind would be one in which cognitive skills developed to a maximum and emotional processing would be suppressed to a maximum because somehow, emotion would not be a good counselor of cognitive creativity. We have to tell you that not only do we not agree with this claim but that everything that has occurred over the past ten years of cognitive neuroscience reveals that this traditional split is entirely unjustified.

The Damasios point out that cognitive processing is constantly speeding up as we exercise it through interaction with machines, but that emotional processing cannot keep pace, with the result that young minds are emotionally underdeveloped, leading to a loss of moral compass, of the emotional sense and imagination that guide a well-rounded human being.

[A] curriculum which features arts and humanities education is one way of conducting the moral exercises on which citizenship is grounded (I'm only saying one way and not the only way)… Arts and humanities education can be a playground for the development of good citizens.

These quotations are from a speech at the 2006 UNESCO World Conference on Arts Education. 3

4. Culture is the balm that can begin to heal social injury, allowing us to face each other across every barrier that creates distance and objectification. Barack Obama's election suggests a time of openness to racial healing, for example. I have often written of the lessons scientists are learning about how our brains process trauma, and what that can teach us about the healing role of culture. It can be healing for a traumatized person to tell his or her story in fullness and in detail, so long as the telling is received with respect, presence and caring. The same is true in healing social trauma. There are many sore spots in the global cultural matrix, old bruises where people have been told they are less than full citizens of the world, even less than fully human. One of the tasks and unique strengths of cultural development in this time is to help heal those injuries through the telling and receiving of stories. 4 Around the world, the work of community artists has addressed social trauma with remarkable results. This is an intrinsic public good, and ought to be supported.

5. Cultural action promotes social inclusion, an essential public aim in a period of vast migrations. Moving across the face of this small planet are more refugees and migrants than at any time in human history. In 2007, the UN's High Commissioner for Refugees estimated the number of refugees and internally displaced persons at 67 million. In the U.S. and around the world, enormous numbers of migrants (who may not have formal refugee status but have been forced by economic conditions or religious or political persecution from their homelands) are being brought into contact, and often conflict, with the residents of existing communities that may already be hard-pressed. The attendant challenges are a core public policy concern that has been shamefully neglected. Cultural action offers effective, humane means of promoting social inclusion and the fullness of cultural citizenship, bringing newcomers into the social sphere. Take an example like Houston's El Teatro Lucha de Salud del Barrio, 5 in which a mothers' group focused on Latino immigrants' uses of Theater of the Oppressed techniques to bring people into dialogue and action around their own families' health. What could be a better expenditure of public funds?

6. Cultural action creates the container that enables people to face each other and enter into dialogue even about the most polarized, heated issues. In the body politic as portrayed by the commercial media, most issues are reduced to a simple pro and con. But in reality, issues are complex, and for civil society to flourish, we must create genuine meeting-places and promote genuine dialogue in the place of the angry tennis match that has become the favorite model for issue discussions.

Artists are doing this better than anyone else. Check out Thousand Kites, 6 a national dialogue project addressing criminal justice. The project, a collaboration between two Appalshop projects, Roadside Theater and Holler to the Hood, has created a film, a dialogue-driven play, an interactive Web site and other initiatives that are being widely used to involve everyone, from guards to prisoner families to policy makers, in considering a major public issue that hasn't been able to get a full hearing any other way.

7. Marketplace culture, dominated by the commercial cultural industries, is skewed in ways that counter democratic cultural values; the public interest can bring balance. The commercial cultural industries—broadcasting, movies, commercial music, advertising and so on—exist to make money. Along the way, they can support those who make meaning, with nooks and crannies for passionate advocates to find footholds, to get important works out to their authenticating audiences. But still, the much-mentioned 18-25 male demographic generates the big bucks these days: How many films can be made based on video games? We have yet to learn the limit.

Many other countries have a much larger public presence in the cultural marketplace, with more money for public broadcasting, often mandating a percentage of domestic content on their airwaves and in their movie theaters, ensuring that Hollywood doesn't dominate everything. In the U.S., independent media play the primary mediating role, with everything from YouTube to Michael Moore working together to turn a unidirectional system—broadcasting outward from Hollywood into every home—into a diversity of voices.

8. Cultural participation is intrinsically pleasurable and inviting, creating a low threshold for civic involvement. Community cultural development projects bring people into dialogue about the assets and problems they hold in common. One of the most frequent outcomes of community arts work is that the participants display a markedly heightened disposition to get up off the couch and into dialogue with their fellow citizens. Consider Marty Pottenger's Arts and Equity Project in Portland, Maine, 7 a creative collaboration between artists and workers in that city's Public Works, Health & Human Services and Police Departments. The goal is “to make the arts and artmaking everyday tools for municipal governments to come up with better solutions in challenging times.” Click around the project's Web site as you consider whether this type of public-interest dialogue and participation would have been possible through any means other than art-making. Community cultural development projects are laboratories for engaged citizenship.

9. Arts participation develops our capacity to envision, dream and shape the future we desire. The January 19 issue of Newsweek carried an article that has been making the rounds at light-speed: Jeremy McCarter's piece, “Will Act for Food,” argues that the very election of Barack Obama—let alone the hope our new president urges us to cultivate—was made possible by the work of artists. He writes that

Cultural issues, which aren't a top priority for new administrations even in the best of times, will have trouble climbing very high on the Obama agenda. But in light of what this election has helped us to understand about the potency of the arts in our national life, the new president would be wasting a glorious opportunity if he failed to give them his attention. Partly it's because the overlapping crises we face at the moment give him a rare chance to dream big. Partly, too, his singular story gives him a unique ability to make connections among people that might change the way we think about culture. But it's also a question of his larger vision for society, which the arts could help him to realize. If he treats them wisely, he might foster a climate for creativity as unprecedented as his election. 8

I can't agree with everything in McCarter's piece, but much of it is wonderful (and thrilling to see in a mainstream newsmagazine). He harks back to the WPA, concluding with a point I find stirring:

[Y]ou won't find a bullet point in [Obama's] arts platform that reads “American Creativity Will Make Us More Engaged and Liberate Us From the Marketers, Even as It Continues to Wear Away Our Prejudices.” But if you seek a final sign that he understands how the arts can unite and inspire—and if the habit of hope instilled by the Obama campaign has carried over to the early days of the Obama presidency—you might take heart from a revealing episode on election night. At the pivotal moment of his victory speech, with the whole world watching, he didn't turn to Scripture, or the Founders, or any of the other places where you'd expect a politician to turn for a resonant allusion. When he said, “It's been a long time coming, but tonight, because of what we did on this day, in this election, at this defining moment, change has come to America,” he was riffing on a Sam Cooke song.

Seize the Time

Whether you focus on the immediate opportunities latent in the recovery bill or on the longer-term project of articulating democratic cultural policy, now is the time to make yourself heard. To an unprecedented extent, people are moving forward on these issues, energy is going in a dozen different directions. As one arts activist wrote to me this week, “My challenge has been to try and figure out how to CONNECT with all the other initiatives (that means finding out about them, etc.) and seeing where commonalities exist so we can organize a concerted package.”

Given very real differences in values and approach, full consensus may not be possible. But I doubt that consensus is required. Ultimately, policy makers will adopt the language and concepts they deem best: a less-than-harmonious but vigorous chorus will make a strong impression, even if everyone is not singing from the same page. I applaud it all, but in the deepest way, I am with those who sing the praises of a new WPA for artists and a democratic cultural policy.

I don't think artists are in any essential sense different from or better than other human beings. But our work—plunging our hearts and minds into the stuff of culture, attempting to see without filters or blinders, sharing the news with anyone who is ready to receive it—has special value in confusing times. John Kennedy said this in his speech in honor of Robert Frost, delivered a month before he was assassinated:

If sometimes our great artists have been the most critical of our society, it is because their sensitivity and their concern for justice, which must motivate any true artist, makes him aware that our Nation falls short of its highest potential. I see little of more importance to the future of our country and our civilization than full recognition of the place of the artist.

Make use of my arguments or use your own. Just be sure that whatever you do, it is worthy of the task at hand. In a long-awaited moment of possibility, the important thing is to seize the time.

Arlene Goldbard is a writer, speaker and consultant on culture, politics, and spirituality, based in Kansas City, Missouri. She is a long-time veteran of the community cultural development field who began writing about cultural policy (including public service employment for artists) more than thirty years ago. She worked at the San Francisco Neighborhood Arts Program in 1973, when the first CETA arts jobs were created. Her most recent book is New Creative Community: The Art of Cultural Development (New Village Press, November 2006). Subscribe to her blog and download her writings at her Web site,

  1. I gave a talk on this in November at the International Centre of Art for Social Change in Vancouver, “Datastan Meets Storyland: Surfing the Zeitgeist Without Wiping Out.”
  2. Jeremy Nowak's report, “Creativity and Neighborhood Development: Strategies for Community Investment” and many other interesting reports from the Social Impact of the Arts Project are available at
  3. Dr. Antonio Damasio's speech at the World Conference on Arts Education, sponsored by UNESCO in 2006, is available at
  4. In my book New Creative Community: The Art of Cultural Development, I wrote about the Documentary Project for Refugee Youth, for instance, a collaboration among young refugees, the Global Action Project, the International Rescue Committee and other community organizations and artists in New York City.
  5. El Teatro Llucha de Salud del Barrio
  6. Thousand Kites
  7. Marty Pottenger's Arts and Equity Project in Portland, Maine
  8. Jeremy McCarter's Newsweek article, “Will Act for Food