The Color Line and United States Cultural Policy

An Essay with Dialogue

Roberto Bedoya

This is an excerpt from a longer version published by the National Alliance for Media Art and Culture
UBU ROI: Ditto
HE’-E-TLIK: Strike!

How do you talk about the different worldviews present and absent in the development of US cultural policy? How do you probe the charged topic of the color line in US cultural policy to ask how is it created and sustained? To pursue these political and aesthetic questions, I call upon Coyote, Br’er Rabbit, the Greek Sirens, the Dog God Inugami, the God of the Hula Lakakane, Zorro, Thelma and Louise, and Caliban — guiding spirits who know the ways of tricky terrains. I’m using them in my argument because of their prompting power. They bring metaphor, image, and song; they make steely-eyed technocrats and empiricists nervous.

To begin, I’ll contextualize my voice: I’ve worked for over twenty-five years in the cultural sector on artist-centered practices and projects as an advocate, writer, researcher, and administrator. I’ve worked primarily in the area of artist-centered cultural practices. Currently, I am the executive director of a local arts agency. This position has me working in a large civic context, and it has made me mindful of the expansive cultural public sphere that enlivens everyday life. The following thoughts are an invitation to deepen the reflection of those many individuals who craft cultural policies. I have written previously about the deficiencies in cultural policy assumptions, formation, and research mythologies as they relate to the politics of resource and position in our society and the failure to acknowledge multiple worldviews. These deficiencies continue to betray the aspiration of having a cultural policy frame that advances our cultural community — deficiencies that regrettably continue to produce a color line in cultural policies.

Cultural policy in the US context is best understood as a system of arrangements that affect the allocation of resources and the articulation of value. I am mindful of these arrangements, especially the politics of participation at work within them, tied as they are to aesthetic judgments, administrative practices, and policy research. As a result, I ask a range of questions to inform my advocacy and policy work: Whose voices are privileged or marginalized in policy discourse: the artist, the curator, the arts administrator, the foundation program officer, the board member, the elected official, the scholar, the social science researcher, or the community leader? How do these stakeholders define, evaluate, and perceive art and culture, both similarly and differently? With regard to cultural policy research activities, how are policy practices and analyses shaped by research methodologies? Are policy research efforts an exercise in self-aggrandizement, reinscribing the power of special interest groups and policy maker elites, or are they a contribution to transformative learning that increases our knowledge of cultural dynamics and conditions? What do democratically informed policy practices look like?

These questions demand rigorous reflection. These questions up-end the current thinking in the cultural policy field that sees itself as an empirical science. Cultural policy research and arts administration practices are dominated by the technocratic analysis of empirical research, but this mode of operation has deepened the gap between aesthetic experiences and the administrative work art managers do. Cultural policy practices need to account for both the empirical and the phenomenological faces of our work. And this is where the rub is. The absence of a policy frame, a discursive space for the experience and knowledge associated with multiple worldviews, is creating a color line in US cultural policy. The lack of awareness and acceptance among some policy researchers and policy makers of the variety of experiences in our society and work, coupled with their reluctance and at times deliberate inability to work with phenomenological knowledge, draws this line. Without the acknowledgment of different worldviews, and without attention to phenomenological experience, cultural policy can’t help but continue to inscribe these color lines.

HUITZILOPOCHTLI: With wings beating and zooming flights, like we do, I ask that you go for it. Set aside the framing of Phantom Sightings that has art critics debating meaning and intent. Instead enter, as you do. Enjoy the entanglement with “phantom questions” — like the push and pull inside this one: How is the color line drawn through research methodologies that create “other”?
ROBERTO: OK, my dear hummingbird friend — tickle me, give me a headache with your question, your request.

Most methodologies for cultural policy research are derived from the discourses and practices of public policy. This borrowing has created many problems for analysis related to creativity and imagination. Policy studies is a field that overwhelmingly embraces “policy” as an empirical science that separates facts from value. This separation, within the cultural policy field, fails to engage with the phenomenon of imagination and how it affects decision making within artist-centered cultural practices and the support structures for artists and their creative processes. It also fails to engage with the utopian and ideological goals and effects of empowering talent and community that animate the missions of many ethnic-specific organizations and community-based organizations.

LAKAKANE: What do you mean? How does that move?
ROBERTO: Like a mambo. Interesting . . .
LAKAKANE: What does it sound, look, and feel like?
ROBERTO: It is the nursery rhyme that heals; it is in the sway of the hips and how we learn through touch and sight, the slow nod of the head-up when you see a friend. That kind of knowledge.
LAKAKANE: Like how the stars know heaven and earth?
ROBERTO: ¡Cómo no!

To return to the question of the color line in cultural policy: We must acknowledge the colonizing impact of Western research methodologies upon communities of color before we can begin the work of enlivening a cultural policy field with appropriate methodologies and principles. In addition, we must also admit that the cultural policy field is currently preoccupied with constructing complicity to the aims of markets or the state.

The policy practices associated with conceptions of stabilization and sustainability have been ordained and exacted upon arts organizations of color in a troubling manner. The US cultural policy field has been foregrounding these notions in its rhetoric and patronage systems for a number of years, as evidenced in funder application guidelines and evaluation reports. For decades, arts organizations of color have often been at the short end of the measuring stick when it comes to the stabilization and sustainability metric that the policy community has crafted. I have often heard from arts leaders from the dominant (Euro-American) culture that grassroots ethnic arts organizations cannot get it together, that they are in a state of constant undercapitalization and their organizational deficiency is due to lack of leadership or lack of competence in nonprofit business management givens.

These grassroots ethnic groups operate as a form of “other” because they do not fit the norm of well-managed organizations. This, in turn, prompts me to ask, “Whose norm?” This norm is defined by arts managers with MBAs from any number of university training schools, or the graduates of leadership training workshops for arts professionals, foundation program officers, and peer panelists on public funding deliberation panels. All these individuals and groups operate as if the only “true” knowledge needed to assess the value of an organization is evident in the factual bottom line.

The norm that I am questioning does not acknowledge the spirit and passions within these organizations of color, the aesthetic and community engagements that enliven these organizations. This spirit and passion are also evident in other marginalized arts organizations that support emancipatory art practices. Privileging administrative concerns with stabilization and sustainability as a way to constrain the voice and consciousness of ethnic-specific cultural expression and support systems within a policy frame of normality excludes knowledge about lived experiences and multiple worldviews. This disciplining produces a color line.

I’ve witnessed many organizations that have failed to meet the metric of stabilization and sustainability when it comes to evaluating their operations. Yet they are still alive and have a legacy of service that are thirty to forty years old; see, for example, the “Centro” and alternative arts space movements that arose in the 1970s. What would happen if cultural policy makers and assessors worked with the stories, images, and the social imaginary — the worldviews that animate these organizations’ purposes? What if we worked with the experience of these organizations in creating an understanding of their operations and values? What would success and policy support look like then?

To augment the policy frames of stabilization and sustainability, I want to offer a new framing term for the policy community: stewardship. The notion of “stewardship” can offer us a way to deepen our understanding of an organization’s purposes. It can be a guide for a different set of questions: How is an organization a good steward of its financial resources? Of its management systems? Of its community call? Of its responsibilities as a cultural bearer for a group? How is an organization a good steward of the catalytic apparatus that empowers talent and community? To understand stewardship, we need to engage the ethical ways of knowing an organization’s purpose, its soul, and its context. For arts organizations of color, the notion of “stewardship” can reframe an organization’s image, to itself and to others, transforming the organizations from an “other” and a “problem” to be solved into a guardian and aggregator of assets that can be built upon.

ZORRO: Mi hijito, relax.
ROBERTO: Love your cape.
ZORRO: Me too.
ROBERTO: . . . and the black mask . . . fierce . . .
ZORRO: OK, whatever.
ROBERTO: . . . and your slashing ways. You remember that old boarded-up building on the church grounds?
ZORRO: Yes, of course, and how you tagged the walls of that building inside and out with chalk, with your Z. How old were you?
ROBERTO: Seven, eight?
ZORRO: So now you try to slash with arguments.
ROBERTO: Maybe? But all in the name of equity and justice.
ZORRO: You’re too much.
ROBERTO: And you’re not enough.
ZORRO: Stop.

I introduce stewardship as a way to talk about arts organizations, not to discard the economic bottom-line concerns associated with stabilization and sustainability as unimportant. All nonprofits must have good management practices related to their finance, or that is the end of them. But the principles of stewardship can inform management practices and business models much in the way that they inform the practices of empowering talent and communities undertaken by artists and arts organizations. And yet stewardship is not a part of cultural policy analysis because of its intimate relationship to ethics and imagination.

Stewardship is the responsibility for taking care: taking care of property, finances, the needs of others; taking care of something that one does not own. Stewardship in philanthropy refers to donor relations and taking care of the intention and management of donor funds. In the organizational context, it refers to the proper management of property, facilities, personnel, finances, and stakeholder relationships. Environmental stewardship refers to the management and conservation of natural resources, consistent with ecosystem management principles. Cultural stewardship concerns itself with tending the work of imagination, the realm that embodies both the aesthetic and the ethical experiences of being in community, in relationship with one another.

The work of being stewards of imagination involves making the space for discovery; it involves supporting how one moves forward on what matters, toward equity, access and beauty. Being stewards of imagination requires us to prompt and care for the ways we experience our plurality through art and culture. This approach is quite different from the narrow economic view of what’s possible based on costs, exchanges of monies, and material goods. It’s the difference between caring about the good versus counting the goods.

As the nonprofit arts sector engages in reflection on how to move through this deep recession, patterns of cultural participation and the ways people make art and prompt management systems are going to be different than before. The demand that we be dynamic in our adaptability is paramount. And I look to artist-centered, community-based, and ethnic-specific arts organizations as the most flexible, nimble, and historically responsive to societal change for clues on how to become more adaptable. I look toward them and their forms of engagement to explore how they finesse the relationship between stewardship, management systems, service, and responsibilities.

Stewardship and economic life, stewardship and ethical protocols, stewardship as the instrumental imperative that informs rhizomatic network systems, call-and-response organizations, talking circle organizations, sobremesa management practices, resolona research methodologies, and the wisdomspeak of boards of elders — can they be measured?1

CUPID: How do you measure love?
APHRODITE: How do you measure beauty?
CROW: How do you measure justice?

Making stewardship operational in management practices is an unfolding investigation. Yet I know that being a deliberative practitioner is a key ingredient. To that end, let me argue for a methodology that acknowledges different worldviews, that loves Br’er Rabbit, Zorro, and the questions posed by Cupid, Aphrodite, and Crow.

Deliberative cultural policy analysis and practices employ the “subjects” of research in the analysis of, and policy responses to, their own conditions. The deliberative practitioner operates as an intermediary, working with the images, stories, and legends that individuals use in articulating and understanding their conditions. Deliberative policy practice acknowledges the ways humans make meaning, the value of stories, and the insights they offer. Deliberative practices work with multiple worldviews and the lived reality of many.

I have learned as an arts advocate that there is a strong bias at work in many cultural policy research efforts to privilege the notion of objectivity, along with a reluctance to engage with the social meanings and motives framing research and how the social imaginary effects practices. Under the call for objectivity, policy making limits stakeholder participation in deliberation, dialogue, and decision-making activities, and in doing so, it undermines the policy maker’s own ambitions to strengthen the cultural sector and advance the ideal of fair and democratic processes.

The social action(s) of policy making and its ties to the social action(s) of imagination must be acknowledged and addressed. I believe in and employ deliberative cultural policy practices in my work in an effort to understand and organize the ways in which individuals use their imaginations and the language of imagination. This language and work are poetic as opposed to scientific — and so stewardship as a metaphor and value guides and informs almost all my administrative practices. This approach offers methods of working with experience, with poiesis, the bringing into being that is central to artmaking and aesthetic experience, through the listening, looking, and learning aspects of research and discovery by a stakeholder community.

I’ve snaked around the words “the color line in US cultural policy” intentionally. I’ve been probing cultural policy research methodologies to excavate that “line” and to talk about how it is drawn and by whom.

MEDUSA: Say what about snakes?
ROBERTO: Despised and respected.
ADAM and EVE: Got that one right!
QUETZALCOATL: What about that Tree of Knowledge — of Good and Evil? Got you.
ADAM and EVE: Whatever.
ROBERTO: Snake people by the lake of wisdom and prophecy, dance.
CALIBAN: Shape-shifters.

A snake moves in a number of locomotive ways: lateral undulation, terrestrial, aquatic, sidewinding, concertina, rectilinear. Can policy research mirror this snake knowledge and work with the multiple ways that cultural practices and aesthetic experiences move between us?

The role of elders, the power of sacred sites, Coyote stories, La Llorona’s whisper, Little Eva’s song, mash-up paragraphs, Pele’s heat, the lyricism of poet-paladins, the gestures of fu fighters, your personal go-to spirit — these knowledges must be acknowledged in the development of cultural policies.

The color line in US cultural policy is not permanent. It can be transformed if the field chooses to engage with the how and the why embedded in the stories of experience — that is, if the field works with this knowledge to adapt the structures and relationships that shape social life and the social imaginary.

We need to employ policy practices that know how the social imaginary can function in a healthy and inclusive democracy and how imagination and policy condition each other. We need policy practices that embolden the aesthetic contract between artist and audience by paying attention to the call-and-response context of this contract. We need to hear the hummingbirds, the lyrics, and the twists and shouts. Through the actions of stakeholder deliberation and decision making, deliberative cultural policy practices reanimate participation, and they can address the inequities associated with resources and position, the racism without racists. Deliberative cultural policy practices enable members of the cultural stakeholder community to fully understand and realize their potential for democratic and cultural stewardship — a stewardship that prompts and feeds aesthetic possibilities.


  1. Sombremesa is commonly translated as “table talk”; in his 1997 book Chicano! The History of the Mexican American Civil Rights Movement, F. Arturo Rosales defines la resolona as informal discussions “held by elders in village plazas warmed by the sun” (215).