Informing Cultural Policy

The Research and Information Structure

J. Mark Schuster

September 2002, 292 pages, $24.95, paper. Center for Urban Policy Research, Edward J. Bloustein School of Planning and Public Policy, Rutgers, the State University of New Jersey. 732-932-3133, ext 555,

In Informing Cultural Policy, J. Mark Schuster, professor of urban cultural policy at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, presents an ambitious, provocative scan of the cultural policy field in Europe and North America. Organized around case studies of "research and documentation centers" and "research and documentation consortia," Professor Schuster's book introduces his readers to individual leaders, organizational structures, histories, budgets and funding information, available publications, and — as these profiles are clustered by nation — insights into how these institutions foster, support, compete with, or undermine one another. While the profiles are standardized and the text incorporates substantial factual information, it also reveals the field's stories and personalities. Each case study analyzes the significance of the institution or program and its position in the field.

Supported by the Pew Charitable Trusts, Professor Schuster's field research provided the platform for a December 2001 meeting at Rutgers University among eighteen key cultural policy leaders. Their task was to recommend an appropriate system for cultural policy research and information for the United States: “Participants were charged with examining a system that is little understood and generally characterized as fragmentary and ad hoc.” They concluded that while it was useful for them to understand the policy systems of other Western countries, arts and culture in the United States would require another approach.

Why would the United States need to create its own model? Policy supply and demand is very different in the States, with more of the demand for information coming from the private sector than from government. “Corporations and investors consume economic policy data while benefits planners and insurers are the chief users of health-policy data. In the arts, private and nonprofit arts organizations constitute the primary demand for policy data.” While there appears to be an abundant supply of cultural policy information, it is disorganized and scattered, and much of it is unreliable and incompatible. Some believe that the inconsistent demand for good policy information in the United States is because the nation “lacks a consensus about culture as a public good.” A further difference is in research strategies: while agencies in the United States tend to evaluate programs, European agencies often evaluate policies. Indeed, “for fifteen years, the Program for the Evaluation of National Cultural Policies has offered a number of European countries the opportunity to document their national cultural policies and to get expert reaction to those policies.”

Some readers of Informing Cultural Policy may wish to jump ahead to the Appendix for Ruth Ann Stewart and Catherine C. Galley's discussion of the 2001 Rutgers meeting and its findings, and to the recommendations for next steps to be taken to shape a vibrant cultural policy field in the United States. This “cut to the chase” reading approach is tempting for anyone with a desk full of reports and proposals. However, I highly recommend committing to the slow, gratifying read (the 249 preceding pages) through Schuster's fascinating introduction, tracing cross-cutting themes that emerged from the research, and his clustered case studies of centers and consortia. This main body of the book tells a complex story about how nations value and understand their art and artists; how government agencies interact with academic and private institutions; how a few committed scholars shape, direct, or subvert agencies; and how contemporary economic and political conditions are re-shaping this field of inquiry. My copy is abundantly flagged with post-its marking points I wished to remember.

Among trends and findings in the European and Canadian cultural policy field, some noted by Professor Schuster are:

• A dramatic resurgence in investment in policy-relevant research and information
• Increasing attention given to studies of the demand for the arts and culture
• The rise of multiple networks which — while appealing as a collegial concept and as a means for low-cost transmission of information — lack support, lasting commitment, and quality control
• The rise of private-sector, profit-making entrepreneurs (who often build their businesses on the transmission and sale of information rather than on conducting original research)
• Creation of a new style of institution, the “Observatory.” (According to the revered scholar Augustin Girard, speaking about the Observatoire des Politiques Culturelles, “We could not agree on a ‘center,' but we could have an ‘observatory.' It is a pleasant name. An observatory is a place of negotiation, of interactivity. It does not deliver judgments. It is more structured than a network...”)
• Lack of a clear career path for those entering the field
Schuster discusses the implications of these trends along with those of combining research and evaluation or research and advocacy within the same institution; and the shortcomings of research produced “defensively” or for short-term political ends. He brings wry, yet measured insight into the field's shortcomings, which bear a notable resemblance to the arena of philanthropy:

“By operating in a gray area between the world of politics, with its premium on quick decisions with a minimum of contemplation (in the words of Antoine Hennion, ‘a political-administrative logic'), and the world of social science research (‘a research logic'), with its emphasis on careful, studied social analysis, the world of cultural policy research — and particularly the world of ministry and arts council research divisions — is a world that is caught very much between two different modes of functioning. It is a world that exhibits much of the stress that comes from that type of twin existence.”

I highly recommend this book for its presentation of history and analysis. It's a valuable reference work even for those who only dabble occasionally in funding or reviewing cultural policy.

Frances Phillips, Walter and Elise Haas Fund