© Arlene Goldbard 2003
This talk was delivered in January 2003 as part of the University of Texas at Austin’s Cultural Policy Series.
When Ann Daly asked me in July to speak in this series, she needed a title for the talk I hadn’t yet written, so I suggested “The Crisis in Cultural Policy.” As I hung up, I had a moment of regret. Wasn’t it a little pessimistic to predict in July a crisis in January? But I concluded it was merely realistic, because U.S. cultural policy is and always has been in a permanent condition of crisis, partly due to larger social forces, and partly due to the ineptitude and short-sightedness of its advocates. Nevertheless, I had no way of knowing in July how painfully apt my title would be, because the crisis is truly upon us and it shows no sign of letting up.
To explain, I had better start with definitions. “Culture” is a spacious idea that can accommodate virtually everything created by human beings. At its most expansive, it includes whatever falls outside the category of “nature” even our relationship to nature. Culture is the sum-total of human ingenuity: language, signs and symbols, systems of belief, customs, clothes, cooking, tools and artifacts, the built environment and everything we use to fill it up and the cherry on the sundae, art.
“Cultural policy” can therefore include support for creators; distribution systems for cultural products; tax policies; regulation of expression in all forms, broadcast, publication, and public speech; preservation; community design; cultural research and much, much more. Today, you will hear me argue for this broad definition. But for a moment, I want to narrow my focus. Most often in this country, cultural policy is taken to mean arts policy, full stop. Now, arts policy is very important, but by no means the whole story. Arts policy is central to cultural policy, just as art is emblematic of culture, the uncut substance of culture. Art is the canary in culture’s coalmine; so how we treat art and artists tells a lot about the whole of our cultural policy.
So to quickly highlight the crisis in cultural policy, I want to cut right to the chase and describe the current situation in arts funding. I was recently commissioned by the Rockefeller Foundation to prepare what was called a “terrain check” on support for artists. Anecdotal evidence of serious funding cuts had been building, and the foundation’s leaders wanted to know how bad the situation might truly be. What I learned suggests that things are bad indeed, and growing worse.
I interviewed 45 foundation executives, public funders, policy experts and artists’ organization directors, and “bleak” was the word most often used to characterize the situation. Here’s how one director of a national arts organization put it:
It’s pretty bleak. Two things are intersecting: the general conservatism about dealing with artists from the NEA, and what’s happening in politics and the economy overall. In 2003, it’s going to be the “perfect storm” of contributed income: huge statewide deficits, a House and Senate that are both Republican, foundation assets down, same with individuals, a continuing softness in corporations. Some foundations weren’t hit as badly because of their investments, but all the major arts foundations are scaling back. I’ve been in the field a long time, and I’ve never seen such a general downturn.
Here are a few highlights:
State arts agencies
- According to figures compiled by the National Assembly of State Arts Agencies (NASAA), SAAs overall are seeing a 13% budget cut, with 42 SAAs down in comparison to last year, and 11 staying flat or receiving an increase.
- Within these figures, fortunes differ greatly. While only ten SAAs have seen cuts in excess of 10% so far, the extent of these losses has been chilling to arts supporters: California was cut $1.2 million (about 5% of the total budget) in the current year and anticipates at least 40% in 2003, with Colorado projecting a 41% loss, Indiana 34%, Iowa 50% and Massachusetts 62%.
- Overall, business support to the arts has declined as a corporate philanthropic activity, with 45% of businesses generating revenues of $1 million or greater contributing to the arts in 1994 and 38% percent contributing in 2000, now trending steeply down in the period of corporate scandals and dot-com failures.
- According to Americans for the Arts (AFA), although the overall dollar amount has increased over the last decade, arts funding has decreased as a percentage of total giving in the U.S., from its height of 8.4% in 1992 to 5.7% in 2001, and given recent foundation and corporate cutbacks, this trend is expected to accelerate.
- The Pew Charitable Trusts’ cultural program anticipates a 40% cut, eliminating its national cultural policy program to focus instead on local grants. Multi-year grants will be paid out, but the initiative will end.
- The Packard Foundation’s assets dropped from nearly $13 billion in 2000 to approximately $4 billion as of August 31, 2002. In 2001, arts grants totaled $15 million out of $454 million; in 2002, they totaled just $3 million out of $88 million.
- The John S. and James L. Knight Foundation also radically altered its arts giving, focusing on its targeted communities, 26 cities that had been eligible for local grants at the time of founder Jim Knight’s death in 1991. It ceased making national arts grants (which had totaled $10.6 million in 2000, out of nearly $26 million in arts grants overall, before the policy change kicked in).
- The Doris Duke Charitable Foundation’s arts giving will decline by 50%, from roughly $20 million at its height to $10 million (arts grants in 2001 totaled just under $15 million).
- The List Foundation has announced it will spend down its endowment and go out of business by May 2005.
- The National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) is currently projected for a budget increase of as much as $10 million if House appropriations survive conference negotiations. But if this succeeds, it will leave the federal agency with $50 million less than its highest appropriation in 1992, $176 million (and a much greater gap if adjusted for inflation).
If you are one of the direct beneficiaries of the arts funding system, the net effect is pretty grim. (“Grim” was the second most-used word.) As one of my interviewees said, “The message to everybody is ‘Drop dead, you’re on your own.'” Times are hard, the market is down, cuts have to be made, and let’s face it, this arts stuff just can’t compete with food stamps and emergency health services. Bye, now!
It reminds me of Flash Gordon serials I used to see at kiddie matinees: Flash would be trapped by evil aliens and imprisoned in a windowless room. Just as he thought things couldn’t get much worse, the walls would start to close in! There is the same airless, compressed quality to the current discourse on arts funding, which leaves absolutely no room to move.
Flash’s predicament seemed truly hopeless. There’s not much play in this dialectic: the steel walls of the shrinking prison trump the soft flesh of the rocketeer every time. Yet Flash had to be saved so the serial could go on. Something had to radically redefine the terms of his dilemma he cobbled together a doorstop from his ray gun, or got a signal to the mother ship. One way or another, his problem was redefined to transcend the escalating logic of thesis-antithesis, steel wall and human body.
Just so, our crisis doesn’t turn on how artists and arts organizations can withstand the pressure of budgets that are closing in. To cut or not to cut isn’t the story. It’s how the dilemma gets redefined, how the airless, compacted arts funding narrative that’s being told can be reconceived and enlarged to encompass the expansive nature of culture and cultural policy. As one of my interviewees for the Rockefeller study described our moment,
There’s no valuation of art and artists. The arguments haven’t been made. The government morphed from sympathetic to the arts to hostility to any form of human investment. We have to go to the core of what it means to be a human being in this society. Where do you make that argument?
Little Story, Big Story
So what does this all signify? How do we extract the kernel of meaning from this mass of information?
In ancient times, oral transmission was the primary means of culture-formation, and memory was prodigious. The bible tells us that King Solomon was considered the wisest man of all, in part because he composed 3,000 proverbs proverbs being the mnemonic devices, the sound-bites, of an earlier day. They say that in ancient Greece, one who knew 300 proverbs was considered truly learned. Today we have a tremendous amount of information, but few of us can locate the underlying structure of wisdom that turns it into sense. Try it sometime: write down all the aphorisms you can think of without opening a book or a Web page. I would be very surprised if you can get to 100.
I think our way of conceiving problems is too constrained by, too conditioned on, the blind-spots and orthodoxies of our era. We have a tendency to accept problems as they are posed, trying to beat them into submission with data or stun them with the escalating push-pull of dialectical debate. What we should do is peek behind the curtain of the problem to discover the dimensions we are being directed to ignore. I find it helps shake loose my thinking to consider such problems from the perspective of earlier day.
Rabbi Hillel was a great sage born about 100 years before Jesus. One of his most famous sayings takes the form of three questions recorded in the Mishnah Torah, the compilation of oral wisdom redacted in the second century. “If I am not for myself,” Hillel asked, “who will be for me? But if I am for my own self only, what am I? And if not now, when? (Pirke Avot 1:14)
I can’t count the times I’ve asked myself these three questions. To me, they sum up what it is to be fully human: to stand for our own dignity and worth, to extend compassion and respect to others, to make the most of our limited time in this life. They are intended as tools to examine the little story of a single human life, but I think they work just as well in relation to the big stories of human societies. I want to use them now to suggest essential social roles for artists and intellectuals in redefining the cultural policy project so that it breaks out of the shrinking room to which it has been consigned, fully occupying the social space it warrants.
Hillel’s first question calls upon us to examine our own courage and fortitude in pursuing what it just.
If I am not for myself, who will be for me?
It reveals that we have not stood up for democratic cultural values.
Public policy-making in this country has reached an extraordinary condition. Limited by the options thrown up by a money-bound system, the American people elect policy-makers who advance the interests of the rich at the expense of everyone else. As described by Princeton economist Paul Krugman, our average annual salary rose about 10% from $32,522 in 1970 to $35,864 in 1999 (figures in 1998 dollars); while the average annual compensation of the top 100 CEOs went from $1.3 million (39 times the pay of the average worker) to $37.5 million, more than 1,000 times the average worker’s pay. Income and wealth disparities are now huge: in 1998, the top 1% of income included people who made $230,000 or more per year; within that 1 %, 60% of the income gain went to the top .01%, those who made at least $3.6 million and whose average income was $17 million. In 1970, that top .01% had .7% of national income, or 70 times the national average; by 1998, they received more than 3% of all income. Thus, the 13,000 richest families had almost as much aggregate income as the 20 million poorest households, with incomes about 300 times the average family’s.
Right now, with remarkably little protest, the Bush administration is proposing tax changes that will exacerbate this situation. If they pass, the rest of us will continue participating in a redistribution scheme from which the vast majority can never hope to benefit. Middle and low-income people make up the majority in this country, yet these are the policies that prevail. Is it because people fantasize that they will someday be rich and want to protect their imaginary earnings? Is it because our notion of freedom has shrunk to mean little more than license to grow rich without social responsibility?
Cover stories aside, arts funding is not being cut to free up public funds for food stamps and emergency medical care. Arts funding is being cut along with virtually every other form of human investment to further reduce the taxes of the obscenely wealthy and callous interests whose money and influence put the present administration into office. When we allow this to happen, we are not standing for ourselves, and as has been amply demonstrated, when we are not for ourselves, no one is for us.
To be for ourselves in the realm of cultural policy-making means artists and intellectuals must advocate for the fundamental democratic values that create a vibrant culture. We must assert the socially valid and necessary roles of government and the nonprofit sector in balancing the cultural dominance of the marketplace, advocating for voices and visions that do not turn a buck. Markets are perhaps the best single mechanism we have for distributing goods and services, but there are some things they cannot do: protect minority voices, preserve the cultures of ordinary people, provide cultural education, create vibrant, participatory, accessible institutions of community cultural life. We must say this, out loud.
Now that global saturation of American commercial media product has reached undreamed-of levels, we face certain realities. Traditional multidirectional means of cultural transmission and preservation can seldom withstand the onslaught of mass-produced cultural products such as film, television and recorded music; and the pervasive passivity of consumer culture tends to overtake live, in-person activities that bring people into the commons and into direct contact with each other, which leads to a decline in the vitality of civil society. To be for ourselves, we must assert as a goal of cultural policy encouraging and supporting active participation in community life, so that ordinary citizens can have roles in cultural development that cannot be summed up by a list of purchases.
Now that the forces of globalization have pulsed untold economic and political refugees from South to North, we know the pain of trying to maintain cultural continuity in diaspora. The ongoing transformation of the American cultural landscape through immigration has led in recent years to a resurgent backlash of anti-immigrant feeling. According to a study conducted earlier this year by the Chicago Council on Foreign Relations, 60 percent of the public regards the present level of immigration to be a “critical threat to the vital interests of the United States.” To be for ourselves, we must assert as a goal of cultural policy respect for cultural diversity, the social value of communication, curiosity, parity in the distribution of resources, recognition of the polyglot richness that has been the engine of American cultural dynamism.
One of the characteristic themes of our period has been polarization of cultural values. The impulse to eliminate cultural expression that offends received religious and social beliefs contends with the impulse to promote free expression of divergent views. Now we have a third force ready to sacrifice freedom of expression to a fundamentalist idea of national security. There has been an unending stream of controversy over works of art that are perceived as dangerous when viewed from one or another fundamentalist camp: in the United States, Robert Mapplethorpe’s erotic images, Andres Serrano’s religious works, and Marlon Riggs’s challenging transgressions of racial and sexual taboos are best-known; the Taliban’s destruction of the Buddhas of Bamiyan; the burning of books in Iran. To be for ourselves, we must assert as a goal of cultural policy the cherished value of freedom of expression enshrined in our Constitution, to be nurtured not feared and limited only by the most extreme necessity.
These values ameliorating market dominance, promoting active cultural participation, respecting and valuing cultural diversity, cherishing freedom of expression ought to be the informing values of any democratic cultural policy. We ought to be advocating them without reservation. But policy discourse is frozen in its tracks. No one really thinks the current policy-making and implementation apparatus is going to have significant social impact. I don’t know any scholar, artist or activist with intellectual integrity who can assert with a straight face that allowing the present market dominance of culture to expand is going to make our collective expression as a people in any way more viable, interesting, useful or beautiful.
Yet almost everyone is embarrassed to say this. We are tongue-tied by a worldwide shift toward privatization that does not bode well for humane cultural values. When cultural subvention is an element of public policy, guiding questions relate to public meaning: what aspects of our heritage should be preserved and extended? What cultural expressions exemplify our people? What makes up our nation’s cultural commonwealth? How can artistic expression best represent our nation around the world? Although the answers will almost certainly be contested, the questions themselves are recognized as valid for the public sphere. But when privatization occurs, the guiding questions shrivel. Which artists are safe to support and likely to reflect well on the image of a corporation? What type of underwriting is likely to return the most value to the donor in the currency of public relations? Which projects advance the specific agenda of a philanthropic organization or individual, as opposed to a broad public agenda?
When the discourse is so tightly bounded, to assert democratic values is to invite ridicule, and few of us are willing to risk that. We are not for ourselves. Who will be for us?
Hillel’s second question reminds us that to be human is to connect in common cause.
But if I am for my own self only, what am I?
It exposes the failure of arts advocates to engage the world beyond their own sphere.
Interest in cultural policy in the United States has begun to expand only within the last decade. While international cultural policy debates have been passionate and exciting since the post-World War II period, through the decades following creation of the National Endowments for the Arts and the Humanities in the mid-Sixties, the official American line was that we had no cultural policy, or that our national policy was simply to follow the lead of private patrons. Our national arts funding apparatus was based on something an early Sixties Rockefeller panel on the performing arts called the “culture gap,” which was the difference between red-carpet arts institutions’ budgetary aspirations and their ability to raise private money. The NEA was created to fill that gap, a very modest purpose in comparison with the broad scope of culture and the potential sweep of the public interest in its development.
Or consider the media. Unlike virtually every other nation on the planet where radio and television were introduced as public interests first, then opened to private profit in a regulated fashion our broadcasting apparatus and policy were shaped by the aim of creating maximum opportunity for private economic exploitation of the airwaves, with public broadcasting coming late and little, as an afterthought.
So I think it’s time for another proverb: as the twig is bent, so grows the tree. With such roots, advocacy for cultural investment in this country has been one long, unimpressive drone of special pleading for the direct interests of a tiny segment of the vast cultural complex. The arts orthodoxy turns on the idea that all that matters to the cultural vitality of the nation are the fortunes of professional nonprofit institutions. The first time it came home to me how astoundingly short-sighted and narrow-minded this outlook was, I was at a talk by the president of the San Francisco Symphony. She laid on a glowing description of her organization’s in-school programs. Generally, they involved a few musicians demonstrating their instruments, talking about the orchestra, and playing recorded music to the kids. This had meant the world to the children, she told us. In fact, she said, some of these young people had never heard music before!
For a brief moment I wondered if they had been kept sequestered on a desert island, but then I realized she was using the word “music” as shorthand for “symphonic music.” Now, you and I know that virtually everyone listens to music, most of us daily especially young people. A lot of us play instruments or sing. We go to the movies or rent videos. We take photographs or do needlework or write poetry in our spare time. The symphony president was able to utter her fatuous statement because she had thoroughly internalized a piece of the nonprofit arts orthodoxy: most cultural activities either register too low on the economic-activity scale to be recognized in that discourse singing in a choir or drumming with your friends are “amateur” activities, beneath consideration; or they register too high popular music and feature films stink too much of commerce, evoking a fastidious revulsion in the nonprofit arts sector, so they are declared invisible.
Looking at “the arts” as a specialist preserve of professional nonprofit institutions is a form of being only for oneself that has isolated and impoverished cultural policy discourse, reducing arts advocacy to little more than the assertion that “We are special, so you should support us.” This approach removed the most widespread and potent manifestations of culture from the agendas of cultural policy-makers, leaving them to fiddle with the residue, as if it were all that mattered. In response to arts advocates’ special pleading, elected officials’ and policy-makers’ general message has been “Prove you deserve our support.” They’ve stimulated a brisk business in economic indicators, in studies of culture and community development, in new ways to justify culture in social-science terms. Mozart is good for math scores; arts programs in prisons reduce recidivism; public art raises use-rates of public plazas.
All true, I’m sure. But the assignment turned out to be a form of bait-and-switch. If you don’t want to fund human investment, a good stalling tactic is occupying its advocates with costly and time-consuming studies that go through contortions to prove its validity by standards alien to their enterprise. Decades of this has led to the absolute impoverishment of any argument from the power of art to stun, to speak truth, to celebrate, to condemn, to refresh perception, to suggest what cannot be adequately expressed outright. And surprise! The studies are not being rewarded by increased resources for arts support and cultural development in fact, as we have recently seen, support is declining.
We can jump through every hoop that’s extended, but there is no way to win the special-pleading game: artists and their advocates can never mobilize even a fraction of the resources or attention commanded by those who mesmerize our policy-makers with large infusions of campaign cash.
If we are to avoid being only for ourselves, without supporters, artists and intellectuals must assert the broad, common purpose of cultural policy, awakening and making common cause with our allies, vast numbers who also want livable communities, who like going to the movies but want something to balance the overwhelming commercialism of the consumer cultural industries, who want occasionally to see their own voices and visions reflected on television, whose teeth are set on edge to contemplate a nation of couch potatoes, who want their kids to have access to art classes, to learn an instrument or take part in creating theater or record their own music.
Hillel’s third question calls on us to consider what needs doing right now.
And if not now, when?
It shows us how cynicism, disappointment, and procrastination exacerbate our predicament.
The standard response to such ideas is that they are impractical. The time is not right, people say, for ambitious aims and new proposals. These days, victory would be holding the line, and few people believe even that will be possible.
My answer is to ask when the time is ever right for ambitious aims and new proposals. I have been active in this field for going on thirty years, and the argument from pragmatism has been deployed to oppose new thinking for that entire time. This creates a self-fulfilling prophecy and a self-imposed limitation: when policy thinking is restricted only to what has already proven doable, no significant progress is possible.
Indeed, this has already been demonstrated by the way the newfound interest in cultural policy has been distorted by the assignment of proving culture worthy of support. In my “terrain check” of artists’ support, many interviewees raised questions about the Pew Charitable Trusts’ investment in cultural policy research, which is now being discontinued not because of criticism from the field, but because Pew’s highest leadership had not been convinced of its worthiness as compared with other priorities. Pew spent millions of dollars to commission the RAND corporation to study the arts RAND was chosen not for its arts expertise, which was zilch, but because it was hoped its establishment credentials would impress policy-makers. The first RAND report on the performing arts came out some months ago. Unfortunately, it lends aid and comfort to that old saw, “a consultant is someone who borrows your watch to tell you what time it is.”
The people I interviewed questioned Pew’s huge investment in research that was primarily descriptive rather than propositional. Given time to reflect, I suspect almost everyone I interviewed would acknowledge that part of any effort to affect policy is compiling data, building an accurate description of the given situation so as to consider how best to improve it. But thus far in the budding U.S. cultural policy field, there has been almost no movement from description to action. So far as I can see, none of the well-funded new think-tanks is proposing alternative systems of financing or alternative approaches to cultural development. Presumably, the feeling is that they are not yet ready. To that I say, “If not now, when?”
The truth is, progress in social affairs is never made by those trapped like Flash Gordon inside the shrinking room of what is currently perceived as doable. The criterion of immediate feasibility reduces meaningful discourse to a whisper, silencing the passionate countervailing voice that could help to balance the drone of the status quo. Change requires bold proposals, boldly declared, creating room for negotiation and compromise. Right now, the debate is between settling for a lot less or a little bit less and how many hearts are going to be stirred by that diminutive dialogue?
Here are a few ideas whose times have come because they acknowledge and incorporate the larger culture, suggesting ways that markets can actually support cultural development rather than retard it:
- Tax advertising, a completely discretionary expenditure, to provide revenue to support non-commercial arts activities. In 2000, TV and radio advertising alone amounted to over $79 billion and that doesn’t begin to touch the massive revenues from print, point-of-purchase and online advertising. A 1% tax on just broadcast advertising would have produced $790 million!
- Tax commercial cultural product to support noncommercial independent media. In 2000, domestic box-office movie receipts topped $7.6 billion; in the music industry, album sales totaled about $8 billion; and consumer spending on video totaled about $20 billion. A 1% tax on these expenditures would have yielded $356 million dollars.
- Link the construction of publicly financed entertainment and cultural facilities to community cultural development. In Seattle, for example, two sports stadiums have been built in recent years, with the public financing portion of their costs totaling over $600 million. A public policy that 5% of such public construction costs must be matched for facilities and activities based in low-income neighborhoods would have yielded $3 million.
Yes, it would be necessary to stand up to wealthy and powerful interests to ensure the adoption of such policies. Yes, it could not be done in a day. Yes, it would require a long-term campaign of consciousness-raising and common cause-making. And yes, that would most likely demand persistence in the face of initial defeat. And if not now, when?
Back in the Sixties, when I had a lot of time on my hands, some friends and I used Hillel’s three questions as a check-in. Once a year or so, we would ask ourselves which three questions, considered together, summed up our take on life. I was a very serious person then, and my questions were always virtuous and hard “What is the correct thing to do right now?” My friend Tom was a pleasure-loving guy, and his three questions still make me laugh to remember: “Is this fun? How long will it last? When can I do it again?”
Here are the three questions that I think are guiding the current debased and diminished enterprise of cultural policy-making: Whose interests really matter here? How can we placate them? How can we ingratiate ourselves with those who neither respect nor appreciate culture’s power?
Here are the three questions that I believe should guide all policy-making in our nation, most especially cultural policy-making: Who are we as a people? What are we here for? How can we realize that mission?
Those of you who are students are faced with a stark choice right now. There may be a nook or cranny for you even within the shrinking room of current cultural policy discourse. As in so many sadly diminished professions, you may find a slot as a functionary of the existing system, you might make a living out of economic impact studies or season subscription campaigns. It isn’t that these are such terrible things to do: compared with dumping toxic chemicals, harvesting old-growth trees, or selling crack to inner-city children, they are positively saintly. It’s just that they are so trivial in relation to the urgent, essential, earthshaking work of redefining the whole policy-making enterprise so that it reflects culture’s awesome power as a container for our reasons for living and for dying and what we make of our short time in between.
My personal terror is a wasted life. In these times, the way we are encouraged to waste our lives is to make them very small. The general feeling is that we can do little to affect the ills of the big world, so we should focus on the little world of private life, downscaling our dreams to fit the times. What a waste! We have the opportunity to tackle a great task, to bring about cultural democracy, described by French philosopher Francis Jeanson in these terms:
[I]ts aim is to arrange things in such a way that culture becomes today for everybody what culture was for a small number of privileged people at every stage of history where it succeeded in reinventing for the benefit of the living the legacy inherited from the dead; that is to say, each time it was able to assist in bringing about a deeper sense of reality and closer bonds of communication.”
May each of us have the vision, courage, and endurance to take up our part in this task, and may we live to toast our success.