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Beyond Dollars and Cents: Defining Policy in Culture

(To read other articles in our Arts-Policy Nexus series click here.)

 

By Nichole Martini and Alexis Ortiz

Americans interested in cultural policy often lament the fact that the United States does not have an official national cultural policy.  Without a Ministry of Culture or other similar agency, there is minimal central direction for funding and policy decisions.  Because of this, policy and funding are often conflated in our discussions, and the general argument in the field is for increased funding across the board.  However, there is much more to policy than dollars and cents, and we need to explore the deeper questions of “how,” “why,” and “for whom” decisions about what to support (financially and otherwise) are made in order to effect real, systemic change. On this, individual artists working alone will never be as successful as when the artistic community works together with other institutions or sectors to ensure that the arts have a place at the table.

Last Thursday, ELNYA (Emerging Leaders in New York Arts) and World Policy Institute presented a panel discussion on the state of the arts ecosystem in the United States, featuring Caron Atlas, Director of the Arts & Democracy Project; Jamie Bennett, Chief of Staff and Director of Public Affairs at the National Endowment for the Arts; Paul Nagle, Executive Director of Cultural Strategies Initiative; Edwin Torres, Associate Director at The Rockefeller Foundation; and moderated by Jacqueline Davis, Executive Director of The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts at Lincoln Center.

Jacqueline Davis began the conversation by asking each panelist for their definition of cultural policy and how their work fits into the broader arts ecology. She then invited them to participate in a thought experiment, asking how they would spend $300 million dollars in new cultural funding if the President were to make it available. Rather than starting "where we are" and getting bogged down in the current debates about specific cultural policies and funding trends, Davis’ frame allowed the panelists to imagine what could be.  At several points over the course of the conversation, the panelists commented that, based on their diverse experience and points of view, they expected to disagree much more with each other, but they all agreed that our current system is fundamentally flawed and in an ideal world would be far more equitable.

As Caron Atlas pointed out, we also need to be more transparent about the fact that every decision we make about what to support, is, in fact, a cultural policy decision, whether it's explicit or implicit.  Our current policy, then, is heavily skewed toward supporting the work of large arts institutions:

·       50% of the funding for the arts in the non-profit sector goes to 4% of the arts institutions in the United States

·       10% of the funding goes to organizations that explicitly deal with underserved communities

·       4% of that funding goes to arts and social change work

While each panelist had a different answer as to how they would specifically redistribute the imaginary funds to address these severe imbalances, the general themes that arose in their discussion were equity, defined by Edwin Torres as equality of access to opportunity, and resilience, which Torres described as the capacity to survive in times of change and stress.  

Public funding agencies like the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) and New York City’s Department of Cultural Affairs (DCA) are in a unique position to lead the charge to fund more small, community-based organizations in service of the aforementioned goals, as their stamp of approval can serve as a catalyst for other funding sources. And as public agencies, their mandate should be to maximize the public good and reach the majority of the public, particularly those who cannot afford access to arts and culture.

One challenge they face is that many of the evaluation techniques currently employed to inform their decisions measure things that are relatively easy to count, like the number of audience members or program participants.  Making the case to disperse funding more equitably will require funders and arts institutions to more clearly define what they are setting out to do and then devise evaluation methods that demonstrate the extent to which they are achieving these goals.   

There was a general consensus from the panel that artists and arts advocates should partner with existing institutions, at the local, state, national, and international levels, which address other areas of policy. These organizations usually have access to more resources. Moreover, including the arts strengthens their programs in the long-term–a win-win situation. Jamie Bennett highlighted several new programs the NEA is working on with various federal agencies, including a partnership with Walter Reed Army Hospital and the Pentagon. Together, they were able to mandate that the healing arts be included in veteran recovery work, which led to more comprehensive care for the veteran constituency, and brought the arts into a new policy arena. As we work to advocate for arts and culture in the United States, we must integrate the arts into these larger discussions in order to broaden our reach.  

Paul Nagle reminded us that with crisis, a word often used to describe the current arts ecosystem and the state of American society in general, comes great opportunity. The arts are uniquely equipped to address many of the social issues we face and lead the discussion about innovative strategies for moving forward. As broad cultural policy exists minimally at the national level, the work being done at the local level often has the deepest impact. As artists, arts managers, and arts advocates, we can’t forget the power of individual stories, our own and those of the constituencies we serve. We must work together as a community, especially at the local level, to create the change we aspire to.

*****

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Nichole Martini and Alexis Ortiz are ELNYA fellows.

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