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Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Modes of Action in Cultural Policy

Generally, government initiatives in explicit cultural policy involve activities in one or more of the following broad areas of concern: preservation, dissemination, creation, research, training, education and animation.
  • Preservation includes safeguarding artifacts -- buildings, paintings, costumes, furnishings, musical literature and so forth -- as well as cultural skills and activities -- basket-weaving, shape-note singing, or paper-making.

    A central issue here is what people deem worthy of preservation: preservation activities in the U.S. often focus on cultural traditions derived from Europe -- the conventional fare of ballet and opera companies and symphony orchestras -- rather than indigenous cultures or those brought to America from Asia or Africa. The homes and histories of the wealthy are often treasured while those of working people are ignored.
    Preservation raises other interesting questions, like the tension between the impulse to preserve and the impulse to move forward into the future: too much reverence for the past can produce a museum culture, lacking vivacity and innovation; but inattention to the past impairs a culture, cuts it off from historic roots and lessons that may be vital to survival. Another issue is the purpose of preservation: preservation can be seen as largely a matter of rescuing buildings and artifacts to be put on display; or artifacts and knowledge from the past can be related to current cultural interests, issues and problems, part of a dynamic dialogue with the present.
  • Dissemination is the main focus of most current cultural policies. Money goes to finance performances, tours, ticket subsidies, broadcasting, publishing, distribution networks, and special events designed to reach larger audiences.
    The big policy questions are what will be disseminated and which methods will be used. Dissemination activities can be aimed at wider distribution of particular works -- "taking art to the hinterlands" -- or they can be multi-directional, supporting networks that can be used to share cultural offerings from city to country, neighborhood to neighborhood, and back again. And, as with preservation, the origin and forms of cultural work can be very narrow or encompassing of diverse cultural traditions.
  • Creation describes the contemporary work of artists and others involved in cultural production.
    The problem of supporting new creation is addressed in most public cultural policies, including roles for government, private philanthropists, and various markets. One important issue here is what forms of creation and which creators are supported. A common approach is to focus entirely on artists as creators, and many public agencies confine their aid to those already recognized by other artists, critics and patrons; government's role in such cases is to corroborate and ratify the choices of private patrons.
    An alternative goal would be to broaden the potential for creation, encouraging more members of society to pursue creative activities through a range of range of measures -- helping to finance facilities and equipment for all sorts of enterprises that a conventional art-oriented policy would consider hobbies -- model-building, barbershop quartets, neighborhood newsletters, flower shows. Within the realm of the arts, the goal would be more to redress the imbalances of the marketplace than to emulate the private sector.
  • Research into various cultural phenomena is generally conducted, to assure that policy is grounded in the concrete. Virtually every policy-making entity has looked into the nature and extent of cultural resources: Who makes up the audience for various cultural activities? How much are professional dancers paid? What arts education programs are available? How are racial minorities represented in public agency programs?
    Key issues in research are what will be studied, and how methods color the results. Very little research has been done in the U.S., for example, on community-based cultural activities, while quite a bit is known about the major institutions' economics, audiences and plans. This bias perpetuates itself, as researchers frame their questions in ways that incorporate the values of the prestige arts or the academy and exclude others.
    Democratic cultural policies must also be grounded in another kind of research: Acquiring knowledge about the customs, concerns, values and social relationships within a community and allowing this knowlege to shape and inform cultural action. This requires field research, interviews and conversations, anecdotal information, dreams and feelings as much as it needs hard data.
  • Training as a focus of cultural policy comprises the education of artists, arts administrators, and workers in related fields.
    The main question here is how much government will intervene. Will standards be set, some sort of professional certification or licensing required? Will apprenticeship be considered a viable model for training? Do gaps exist in the training opportunities available? Is training accessible to those who can't afford tuition and fees?
  • Education plays a key role in explicit cultural policy, since learning about community cultural life is essentially an educational process.
    Dozens of policy questions are at stake here: Will creation be treated as a special province of professional artists, or will education try to involve all students in creative activity? Will the aim of arts education be to train "arts appreciators" or practitioners? Will cultural education give students access to electronic media, or concentrate only on older media? Will the cultural forms transmitted through the schools come from all elements of society, or only the dominant culture? What cultural values are transmitted by the approach to learning and its context? Will history texts highlight the contributions of women and people of diverse cultural traditions, or will they reinforce the idea that history is made by white men?
  • Animation can be an element of policy only insofar as policy addresses cultural democracy. Discussed further in a document soon to be published inWebster's World of Cultural Action, the term "community animation" denotes work aimed at stimulating new, participatory activities in community settings. Its professional practitioners are widely known among policymakers by the French label animateur. If involving people in more active cultural lives is a goal of policy, then animation must be one of the means to that end. But if the state's exclusive goal is to support professional artists and institutions, as is true in most U.S. arts agencies, then animation will have little place in policy.

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