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Wednesday, March 9, 2011

What Is Cultural Policy?

The rubric "cultural policy" describes, in the aggregate, the values and principles which guide any social entity in cultural affairs.

A policy statement can be simply an individual resolution-- such as "I intend to avoid sexist language in my writing." But most commonly, policies are more complex, summing up an organization's values and decision-making criteria.

Cultural policies are most often made by governments, from school boards to Congress and the White House, but also by many other institutions in the private sector, from corporations to community organizations. Policies provide guideposts for those making decisions and taking actions which affect cultural life.

Cultural policy is sometimes made explicitly, through a process defined by an agency charged with this responsibility. For instance, a ministry of culture or arts agency might draft a policy articulating its goals and operating principles in supporting theater companies in various regions. Very often, however -- andmost often in the case of the United States -- cultural policy is not formally defined. Instead, what we have are the cultural effects -- sometimes unforeseen -- of social action.

For instance, consider the "urban renewal" phenomenon. Urban redevelopment policies were intended to solve problems of decaying infrastructure, substandard living conditions, crime and overcrowding. But they also had profound effects on the quality of cultural life in our urban centers, by erasing the cultural lives of neighborhoods that were redeveloped, eliminating meeting-places, landmarks, and other things that gave each distinctive flavor, along with the human infrastructure of community organization and relationships.

This kind of de facto cultural policy, amounting to the "side-effects" of social action taken without consideration of cultural impact, can always be deduced from the actions taken by a state or organization.
Augustin Girard of the Studies and Research Department of the French Ministry of Culture put forward this definition of cultural policy in his book Cultural development: experiences and policies, a seminal work in this field:
A policy is a system of ultimate aims, practical objectives and means, pursued by a group and applied by an authority. Cultural policies can be discerned in a trade union, a party, an educational movement, an institution, an enterprise, a town or a government. But regardless of the agent concerned, a policy implies the existence of ultimate purposes (long-term), objectives (medium-term and measurable) and means (men [sic], money and legislation), combined in an explicitly coherent system. (Girard, pp. 171-172)
Just as culture is all-encompassing, cultural policy incorporates a broad range of measures taken to develop cultural life. Many policies with profound cultural impact are made by decision-makers who've hardly given cultural considerations a thought -- decisions about transportation, for example, or the federal budget. In a truly democratic society, the cultural impact of policies like these would be considered alongside economic and political impacts -- the role of public transportation in encouraging or discouraging cultural participation, for instance, or the larger cultural impacts of our sacrosanct military-industrial subsidies.

Today, most policy-makers haven't made the paradigm shift that would bring culture fully to their consciousness. When government agencies in the industrialized world define cultural policy, for instance, they generally limit themselves to the most specialized expressions of culture: media and communications, the arts, education, and in some countries, sports. The measures taken to implement policy are quite varied. Grants to artists and institutions are common approaches, as are public service employment programs, building and maintaining cultural facilities, encouraging and financing historic preservation, and regulating the airwaves. All are explored further elsewhere in Webster's World of Cultural Policy.

How This Document Was Prepared
This monograph is based on data received from the Culturelink Cultural Policies Data Bank, and on documents collected by the Documentation Centre for Cultural Development and Cooperation, Culturelink, in Zagreb, Croatia.

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