The World of Cultural Policy

A report on UNESCO's World Conference
on Cultural Policies for Development
Stockholm, March/April 1998

by Don Adams

© Copyright Adams & Goldbard 1998


After representing the Institute for Cultural Democracy in Stockholm
as project director of Webster's World of Cultural Democracy,
Adams shares his observations about trends in world cultural policy
and some suggestions for learning more

Attending UNESCO's World Conference on Cultural Policies in Stockholm was like being awake in a dream. Here in the United States, when I mention to someone my lifelong interest in cultural policy, the response is usually, "What's that?" At the Stockholm conference, I found myself among hundreds -- thousands! -- of people who already know the answer.

Of course, the dream had its nightmare dimensions: too many three-and-a-half-hour sessions with no breaks, crowded rooms with poor acoustics, and translators sometimes struggling with the arcane concepts tossed around by speakers from all over the world. Since the Conference was convened first and foremost as a forum for official government delegations, there was plenty of parliamentary jockeying, focused mainly on finalizing an "Action Plan' for UNESCO and its member states.

But within this temporary village of cultural policy-makers, activists, diplomats and demonstrators were many people of extraordinary interest. They emerged mainly in the much more focused and interactive "Agora" and "Forum" sessions organized by UNESCO member countries and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) respectively, which ran parallel to the conference of official delegations. As always, the most important part of the conference was between the sessions, when newfound kindred spirits could get to know each other.

The Stockholm conference reflected key themes in cultural policy thinking today:

This last point is hardest for Americans to grasp, as we have seldom experienced a strong public role in cultural development. Our cultural industries developed in an almost entirely commercial context, with minimal regulation and even less public investment in public-interest media. This trend concerned me a great deal during the Stockholm conference: the appropriate roles of states seem to be getting little attention as policy-makers are swept away by the romance of capitalism. The limits of this approach to public policy are evident in the current state of policy in the U.S.: When you value markets above all else, you get culture as a commodity and find it extremely difficult to sustain support for even the weakest arts agencies.

But there were very few Americans at the Stockholm meeting to discuss this problem. President Reagan led our country out of UNESCO in the early '80s, with several other Western powers trailing behind. Britain and the other Western nations have since reentered UNESCO, so they took part in the Conference; but the U.S. had no official part in the meeting. Consequently, I was one of very few Americans attending.

Our absence is shameful. We could learn so much from the experience of other nations. They've taken public cultural policy-making seriously for the past 50 years while we've barely recognized it as a possibility. Moreover, they have been actively in dialogue with each other about what works and what doesn't and what issues remain to be tackled. They have a great deal to teach us that could help illuminate some of our most intractable cultural issues. For example: how to grapple with the problem of non-participation -- people who apparently don't care about public life, don't vote, or succumb to anti-social impulses like racism or anti-immigrant feeling. Other countries could learn from us, too. We have much to contribute to global dialogue on questions of cultural diversity, alternative approaches to producing media in non-commercial contexts, and ways of patching together non-public financial support, to name just a few.

But before we plunge into dialogue with cultural policy-makers abroad, we in the United States need to do a little catching up. We've largely missed out on the last 30 years of cultural-policy discourse. So how can Americans do a little self-education?

You can start by reading the book which was the foundation for the conference, UNESCO's recent publication Our Creative Diversity, the report of the World Commission on Culture and Development. Published in 1995, revised in 1996, it can be ordered through the, at the UNESCO Web site.

Some of the resources at the Stockholm conference's Web site offer a great starting point for study. Of particular interest is the "Action Plan" document approved by the official delegates late on the last night of the Conference. It outlines UNESCO's current analysis of the values and issues facing cultural policy-makers, along with proposals for members states and UNESCO to take in the future.

To focus on some of the specific issues and themes on people's minds in international cultural policy discourse today, check out these two sources. First is the overall Conference "Background Document" . This document refers to eleven separate papers on various conference "sub-themes," prepared by leading specialists:

These conference papers are all available at the Conference Web site in English and French.

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Webster's World of Cultural Democracy
The World Wide Web center of The Institute for Cultural Democracy (Don Adams, WWCD Project Director)
P.O. Box 30061, Seattle, WA 98117-2061 U.S.A.
© Copyright The Institute for Cultural Democracy 1998, 2001