Author's Preface 1996

The Awful Truth in Five Acts

by Arlene Goldbard

2 February 1996


Co-author with Don Adams of the 1978 Comprehensive Cultural Policy for the State of California, Arlene Goldbard tells the story of its creation and suppression

Our reasons for including this eighteen-year old cultural policy document in Webster's World are historical. As we wrote in the original 1978 introduction,

So far as we know, this policy is a first attempt by any agency of American government to adopt guidelines for action in the entire cultural field.

I'd like to take credit for prescience in word choice: "attempt" turned out to be somewhat more accurate than, say, "action" or "commitment." The policy was never enacted -- for reasons I will describe in this preface -- and so it remains nothing more than a footnote to the history of cultural policy.

Act One: In Which All Roads Lead to Sacramento

Despite this, the California policy proposal certainly figured prominently in my personal history, and in Don Adams' as well. In 1976, each of us came by a different route to Sacramento to work with the newly-created California Arts Council.

According to local legend, the enabling legislation for the CAC had been drafted by Governor Jerry Brown and poet Gary Snyder at Snyder's mountaintop retreat in the Sierra. Their aim had been to invent something different from its conventional state art agency predecessor, the California Arts Commission -- to devise a more creative, free-form, and experimental entity.

Its enabling legislation gave the CAC an extremely broad mandate, the highest number of civil service-exempt positions (i.e., political appointments) of any agency in state government, and a bright spotlight in the press as "Governor Moonbeam's pet agency." Brown filled key staff positions and seats on the Council with a crew of cronies and artists, none of whom had given much thought to cultural policy questions, and none of whom had any experience in administering an arm of government.

But for arts activists like Don and myself, their hearts were unquestionably in the right place. They were talking about social applications of the arts, about promoting cultural diversity, about creating dynamic new roles for artists as citizens. It was pretty heady stuff, and the Council members were not shy about expressing it. But while they may have been outspoken, improvisatory and iconoclastic, they were also inept and impolitic in expressing their contempt for the arts establishment, so it wasn't long before they became an object first of ridicule in the press and then of unfriendly attention from legislators who saw the Governor's pet agency as his Achilles' heel and began administering exploratory kicks.

By the summer of 1976, Council members began to reach out to people who might be able to help them get their act together and stave off this barrage of criticism. I was approached by Peter Coyote (then employed as a community artist by the San Francisco Neighborhood Arts Program, but now, as you may have surmised, the very same actor whose name you perhaps recognize from movies-of-the-week and soft-core Euro-videos). I had been an organizer in San Francisco's arts community for some time, most recently with the Artworkers' Coalition, and had earned a can-do reputation among progressives (and considerable opposition from the arts establishment). Peter invited me to come to Sacramento and set up a program to deliver information, technical assistance, and small sums of money to artists and arts organizations throughout the state; the enterprise would be financed by the CAC, but not an official part of the agency, and I would have a free hand in most things. After what I now see as an insufficient amount of agonizing, I accepted.

Meanwhile, the Council had divested itself of the ditzy feather-sculpture-maker who'd been appointed to serve as its first and entirely inadequate Executive Director. To replace her, they hired a man named Clark Mitze who had formerly risen to dizzying heights of civil service classification in the Federal-State Program of the National Endowment for the Arts and was then on the lookout for a new job (because, rumor had it, NEA Chair Nancy Hanks could not stand the sight of him). The Council members thought, judging from Clark's inexhaustible fund of good-old-art-boys anecdotage, white shoes and plaid polyester (I'm not making this up; I heard it straight from a Council member), that he was just what they needed to build a bridge to the arts establishment, which until then had disdained and opposed what its members saw as an arts-agency enactment of Lord of The Flies. This is where Don comes in: he became an intern in that same NEA program just as Clark was leaving it. On his way out the door, Clark invited Don to come to California at the end of his internship and "do community development." After what I am sure he now sees as an insufficient amount of agonizing, Don accepted.

Act Two: In Which Our Protagonists Find Love Amidst the Havoc

In the course of the next year there unfolded a long, hilarious, and (to at least two of the participants) heartbreaking saga of ineptitude, egotism run rampant, and feral public administration. We have boxes of notes on all this and someday, when we find an antidote to the nausea induced by the mere thought of it, we will probably try to write that saga. For now, it's enough to mention just a few highlights from our interlude at what several Council members liked to describe as the "representative of the right brain in state government." Don got to the CAC to find all the telephones permanently on hold and the staff out to lunch, and further, to learn that all of the agency activities normally associated with community cultural development had been farmed out to the program I had been engaged to run -- Cultural News & Services (CNS). By demonstrating an impressive competence in financial management, planning, and all the other administrative areas otherwise sorely lacking on the CAC's staff roster, Don rose in no time to the position of Deputy Director. Meanwhile, just as quickly, CNS became a convenient scapegoat for the Council's and the Governor's sins, and was investigated repeatedly by all of the regulatory agencies of the state bureaucracy. Although they failed to turn up any wrongdoing, in the aggregate, I spent much more time during the fourteen months I remained at CNS dealing with investigators than doing the programmatic work for which I had come to Sacramento in the first place.

Don and I did meet in Sacramento, though, and even though we had some trouble reckoning whether or not our institutional interests converged (he was assigned to serve as liaison between the CAC and CNS, and found himself caught between my determination to salvage CNS and the CAC's growing desire to divest itself of what seemed to be a magnet for legislative disapprobation and a really big headache), we also managed after nine or ten months to spend enough late nights alone at the CAC office going over "budget change proposals" to fall in love. What may be even more germane to the cultural policy document which appears here is that we fell mutually and powerfully in love with the idea of cultural democracy (well, to be accurate, Don was already deeply infatuated, but he persuaded me to join him in record time).

We'd each come to Sacramento in the fall of 1976. On the first night of December a year later, we decided to jointly submit our resignations, to take effect at the end of the year. Don's letter comprised four elegant sentences and mine four excoriating and excessive pages, but the thrust was the same: that while the Council members' hearts may have been in the right place, the absence of any policy framework or serious plan for the agency's work had kept it ineffectual, inefficient, and frequently counter-productive. The Council members were delighted to see the back of me, but terrified at the thought of losing Don. They suggested that I had seduced him or gotten him addicted to drugs; they offered him a pay raise, a vacation of any length, and possibly a chauffeured limousine (or maybe I just imagined that last bribe). But he was adamant, and in January, we moved to San Francisco and started our consulting business, which goes by the name of Adams & Goldbard.

Act Three: In Which Nothing Is Quite As It Appears

By the summer of 1978, the CAC was in deep trouble. The year had started with an almost terminally clumsy negotiation with the seasoned and wily bureaucrats of the state Department of Finance. When they got up from the negotiating table, the Council members knew that their budget was going to be slashed by millions, but they kept that information under wraps until after the June election when Proposition 13, the property tax-limitation initiative, was adopted by the voters. Thereafter, a few mumbles about "taxpayer revolt" sufficed as a cover-story for the CAC's newfound financial anorexia, and a great deal of staff and Council attention went to the question of how the agency would continue to operate with only a fraction of its former budget. In the meantime, the red-carpet arts institutions tired of hearing about "nurturing creative sprouts" and the "right brain." So they organized and networked diligently to create a political counter-force to the CAC, hoping to restore a conventional arts agency that would, like its counterparts in other states, give almost all of its money to "the majors" -- the symphony orchestras, ballet companies, big repertory theaters, museums, and so on.

Late that summer, out of the blue, we got a call from Peter Coyote, who by then had been Chair of the Council for some time. He told us that he'd been wrong and we'd been right: that without a policy to guide its work, the CAC was erratic and unfocused, trying things out but unsure of how to evaluate them, unable to argue convincingly for its worth as against the claims of its by then legions of enemies. Peter said the Council wanted us to help the CAC articulate its policy, to pull a coherent declaration out of its past statements. The plan was to draft a policy, then to have a series of public meetings around the state to consider it. We argued long and hard, but to no avail, that public meetings ought to precede the drafting of a document: talk with people first about what cultural values should be incorporated into policy, we said, then write it up.

After what Don and I most assuredly now see as an insufficient amount of agonizing, we accepted. Speaking for myself, my brief encounter with the CAC was unusually productive of life-lessons, some of which I will never transgress (i.e., it is impossible to win a fight from the inside with a government bureaucracy, so insubordinate types like myself should never take government jobs). But the lesson that stands out from all the rest has to do with flattery. I accepted the offer to come to Sacramento because I believed what I was being told about all the great and fine things I would be able to do there. When Don met Clark Mitze, he had already absorbed a considerable volume of arts-grapevine rumor about the CAC's problems, but he believed what he had been told about his ability to take advantage of the opportunities that awaited him there. And we both agreed to write the Comprehensive Cultural Policy for the State of California, even though the process was all wrong and the agency was run by people we mistrusted in the extreme, because we were seduced by our own imagination of ourselves creating a framework of cultural democracy for the great state of California.

A little grandiosity is a good thing in a visionary, but there's also quite a bit to be said for disbelieving one's own propaganda. Or, as the late Adlai Stevenson put it, "I suppose flattery hurts no one, that is, if he doesn't inhale."

Act Four: In Which the Author Meditates on Youthful Idealism

The resulting document has, I think, certain modest strengths. It does lay out a set of values, a kind of yardstick that could be applied to guide cultural development efforts. If, for instance, agency policy-makers, in considering various programs and initiatives, asked themselves if the contemplated programs would increase cultural participation, or help to develop community cultural life, or advance cultural pluralism -- as this policy would have them do -- it could certainly improve the results of their deliberations. The policy document dismisses "quality versus community" as a "red herring," a statement with which I still cannot take exception. It sees the state as playing a mediating and enabling role, facilitating communication and sharing, addressing the imbalances of the market, promoting pluralism, participation, and equity; these still seem worthy goals for any public intervention in cultural life. A number of the specific-issue discussions that make up the appendix offer fair analyses and reasonable recommendations, as far as they go.

The trouble is, they don't go very far. I think most of the inadequacies of the document are the product of an excess of youthful idealism. It's a bit difficult to wrap my mind around the question at eighteen years' remove from our actual thought-processes, but I think Don and I believed that if the Council members asked themselves to look honestly at their programs in light of the values of cultural democracy put forward in the policy, they would naturally "do the right thing," that the best new programmatic solutions would just naturally follow from core statements of value. It's true that we hadn't been asked as part of our commission to spell out the particulars of programs, but I'm sure any agency commissioning such a document would have been happier with something a lot less abstract and philosophical and a lot more nuts-and-bolts. When we were later asked to create other cultural policy proposals -- for example, the one commissioned a decade after the California policy document by the Institute for Policy Studies (see "Cultural Democracy: A New Cultural Policy for the United States") -- we tended in the opposite direction, including quick value-statements and using the balance of our word-allotment to lay out a compendium of recommended programs and legislative initiatives.

Another manifestation of our youthful idealism was the hope and faith we had for government. The "State" that the policy so frequently invokes could be, at least in our minds, an enlightened and responsive public servant. We managed to preserve this hope despite the thorough battering we had so recently received at the hands of the actual existing State. In way, I confess, we both have hope still for the possibility that a state could be the guardian of a commonwealth, and not simply a playground for self-serving, glad-handing and self-dealing. There seem to be a few countries on the planet where citizens do not detest all things public and where they even find themselves in accord with large sections of public policy. It may yet be that one day ours will be among them.

We turned out to be only half-right in predicting the future, I would say. We correctly foresaw the cultural impact of a growing and increasingly diverse population. But it's hard to believe now that "unmet cultural needs created by increased leisure" would seem like a major problem. Which just goes to show how things can change in almost twenty years. In the mid-Seventies, leisure time was in fact at its per-capita height, and people talked about various responses to this trend -- shortening the work-week, expanding continuing education, etc. I venture to say that no one could have predicted what the actual social response has been: to create an entire class of people on permanent, enforced "leisure" (i.e., the homeless, the structurally unemployed, etc.), to adopt economic policies that cause real wages to decline, and to thereby impel a substantial portion of the labor force to work much harder for less real buying-power, thus turning the leisure-time trend on its head.

Act Five: In Which Bullies Abound, Love Triumphs,
and Cultural Democracy Receives a Swift Kick

But the fact remains that while there are many ways this policy proposal might have been improved, none of them would have had one bit of effect on its disposition, which was straight out of the mailbox and into the shredder, punctuated by only the briefest of attentions from the CAC. In between the time the Comprehensive Cultural Policy was commissioned in the fall and delivered at the end of December, the Council had been approached by its erstwhile nemesis, the California Confederation of the Arts, an arts advocacy group then organized and dominated by people associated with the Los Angeles Music Center and the San Francisco Ballet, and thus very comfortably connected through trusteeships and endowments to a number of influential political donors who claimed it was in their power to influence the CAC's future legislative appropriations. The CAC was offered a deal: in exchange for the Confederation's support, the agency would reverse its policy of dividing grant funds more or less equally among organizations of all types and sizes, and would knuckle under to the prevailing arts-agency trend of giving much larger grants to the red-carpet arts. It would also jettison the policy we drafted and all other claims to cultural democracy in favor of the vague status-quo-hugging support-the-arts rhetoric that passed for policy in the American arts establishment.

What followed from that deal was disappointing and difficult for a great many advocates of community cultural development. Today, the CAC is a replica of every other state arts agency and if its official history contains any mention of its brief dalliance with cultural democracy, it is undoubtedly in the same dismissive voice with which Newt Gingrich and his ilk dispatch "The Sixties" as a temporary wrong turning in the historical journey toward Right thinking. But it was difficult for the two of us in a whole different way.

Don's and my love story continued its private unfolding until we surprised almost everyone we knew by getting married on December 1st, 1978, taking a day off from policy-drafting for a trip to City Hall and one of the first civil weddings after the reopening of that edifice following the Milk and Moscone assassinations. We had reason to feel hopeful -- a wedding, a public policy of cultural democracy, what next? But what turned out to be next was a sobering dose of arts-agency realpolitik. You see, the CAC could not simply discard our policy document without explanation, and its spokespeople could certainly not publicly admit that this course of action was nothing more than a piece of political horse-trading. So a plan was devised: discredit Adams & Goldbard, and discredit their work by implication. Soon, rumors began to reach us. A single example should suffice, although there are many more: a prospective client had been called by a Council member who'd expressed amazement that working with us was under consideration, as we were "too radical and controversial" and therefore unsafe to associate with. If we were involved in a project, the public would surely boycott it. Needless to say, we lost the contract.

This smear campaign had a devastating effect on our livelihood. If we hadn't been offered the chance to work for a national association of community arts groups (the Neighborhood Arts Programs National Organizing Committee, whose leadership asked us to come to Washington and take over the national office), we would have had to leave California for some other destination beyond the CAC's slander-spreading ambitions. Before we left, though, we fought back. Since the CAC refused to distribute our policy document, we distributed it ourselves. We encouraged people to read it and make their own judgments, to raise questions at CAC meetings and forums, and to give serious consideration to the ideas it contained, apart from any attempt being made to besmirch our reputations. It is still satisfying to recall that this had a certain effect: the CAC was not able to go quietly into its deal with the arts establishment, though go it did; cultural democracy got discussed in public meetings; the campaign to suppress our work was not entirely successful; and we had the satisfaction of standing up to bullies.

After all that, how could we fail to include the policy document here? So here it is, warts and all: the cultural policy proposal the State of California didn't want you to see.

Arlene Goldbard has been a partner in Adams & Goldbard since 1978 and currently lives in Ukiah, California. She has just begun work on her third novel.

Go to the proposed Cultural Policy for the State of California (1978)

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