Cultural Democracy:

A New Cultural Policy for the United States

by Don Adams and Arlene Goldbard

© Copyright Adams & Goldbard 1987


  • Introduction
  • Nurturing Cultural Diversity
  • Encouraging Public Participation
  • Livelihood for Creative Workers
  • International Cultural Relations
  • Department of Cultural Development
  • Monitoring Cultural Impact



    Federal policy helps answer many questions about our national cultural identity: how the arts are supported, who decides what is broadcast, what will be built, what pastimes will be encouraged, when certain languages can be spoken or customs practiced, how we educate our children and treat our elders, how we relate to our diversity as a nation and to the rest of the world.

    Whether or not cultural policy is made explicit, government has massive cultural impact. From Indian removal to urban renewal, from importing human beings as slaves to excluding others through immigration quotas, U.S. cultural policy has been conceived and implemented by every arm of government. Though cultural policymaking in the United States is fragmented, haphazard, and frequently sub rosa, government intervenes in cultural life at many points.

    The next administration needs to acknowledge the federal government's enormous cultural impact, bring it under democratic control and turn it toward cultural democracy. Many new initiatives must be taken to encourage pluralism, participation, and equity in our national cultural life.

    This chapter concentrates on the most critical aspects of public policy: elements of culture with broad social impact, such as the mass media; and initiatives with great democratizing potential, such as public service employment for creative workers. These emphases go against the grain of current policy, which treats certain cultural issues with obsessive attention -- for instance, the level of public subsidy for such prestigious arts institutions as the major opera and ballet companies, museums and symphony orchestras. This narrow focus would end under a democratic cultural policy, which would offer major institutions new roles to play in implementing programs like those outlined below.

    Nurturing Cultural Diversity

    The new democratic cultural agenda should promote diversity where government, market forces, and other powerful interests have discouraged it.

    The United States has a long history of suppressing minority cultures. We now need a full-scale campaign acknowledging diversity as the source of our cultural vitality. Support must be directed to minority cultural enterprises so that they attain economic parity with their counterparts in the dominant culture. There must be truly equal opportunity for women and people of color throughout the cultural industries and allied government agencies.

    Educational policy is key. Teaching must reflect the history and contributions of women, of people of color, of all the cultures that enrich our society. The federal government will have to provide financing for teacher training, experimental curricula, and textbooks. The Reagan administration has been shamefully short-sighted and jingoistic in opposing bilingual education. The next administration should consider the U. S. role in the world and our own changing population and declare universal bilingualism and cross-cultural understanding to be national educational goals.

    It is easy to deduce current federal cultural values from grants made by the National Endowments for the Arts and the Humanities, two of the leading agencies: in effect, they say that what's most worth preserving and extending in our culture has been contributed by men of privilege and European heritage. This pattern of subsidy will have to change. Instead of mimicking private philanthropy, public funding should be invested in communities, institutions, and organizations working to advance cultural democracy and support diversity.

    The electronic media's great potential to foster diversity has instead been used to stifle it. Reagan administration deregulation has diminished democratic control of broadcasting and cable franchising and accelerated consolidation of power within the cultural industries. Meager support for independent media has declined even further. A policy of cultural democracy would require a shift in government's entire stance toward the great interlocking complex of film, radio, television, publishing, and recording.

    Current policy incorporates a clumsy and arbitrary division between commercial cultural enterprises (allowed to do pretty much as they please) and nonprofit cultural institutions (where government grants help to fill the gap between aspiration and income). The new democratic policy must address the cultural industries as a whole because there is an intrinsic relationship between commercial culture and the nonprofit realm. Hollywood corporations may be able to make almost anything, but they can't manufacture one ingredient vital to their existence: creative imagination. Independent artists and arts groups constitute a huge, vibrant, and largely uncompensated research and development wing of the cultural industries. Ideas originate at the grassroots; they spring up in the streets, pass from galleries to museums and from clubs to concert halls, then return to the streets via radio, TV, and movies.

    The most effective public role is to nourish the roots of this massive system. By financing independent production, and setting up alternative distribution systems and retail outlets that escape the stranglehold of the majors, public action can help introduce independent voices into a system dominated by a chorus of cash registers.

    Many countries have discovered ways to harness economic success at the top of the cultural industries to provide sustenance for the grassroots. Developing nations swamped by I Love Lucy reruns have levied tariffs on imported programs to generate support for domestic production. Independent media in the United States can be seen as an underdeveloped nation in the shadow of a rich, fat commercial realm. A full-scale development program is needed: The advertising revenues of commercial broadcasters could be taxed to finance independent production. A fee could be assessed on transfers of commercial broadcast licenses, to provide funds for public radio and television. A substantial annual percentage of public broadcasting budgets could be earmarked for independent projects. These would be decent first steps, but much more is needed to redress the imbalance in the nation's airwaves.

    These initiatives must be backed up by a long-term national commitment to media literacy. We all know the critical importance of written literacy to a democratic society; people who are unable to read and write are at the mercy of those who can. The same applies to mastery of electronic media. Too many of us see television as a fixture of the natural world, something that just happens. We are at the mercy of those who understand that electronic media are products and tools of human agency.

    The next administration should make media literacy a national educational priority: every high school graduate should have basic knowledge of audio, video, and film production as well as the psychological, physiological, and social dimensions of the media's influence. Every citizen should understand how the media have developed, who owns and controls them, how public policy affects these developments, and how to be a critical consumer of media. As media literacy grows, so will the pool of talent and initiative that can diversify and democratize the media.

    Encouraging Public Participation

    There is no democracy in a land of couch potatoes. A vibrant culture continuously multiplies opportunities for participation. One of the main goals of the new democratic cultural policy should be to stimulate active participation in community life in all its forms, including political life. This would be a radical redirection. Key federal agencies now channel the lion's share of their budgets to selected end products -- works of scholarship or art -- rather than the means for cultural creation. The resulting need to decide which ends are most worthy has led to a baroque, exclusive fascination in the public sector with questions of taste, and a national policy that looks more toward developing markets for symphony and ballet tickets than to an active, engaged citizenry.

    Access is fundamental to democratic cultural life. Free and low-cost facilities for amateur sports, exhibitions, studio work, performances and rehearsals, and community broadcasting should be available to everyone. Expensive tools such as darkroom equipment, light and sound systems, film and video cameras, kilns, and printing presses should be available for public use in community centers. Government should finance needed services such as classes and workshops, graphic design assistance, and pools of scripts, costumes, props, and scenery. Underused public buildings -- for instance, schools and government offices after hours -- should have second lives as community cultural centers.

    To enliven political life, every arena should be made available for debate: schools and public halls thrown open for town meetings, theaters presenting relevant work, exhibition spaces featuring visual contributions to the dialogue, multitudes of publications giving voice to every stripe of opinion. Community animation projects should be supported, making artists and organizers available as public resources, helping their neighbors use cultural tools to articulate their own concerns and aspirations.

    Livelihood for Creative Workers

    As we strive to remedy chronic unemployment, we must broaden our definition of work to include occupations having social value but lacking commercial markets. Our workforce includes many thousands with training in cultural fields but unable to find jobs that put their skills to good use. The centerpiece of the next administration's cultural policy should be a contemporary version of the 1930s' “Federal One,” the constellation of Works Progress Administration projects in the visual arts, theater, music, writing, history, and other areas of cultural development.

    Unlike today's public policymakers, who play follow-the-leader with the private sector, the architects of Federal One sensibly decided that public intervention should be focused where private initiative had failed. Where theaters had gone under because audiences lacked money for tickets, the government created a new Federal Theatre, putting performers, writers, and technicians to work throughout the nation, making theater an affordable entertainment and a critical arena for social dialogue. Where private wealth was unable or unwilling to preserve our history, government workers produced such invaluable materials as the slave narratives recorded by the Federal Writers' Project.

    More recent experience hints at the impact such a cultural employment program could have today. In the mid-Seventies, at the height of the CETA (Comprehensive Employment and Training Act) jobs program , thousands of artists were employed in public service. Across the country, CETA workers formed performing troupes to work with school children, at senior centers, and in the summertime streets. CETA jobs fueled dozens of murals, new publications, documentaries, community gardens, workshop programs, neighborhood beautification projects.

    A new Federal One could pick up where these earlier initiatives left off -- or more precisely, were cut off mid-stream by reaction in Congress or the White House. A new WPA could provide staffing for the publicly-subsidized community facilities that democratic cultural life demands. Artists employed in public service could operate media literacy campaigns, set up distribution networks for independent media, and work on community animation projects.

    Smaller public initiatives can also help create economic opportunity for artists and cultural workers. Potential lies in one of the great ironies of the post-industrial age: the rising cost of energy is reversing some of the economic advantages of centralized mass production and distribution. Planners discovered this during the redevelopment of Washington's Pennsylvania Avenue. They learned that a wrought iron grille to protect the soil around a tree could be designed and fabricated by a local sculptor for less than the cost of buying it ready-made from a foundry and paying hefty shipping charges. It has become economically viable to commission local artisans to create street furniture, interior furnishings, implements, artifacts, and decorative embellishments.

    The next administration should adopt a two-pronged program for reviving artisanship in the United States: helping establish networks to put local artisans in touch with businesses and public agencies who could use their services; and offering tax incentives for employing local artisans rather than purchasing mass-produced items. This is just one example of how the next administration could encourage the development of local cultural life by opening economic niches for creative workers.

    Under the present system of public support for artists, need is not a criterion. In fact, it's sometimes a debit. With public policy modelled on private patronage, the safest grant is one given to an artist who has already been proven worthy by attracting private money. This silly supposition -- that if you need the money, you probably don't deserve it -- should be overturned by the next administration.

    International Cultural Relations

    Under the Reagan administration, the United States has become more than ever estranged from international cultural discourse. Reagan's withdrawal from UNESCO was the most striking indication of his indifference to global cultural problems.

    One of the next administration's first actions should be to re-enter UNESCO as an expression of commitment to the United Nations' Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which incorporates the right to culture. Within UNESCO, the United States should take an active stance in favor of cultural democracy. Instead of being guided by special interests -- for instance, the Motion Picture Export Association's campaign against foreign restrictions on film imports from the United States -- our government should work with developing nations, helping them to build their indigenous cultural production and preservation capabilities.

    Existing cultural exchange programs affect very few people outside prestigious institutions. This is a pity because we have a great deal to learn from other nations. The next administration should launch an intensive cultural exchange program with three components. First, the federal government should finance exchange between U.S. ethnic communities and their heritage cultures abroad, expanding on the Smithsonian's similar work as part of the American Folklife Festival. This 1976 Bicentennial program enabled Swedish-American fiddlers from Seattle and Minneapolis, for example, to meet and work with their counterparts in Sweden and perform in different parts of this country. Second, to educate creative workers in the United States for roles in implementing the new democratic cultural policy, there should be a substantial international exchange program aimed at widening our repertoire of methods and approaches. Third, the next administration should open our doors to artists and scholars from around the world, without political restriction. American cultural missions abroad should function as satellite centers of cultural democracy, with libraries, visiting artists and groups, readings, and screenings of material which may not be freely available in host countries.

    Department of Cultural Development

    To make all of this possible, the federal cultural apparatus has to change. The United States needs a cabinet-level department to create and implement a responsive policy of cultural democracy. The overall aim of this new department should be to stimulate cultural vitality and diversity, always increasing access and participation, multiplying forms and styles, encouraging creativity, invention, and artistic freedom.

    The new Department of Cultural Development would oversee a coordinated federal policy that enables the greatest possible degree of structural decentralization. Its direct authority should be restricted to those aspects of public cultural responsibility best accomplished at the national level: protecting cultural rights; nationwide research; training; information exchange; skills-sharing; distribution; financing national or regional projects; and acting as a funder of last resort for projects too experimental or controversial to attract local funding. Everything else -- including most of what is taken on by existing federal agencies -- should be devolved to more responsive local authorities. Lasting commitment to decentralizing authority and encouraging public participation in policymaking must extend to every corner of the new federal apparatus.

    The purview of this new department would encompass the arts and humanities, recreation and sports, electronic media, libraries, museums, minority cultural affairs, key aspects of public education, and international exchange. This would lend coherence to the extensive array of atomized agencies and programs now receiving federal appropriations, directly or through allied agencies, including: the National Endowments for the Arts and the Humanities, the Federal Communications Commission, the Public Broadcasting Service, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, National Public Radio, the Library of Congress, the Institute for Museum Services, and programs within such agencies as the Bureau of Indian Affairs and the Departments of the Interior, Housing and Urban Development, Commerce, State, Labor, and Education.

    Monitoring Cultural Impact

    A democratic policy requires that government be held accountable for its cultural impact. No single department should have the task of monitoring cultural impact; a Big Brother is the last thing we need. Responsibility should be shared by numerous agencies and representative bodies, each assessing cultural impact within its own purview, preventing or ameliorating harm, and showing us where remedial actions are needed.

    A cultural impact report should be part of every government process to design legislation, plan programs, or regulate public and private initiatives. When a developer proposes to tear down an old neighborhood to make way for a new shopping center or factory, the residents' cultural rights must be given standing alongside economic, environmental, health, and legal considerations. When a corporation applies for the franchise to lay cable in a community and offer subscription television, the requirements of local cultural development must be brought into the negotiations from the start.

    The United States badly needs an administration which can mobilize the same kind of creative imagination in the social arena that artists bring to conceiving works of art. These proposals are only a beginning. To those who suggest we cannot afford to undertake a national campaign for cultural democracy, we reply that we cannot afford not to do so.

    Today, our cultural values as a nation are symbolized by the way we have been squandering our national wealth -- as a stockpiler and merchant of arms, with no apparent higher priority than manufacturing death. The next administration can begin to renew this country's cultural vitality by turning toward cultural democracy: pluralism, participation, and equity in a democratic society.


    Arlene Goldbard and Don Adams are writers and consultants in organizational and cultural development. They established their consulting firm, Adams & Goldbard, in 1978, and have been based in Ukiah, California since 1985.

    This originally appeared as a chapter in Winning America: Ideas and Leadership for the 1990s, a collection of public policy proposals edited by Marcus Raskin and Chester Hartman and published in 1988 by the Institute for Policy Studies and South End Press.

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