What would it look like if our communities adopted Cultural Policies and made decisions about local development based on an understanding of cultural—not just economic and environmental—impact? Here are some ideas and a sample policy that any community, organizations, town, or city could take on and adapt to their needs.

Cultural Policy for Your Community

Every community has a cultural policy, whether people know it or not. Public and private choices shape cultural life: whose culture is enshrined in museums and libraries? Whose voices count when planning public programs and facilities? Who has access to culture heritage and opportunity? How are social goods like funding, education, taxes, zoning and other regulations shaped and how do they affect artists and communities?

The USDAC exists to cultivate the public interest in art and culture and catalyze art and culture in the public interest. A key way to do that is to treat cultural policy decisions as important public concerns, not letting them be made in back rooms or by accident, but involving community members in considering, choosing, and asserting their communities’ cultural values. In essence, a cultural policy is a roadmap. Where is your community heading in developing a more vibrant, inclusive, and creative cultural life? What are your values and goals? How can they be used to assess and shape choices?

One project we hope Cultural Agents and Citizen Artists may want to take on is developing cultural policies for their own organizations, communities, counties, or even states. A cultural policy is like a contract between the government or organization that adopts it and the public. It says, “we will be guided by these values, principles, and agreements; they will shape our programs and hold us to our highest intentions.” Like a contract, it’s up to the parties to enforce it. When an agency or government adopts a cultural policy, it is giving citizens a yardstick: does behavior measure up to the claims made in policy? If not, speak up. Is input being solicited as to how people feel about a new initiative? Measure it according to whether or not it embodies and advances the aims recorded in cultural policy, and say what you think. Is local government or an important institution asking for ideas about how to do its job better? Compare performance to policy to get a very significant part of the answer.

Cultural policies can be very general or highly detailed and specific. (Here’s an example of the latter, the UN’s 2005 Convention on the Protection and Promotion of the Diversity of Cultural Expressions.)

We recommend starting with the basics: a statement of values and aims that can guide future actions and shape future decisions.

The rest of this section is a template for such a statement. It can be the basis for an exciting public dialogue that generates adaptations and/or additions that make it work for your community. If you want to pursue this, please get in touch: we’ll be glad to provide more information and suggest ways to go about it.

Template for A New Cultural Policy for [Your Organization, Community, County, or State]

America needs a bold new investment in culture, a policy recognizing that culture holds the key to a future we can believe in. We call on [fill in with all public officials; the Board of X organization; the state legislature, or whatever is appropriate] to support art’s public purpose to mend our social fabric, promote freedom of expression and a vibrant, inclusive national dialogue, and revitalize both education and commerce with the creativity that has always been the wellspring of our energy and success.

Culture can be a powerful economic driver, the catalyst to transform failed schools, a means to restore faith in America’s world role. Art enriches, beautifies, expresses and entertains, all good reasons to invest in artistic creativity. The crises we face demand new capacities for creativity, understanding, innovation, and mutual responsibility. Artists’ work offers a proven way to cultivate imagination and empathy, essential to national recovery and sustainable community.

The creative economy generates jobs and quality-of-life. Teaching artists cultivate imagination and problem-solving. Working in public service for public goals, artists’ skills at invention, improvisation, and inspiration are essential to success. At every moment of crisis and opportunity, artists and cultural organizers have been eager to use their gifts in the service of democratic public purpose. During the 1930s New Deal, the Works Progress Administration (WPA) created more than 8.5 million jobs building roads, bridges and parks, painting murals, creating living theater, teaching school, preserving musical heritage, and much more. Today is no different.

Five principles shape our cultural policy, guiding our actions, decisions, and advocacy:

1. We support creativity for the common good. Artists and cultural organizers contribute to every community, urban and rural, educating the whole student, cultivating resilience through public art projects, bringing the healing power of dance, drama and story to senior centers, hospitals and prisons, and more. They innovate, inspire and engage. In health, education, social services, employment and training, environment, transportation, community development, energy, international relations—every aspect of our democracy—both public and private sectors can be more effective by infusing their work with the power of culture, forging partnerships with artists and organizations, recognizing cultural action as a valid instrument of the public good. We are committed to making this happen.

2. We will engage everyone and promote cultural equity. Our cultural landscape is a rich and varied tapestry of heritage and new creation. The right to culture—to honor those who came before, express ourselves and take part in community life—is a core human right. Our cultural policy mandates equal opportunity to contribute to and benefit from cultural life, whether our families are indigenous to this land, have lived here for many decades or just arrived; whether we live in cities or the countryside; regardless of color, creed, orientation or physical ability. Equity, fairness and inclusion are the hallmarks of our support, protection and promotion of culture.  

3. We build on cultural memory, valuing heritage and rootedness. Every community’s cultural fabric is made of shared places, customs, values and creative acts. The stronger it is, the more likely that kids will stay in school, businesses will thrive, neighbors will celebrate and learn from each other. When we forget this, we pay a price. A key element of our cultural policy is the cultural impact assessment, modeled on laws assessing environmental impacts. We consider the human and cultural cost of public actions before approving plans. Instead of winners and losers, we strive for partnerships between community members, the public sector and entrepreneurs.

4. We are committed to putting artists to work in the public interest. The United States needs a “new WPA,” a public service jobs program addressing all our national goals—clean energy, excellent education, sound economy, good health and more. It should include putting artists and creative organizers to work for the common good using every art form and way of working: providing well-rounded education, sustaining and caring for the ill, engaging elders in creativity, rebuilding community infrastructure to reflect our best. Seventy-five years ago, the WPA supported five arts programs as part of FDR’s program to recover from the Great Depression. It worked. Today, we advocate a new public service jobs program that includes and values artists’ work for the public good, and will do all we can to start in our community.

5. We stand for free expression, supporting democratic media. Real democracy requires inclusive public conversation, respecting diverse voices, providing the proper tools for an open society. We stand for free cultural exchange and free speech, including robust public media and universal, affordable high-speed Internet access. Neither government nor corporations should have the right to control expression, exploit others or restrict devices or infrastructure for the widest possible information transmission. Free expression is one of our core values.

Note: much of this template is inspired by “Art & Public Purpose: A New Framework,” created by artists and cultural activists in 2009.