The following speech was read by Deputy Secretary Norman Beckett in Syracuse, NY on October 5th, 2013. 

Ladies and gentleman, esteemed colleagues. It’s an honor to be with you today. I’m very grateful that despite the federal government shutdown, I’ve been invited here to share with you some exciting new.Imagine, for a moment, that your favorite music is playing right now – whatever that may be. Find that sound. Turn up the volume. Let that music flood your ears.

And I invite you to imagine that behind me there’s a backdrop of your choice. A painting or photograph, a color or pattern. You create the scene.

And I invite you to check in with your body at this moment. Breathe into it. Move it if you want. And -- at any point -- dance if you need to.

Indeed, I invite you to infuse this entire moment with your own imagination, for while I do have “prepared remarks” of a serious nature to make, they are incomplete without the creativity that you bring to them.

So, we’ve imagined sights and sounds. We’re here, in our bodies. We’re alive.

And we’re alive at a strange time.

This is an era of broken systems—from healthcare to energy to education to the way our entire economy is structured. We inhabit a planet on the verge. The problems are complex, the solutions uncertain, but there is one truth we can hold onto: if we are going to keep our society and planet healthy, all people must be empowered to imagine and enact alternatives for a better world. In order to do this, to cultivate effective co-creators of new systems better aligned with equity and sustainability – we must deepen our investment in the tools and tactics that grow empathy, imagination, and the capacity to collaborate. We must encourage creative risks. We must nourish the artist in us all.

And we know how; you’ve shown us the way.

You’ve danced, sung, painted, performed, connected, and celebrated. You’ve turned abandoned warehouses into thriving cultural centers, co-created public artworks that revitalize entire neighborhoods, built pop-up libraries and taken the streets with border-defying cultural festivals. Making something beautiful out of very little, you’ve harnessed the transformative power of art, culture, and collaboration to challenge assumptions, to reimagine what’s possible, to bridge divides, and to create more just and joyful places to live.

In so doing you’ve allowed us a glimpse of a future in which vibrant cultural expression is the norm. You’ve shown us just how much more is possible when we truly invest in our stories, our rituals, and our bursting creative souls.

But for too long, we’ve held back. For too long, we’ve believed that everything that counts can be counted, ignoring the vital role that cultural diversity and exchange plays in advancing equity, innovation, and democracy. For too long we’ve taken a fragmented approach to cultural policy, failing to provide empowering creative experiences for all. But the facts can be ignored no longer. Art matters, not because it’s nice, but because it’s necessary. Creative citizens are better citizens. Participatory artistic practice is a gateway to ongoing civic engagement. Our communities and institutions are stronger and more resilient with art, culture, and collaboration at the core.

Our undervaluing of art’s central role in advancing society has gone on for too long, and so I am here today to offer an apology and an invitation. Today, we start to close the gap. Today, it is my great pleasure and honor to announce the launch of the U.S. Department of Arts and Culture.  

This new Department, created by Executive Order – and by us all – recognizes that humanity’s most critical task at this moment of history is expanding our circle of care to enable our collective survival and thriving. Harnessing the transformative power of arts and culture to do just that, the USDAC holds the following truths to be self-evident:

1. Culture is a human right. As expressed in the 1948 United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights, “Everyone has the right to freely participate in the cultural life of the community.” It is our sacred duty to remove impediments to the exercise of this right and to ensure that the means to exercise this right are available to all.

2. Culture is created by everyone. The art, customs, creative expressions, and social fabric of every community and heritage contribute to the vitality of our common culture. Our cultural institutions and policies should reflect this, rather than privileging favorites. 

3. Cultural diversity is a social good and the wellspring of free expression. Its support and protection requires the equitable distribution of both public and private resources, particularly to correct past injustices and balance an excess of commercialization. We must create a healthy arts ecology in which no sector dominates or controls cultural expression.

4. The work of artists is a powerful driver of social good. Artists can play a pivotal role in community development, education, healthcare, protection of our commonwealth, and other democratic public purposes. Indeed, artists’ skills of observation, improvisation, innovation, resourcefulness, and creativity enhance all human activity.

While this Department may be new, the ideas motivating it are not. Countries around the world have robust ministries of culture from which we are learning as we develop the USDAC. And we have our own history, of course, from which to draw inspiration as well. The Arts and Crafts movement at the turn of the 20th century counteracted the dehumanizing effects of industrialization, encouraging widespread artistic participation. During the 1930s New Deal, the Works Progress Administration created more than 8.5 million jobs building infrastructure, painting murals, creating living theater, teaching school, preserving musical heritage, and more. And, again, in the 1970s artists received federal funding to partner with organizations working in the public interest, thereby addressing unemployment and strengthening social fabric.

At every moment of crisis and opportunity, artists and cultural workers have been eager to use their gifts in the service of democratic public purpose. Today is no different.

Under the new Department we will develop a national Culture Corps that employs artists, cultural workers, and heritage bearers that place their gifts at the service of community. We will integrate arts-based learning in public and private education at all levels, we will invite artists to the policy table and, indeed, infuse imagination, artistry, and creative tactics across all sectors.

When you think of the great civilizations of the past, what comes to mind? Perhaps it’s their scientific achievements…Perhaps, it’s their art. Great civilizations invest in culture. And great works of art help us access our shared humanity. John F. Kennedy had it right when he said, “I see little of more importance to the future of our country and our civilization than full recognition of the place of the artist.”

Yet this Department is also founded on a radical widening of the definition of the term artist. In keeping with this nation’s democratic founding principles, we assert that anyone can step up as a Citizen Artist or a Cultural Agent. Anyone can call on the most basic tools of human aliveness—song, dance, ritual, the sharing of food and stories around a central fire—to recover personal agency and to realign our broken systems with justice and sustainability. In this technology-driven era of constant connectivity and isolation, holding these shared cultural spaces of creation, exchange, and reflection reinforces our humanity – connecting us meaningfully to each other, to our roots, and to the future we craft together.

Do you still have your music playing? Find it again. And let us all take a breath, as we approach the finale.

Of the world’s many crises, a creativity crisis is not among them. Indeed, creativity is one of the world’s greatest renewable resources. We have it in abundant supply. It is time that we channel that liveliness and imagination in addressing our nation’s spiritual and material needs and our world’s greatest challenges.

And that’s where you come in. This Department is itself a collaborative work of art that asks you to play your part by deploying the resilience, resourcefulness, and imagination of artists at their best. The government is shut down. And we may not have a federal line item once it’s back and running. But we have each other. Together, we are the USDAC. Together, we create the world we wish to inhabit. Together, we spark a movement dedicated to cultivating equity, empathy, and social change through creative action.

Let us meet on the street corners to sing, let us convert our abandoned box stores into cultural centers, let us dance in the parks and fill our institutions with storytellers. Let us ensure that all young people have access to quality creative experiences, and the opportunity to continue creative pursuits throughout their lives. Let’s remember and celebrate our cultural treasures and traditions, our languages and our foods. Let’s privilege participatory over passive culture. Creator culture over consumer culture. Let’s develop our towns and cities with an eye toward culture, and the fruitful interplay of many cultures, and let us create pathways for everyone to step up as an artist of society, working to widen our collective circle of care.

In the coming days and months we will be building and sharing new ways to strengthen our work together. But the act of collective imagination has already begun. I invite you to step up as a Citizen Artist or Cultural Agent with the new Department and play a leading role in the performance of a better world.

The USDAC starts here. It starts now. It starts with you. Thank you.