One Year Anniversary Remarks

The following remarks were made by Deputy Secretary Norman Beckett on the occasion of the USDAC's one-year anniversary during a ceremony held on September 27th, 2014, aboard the Floating Library at Pier 25 in New York City. A full report and photos from the occasion will be posted soon.

Friends, collaborators, Citizen Artists, welcome aboard the USS USDAC. I’m Norman Beckett, Deputy Secretary of Art and Culture. It’s a great honor and pleasure to be here with you as we celebrate the one-year anniversary of the U.S. Department of Arts and Culture. A lot has happened over this past year. I’d like to take this opportunity to reflect on our journey to date, and I’d like to share a bit of what lies ahead. 

But first let’s ground ourselves in the here and now. 

I invite you to take a deep breath. And to shake it all out a little. I invite you to turn to a neighbor. Look them in the eyes. Maintain eye contact, and if you’ll give me your trust for a moment, please repeat after me: You. Are. Not. My. Enemy.

This is not a typical office place. But we’re not a typical department. We have no federal line item or governmental affiliation. Rather, we’re a people-powered, artist-driven department, committed to harnessing creativity in the service of a more just and vibrant world. Cave paintings from thousands of years ago depict our ancestors dancing, not sitting in meetings. So, in our pop-up headquarters, devoid of board rooms and conference calls, we’re really taking our cue from the world’s first artists.

Aboard this boat, temporarily known as the USS USDAC, we are charting the often perilous waters of culture shift. As culture-makers is it our job to rock the boat or to keep it afloat? I say, yes! As our global ecological and economic systems teeter on the brink, as inequality rises, as racism persists, as the climate warms, as political stalemate stalls action on urgent issues, as corporate interests drive policy agendas, as the waters literally rise, we know that to change the world we’re going to have change the story. We know that we cannot sustain life on this planet with a story of business as usual, but must begin to tell a new story, where people and planet come first.

We also know that culture precedes politics.

And so, aboard the USS USDAC we’re asking: how might we sail from a culture of consumption to one of creation? From one of passivity to one of participation? From one of isolation to one of interdependence? And what’s the role of artists, creativity, and imagination in making that cultural change on a mass scale? 

Really, what we’re talking about here is nothing less than paradigm shift. Thomas Kuhn the historian of science who popularized the phrase paradigm shift, defines paradigm as “an entire constellation of beliefs, values, techniques, and so on, shared by the members of a given community…as a set of unassailable, unconsciously accepted truths.”

The consumer-oriented paradigm was and is a deliberate, crafted creation and it’s up to us to define and create the paradigm that eclipses it.

How many folks here have heard of Victor Lebow? He was considered an architect of modern advertising and corporate culture. In 1955 he wrote:
“Our enormously productive economy demands that we make consumption our way of life, that we convert the buying and use of goods into rituals, that we seek our spiritual satisfactions, our ego satisfactions, in consumption. These commodities and services must be offered to the consumer with a special urgency. We need things consumed, burned up, worn out, replaced, and discarded at an ever increasing pace. We need to have people eat, drink, dress, ride, live, with ever more complicated and, therefore, constantly more expensive consumption.” 

As this consumption-as-ritual paradigm has taken hold we’ve witnessed an unprecedented privatization and eradication of the commons—of the creations of both nature and society that belong to all of us equally and should be maintained for future generations.

We’re losing species at an alarming rate, and human languages as well. We’re losing our water, air, land, seeds, public spaces, our traditions and cultural heritage. 

With a diminished number and quality of commons experiences in our own lives, our capacity to imagine what a thriving commons could look like and how it could come to be in the 21st century is also at stake.

Yet, as commons activists such as Julie Ristau and Alexa Bradley have helped articulate, within us there’s a yearning – a gnawing desire for deeper connection with the people and natural world that sustain us, an impulse emerging from the depth of our consciousness saying that another world is possible. At the USDAC we believe that artists can help lead the charge to that world. We’re committed to a radical reclaiming of imagination and to cultivating the empathy and creativity needed to preserve and to grow our commons.  

What new rituals will we create to change the paradigm and to reclaim the commons? As artists, how will we, as James Baldwin puts it, lay bare the questions which have been hidden by the answers? 

In a addition to a crisis of the commons, this country is suffering a crisis of cultural citizenship—not the kind of citizenship that demands papers at border-crossings, but the kind that leaves millions feeling unwelcome in their own communities, unknown to their own neighbors, unacknowledged for their contributions to society. Artists and creative organizers understand that culture is the wellspring of social change, that everyone has a story, and that our devaluing of creativity (as by cutting education, arts, and community development funding) diminishes our capacity to connect across difference and to build bonds of genuine empathy. 

So, how do we change the story? The obstacles are enormous and the cards are stacked. Every day the U.S. spends more than twice our national arts agency’s annual budget on war. What’s a people-powered department to do?

We can't solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them, said Albert Einstein. And to add the words of musician Sun Ra: "We have tried everything possible and none of it has worked. Now we must try the impossible.”

So, over the past year, the USDAC has been flirting with the impossible. Let me give you a quick highlights reel. 

One year ago, we launched with a press conference. With little more than a handful of buttons and a Statement of Values we imagined this new department into existence, asking: how might we shift art and culture from the margins to the center of civil society, given their true value and support as catalysts for social transformation?

One week later we were denounced by conservative pundit Glenn Beck, who warned his viewers [and I quote] “I guarantee you, with what they have just started, if you don’t have an equal and opposite reaction then in five years, the country is gone, with no chance of resetting.” 

With this stamp of disapproval we journeyed on, putting out a call for founding Cultural Agents to bring the USDAC and its values (which you have on the handout) to life in their communities. 

From more than 100 applications we chose 15 wildly qualified Agents of all ages, from all around the country, and began a series of training calls to prepare for our pilot round of Imaginings.  

These Imaginings, part performance, part facilitated dialogue, part celebration, bring together community members to imagine what their neighborhoods (and the world) might look like in the year 2034, when art’s transformative power has been fully integrated into all aspects of public life. 

Bernice Johnson Reagon the great singer in Sweet Honey and the Rock said that, “When you begin to imagine and act as if you live in the world you want to live in, you will have company.” 

And sure enough, in June and July more than 2,500 people came together in eleven towns and cities across the country to participate in these Imaginings. Our founding Cultural Agents used collaborative collages, live music, parades, facilitated dialogues, theatrical improvisations, time machines, open mics, and much more to engage Citizen Artists of all stripes in developing local visions for what USDAC mission accomplished looks like. 

As we like to say, the USDAC is not an outside agency coming in. It’s our inside agency coming out.

All of this was just the beginning. Imagination is the voyage into the land of the infinite. So where do we go from here? 

Agents who really tapped into the energy of their communities are now opening Field Offices, essentially local chapters of the USDAC. These Field Offices will begin to translate the ideas that came out of Imaginings into tangible local reality. 

In Tucson, Arizona, they’ve already created an after school arts program for refugee youth, and led a delegation of artists across the border to meet their colleagues in Mexico. 

In Germantown, Philadelphia, the local Citizen Artists are exploring what it would take to turn the abandoned high school into a cultural center.

In Lawrence, Kansas they’re exploring what it might take to implement a Cultural Impact Report. Since the 1970s the federal government has mandated environmental impact reports, whereby developers must first look at the potential negative environmental impacts of proposed initiatives. Well what if we could look at the cultural impacts? What if places were valued because of how much meaning they held in community? How many stories and memories had been generated and are stored there? How many bridges across cultures are built there? In Kansas, Agent Dave will be exploring the feasibility of implementing such a mandate, which could, if successful, ripple across many other sites. 

So across the country, USDAC Field Offices are opening to take on these kinds of local projects, and there will be another application for Cultural Agents announced later this winter.

Meanwhile, we’re in the early stages of designing a series of reimagined American Holidays that anyone anywhere can take part in. Stay tuned for opportunities to host a People’s State of the Union in late January, and to join us in celebrating the 5th of July, as we move from Independence to Interdependence.

We’re also building out a Shadow Cabinet of policy wonks and experienced practitioners to help translate some of the ideas that emerge on the ground into new policy and program proposals that could be enacted regionally or nationally.

And we’re beginning to explore how to harness technology to 1) seed the creation of online affinity groups, 2) source and spread participatory campaigns and projects, and 3) put out calls for large-scale creative response.

Our approach is a networked one, exploring the possibility for collective impact while maintaining that real change happens, as Eleanor Roosevelt, said “In small places, close to home – so close and so small that they cannot be seen on any maps of the world.”

What would the world look like if everyone's cultural traditions and creative contributions were valued in small places close to home?

In pursuit of that world, I’m asking you not just to help barn-raise the new people-powered department but also to help disband it, to make it one day obsolete. 

Friends, we have a ways to go to get there. 

It’s been said that a sailor is an artist whose medium is the wind. But one cannot wield the wind as a painter might a brush or a musician a guitar. The sailor’s medium then, must be the sail. To quote E.F. Schumacher: "We cannot raise the wind, but each of us can put up the sail, so that when the wind comes we can catch it." Once we catch that wind, do we know exactly where we’ll end up? No. But we do have a north star, a sense of direction. We envision, to borrow a phrase from civil rights leader James Lawson: “a social order of justice permeated with love.” 

Last week some 400,000 people marched in this city, calling for urgent action in the face of climate change. There are more than 20 million people in this country who consider themselves artists. What might we accomplish together? 

By being here today, you’ve become a part of the USDAC story. If you haven’t yet please do enlist as a Citizen Artist. You don’t have to be a citizen in the legal sense of the word, or an artist to do so! Indeed, this Department is itself a collaborative work of art that asks everyone to play a part. Of the world’s many limited resources, creativity is not one. We have it in abundant supply and can harness it together, as artists of society, working to widen our collective circle of care. 

Thank you for joining us here today. Thank you to the Floating Library for inviting us on board. We look forward to the journey ahead!