The U.S. Department of Arts and Culture (USDAC) could be a cabinet-level agency of the federal government—in your dreams, and in the dreams of its founders, a young artist-activist-instigator named Adam Horowitz and Arlene Goldbard, a veteran consultant, activist, and writer on cultural policy.
What the USDAC actually is, is a three-year-old grassroots network of artists, artist-organizers, cultural agitators, and others concerned with bringing the arts and culture (broadly defined) more fully into public discussion and policymaking. Having already gathered a major roster of collaborators and hosted gatherings to discuss these issues around the country, the USDAC is poised, at press time, to hold its first national convention, at which it will issue an ambitious policy statement.
A Colombian Brainstorm
Horowitz was on a Fulbright scholarship in Colombia in 2010, working with that country’s Ministry of Culture and, as he says, “wondering why we didn’t have something like it.” So he decided to create the “agency” on the spot. “From a Bogotá printer, I commissioned a couple hundred posters for something called the United States Department of Arts and Culture,” he says.
He began discussing with stateside friends just what the USDAC could be and do—maybe a twenty-first-century version of the WPA arts programs of the 1930s, he thought.
Soon, people were pointing Horowitz to Arlene Goldbard, author of New Creative Community, The Culture of Possibility, and other books on the very issues that were bubbling up for him. The two met and, as Goldbard puts it, “I thought, good! Here’s a young person with the energy to start something, and me, with the experience of discussing these issues and working in organizational development for many decades.”
They teamed up and formally launched the USDAC with a press conference in 2013 (see transcript in PAR issue 49, “Calling All Citizen Artists” ). In 2014 they put out a call for collaborators, to be dubbed Cultural Agents. “We were just giving a name to a role that alrea dy existed: artist-organizers doing this kind of work,” says Horowitz. “But we were creating a new platform and a new kind of connectivity for it.” They were swamped with 120 applications, from which they selected 15 for the first of three annual cohorts.
The Cultural Agents then organized Imaginings, local public gatherings in cities ranging from Philadelphia to Lawrence, Kansas, to Cedar Grove, North Carolina, in order to, as the USDAC website explains, “envision their towns and cities in twenty years when the full transformative power of art and culture has been integrated into the fabric of society, and…identify ways to get there.”
There was sufficient nationwide interest in the new “department” that its organizers then decided to push the doors open wider by creating larger events like the annual People’s State of the Union, a nationwide “civic ritual” focused on story circles in which citizens reflect on where the country is headed culturally and politically. And they created the Citizen Artist role, open to anybody just by signing up.
With wider options for participation, Horowitz says, came an expansion of the USDAC beyond the artist-activist world. “Librarians, people working in homeless shelters, in universities—people in so many settings are just hungry for ways of taking part in larger cultural actions,” he says. Since then they’ve set up other initiatives as well.
The USDAC is marking its coming of age with its first “national convening,” titled Culture/Shift 2016, two weeks after the presidential election: November 17–19, in St. Louis. There it will issue an official ten-point policy platform, authored by Goldbard and based on input from across the USDAC network.
The goal of the document, according to a statement Goldbard sent to PAR, is “to advance toward cultural democracy, a social order which embodies and affirms the right to culture in every aspect of our public and private policies; welcomes each individual as a whole, creative person; values each community’s heritage, contributions, and aspirations; promotes care, reciprocity, and open communication across all lines of difference; and dismantles all barriers to love and justice.”
The platform also offers practical measures that governments and private-sector organizations can use in putting those principles into practice, she says.
The conference itself will reflect the USDAC’s spirit of paradigm questioning and shifting. “We’re working really hard to make the convening different from what people expect when they hear the word conference,” Goldbard says. For one thing, the conference will cultivate a sense of place, in a city whose suburb, Ferguson, Missouri, has become a symbol of racial injustice and conflict. “Local people are creating a number of rituals of participation and guidance to situate people in place,” she says.
Goldbard hopes that the points in the policy statement will be taken seriously by policymakers. For now, “Calling ourselves a government department is lighthearted but serious too,” she says. “It’s a cool container for culture in the public interest and the public interest in culture.
“We say that we’re not an outside agency coming in; we’re an inside agency coming out.”