Meeting in the Middle: Toward a Cultural Policy, in the Balance
Our cultural policies, on both sides of the Atlantic and at every level of government, are tasked as never before with shaping our cities and communities. Culture is a new international currency and the arts its tender.
Irrespective of the geography, city leaders have appraised the value and power of the arts as an important part of the information economy, as a medium to have difficult political conversations, and as a means to engage people in important civic conversations. Urban policy and cultural policy have become more and more synonymous.
A global populist movement has eroded the pact created after the last world war. While many leaders have remained steadfast in believing that “sound” policy solutions will persuade voters and constituents, it has become clear that our new world order is punctuated by cultural fissures: a diminution of shared identity in favor of protectionism; few spaces to engage in discourse; and a revanchist attitude over changing societies.
Cultural policymakers on both continents have mobilized their toolkits in service of this new front, and they have done so in ways that reflect their legacies arts investments. While generalizing is not fair nor accurate, some trends are worth articulating. European cultural policy emerged from a tradition of states-based patronage and has evolved into a progressive system of supranational, national, and local actors subsidizing arts activities. While the motivations of each actor remain distinct, there is in Europe a willingness to invest in the arts as a human and cultural right.
The United States, and its tradition of manifest libertarianism, has had to identify how the arts can perform and be instrumental. For example, one of the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) most successful initiatives has been the Military Healing Arts Partnership, where arts therapy activities have helped returning soldiers recover and transition into civilian life. There is some suspicion of public investment in the arts, but Americans by-and-large appreciate and support the arts as an important part of society.
Even as cultural policy finds itself more and more at the table, there is a key gap that limits the ability of cultural policy to infuse itself throughout our communities.
The NEA has also led the development of a new arts-based community development strategy, called creative placemaking, where, “partners from public, private, non-profit, and community sectors strategically shape the physical and social character of a neighborhood, town, city, or region around arts and cultural activities.” This practice has been embraced across the country and by national foundations and organizations to embed the arts in community development.
However, even as cultural policy finds itself more and more at the table, there is a key gap that limits the ability of cultural policy to infuse itself throughout our communities.
The gap can be described as the challenge of negotiation, between complex organizations and institutions — like governments or corporations — and the individual and collective interests of people and community members. Top-down versus bottom-up. In the cultural policy space for example, most of the funding stakeholders are large foundations, government entities, or even private philanthropists. These funders typically direct these resources to smaller entities: individual artists, local community groups, and small cultural organizations. This dynamic creates imbalances in power and authority, despite even the best intentions of both.
Most cultural policy experts aspire to see the arts embedded in systems and practices at every level of our community lives: artist innovators in city governments, artist community organizers, creative sector unions, etc. What is needed to make cultural systemic and not ad hoc is a new idea: the intermediary.
The intermediary will ensure that the governments and organizations hear the unique needs of artists and residents. The intermediary would be able to balance many perspectives at once and articulate a common vision. The intermediary would have the ear of people in power and people on the street, and have the respect of both. The intermediary can be many an individual or an organization so long as they understand their value as an important conduit and translator.
In Moabit, Berlin, a neighborhood just north of the Reichstag and characterized by a large Turkish population, the Zentrum for Kunst und Urbanistik (ZK/U) provides a great example of what that looks like. Located in an abandoned railroad depot, this organization has found a way to meet two needs: one, a site for an international artist residency; and two, a dynamic community organization and public park.
The local government did not have the means to operate and program this site and the arts collective did not have space to conduct their residency. ZK/U now operates as an intermediary, hosting community events and forums, working with artists from around the world, and providing a public space. They also have close ties to the government and national/international funding partners and can speak up when an important community issue arises.
Institutionally, MitOst demonstrates another expression of the intermediary partner. One of their signature programs, Actors for Urban Change, support local actors to use the arts to support a local change. These actors, because of MitOst’s connections and perspective, are imbued with even more power to create this change. MitOst serves as a convener of European policy and local issues and a way for local actors to be part of that conversation.
American cultural policy has also identified the need to create intermediaries. A group of public sector and philanthropic leaders have been investing in a “catalysts” group of national nonprofits, like the Local Impact Support Communities, Transportation for America, Enterprise, and The Trust for Public Land, to embed arts based practices into their regular programming and policies. These organizations have both national profiles in the policy space and local offices across the country. These intermediaries often serve as bridges between complex institutions and residents who can benefit from housing, transportation, or public space.
At its core, the idea of the intermediary is a bridge. In today’s world of populism and xenophobia, intermediaries can use cultural policy to make important inroads in two ways. They can help people feel more connected to the social systems — like governments and institutions — that allow for a functioning civil society. Intermediaries can use the arts to make us feel connected to each other and to our collective selves. Intermediaries can also help to bridge the identity politics that are dampening our ability to build strong societies. They can help us to understand our differences and our similarities and use this solidarity to create sustainable communities.
Doing so will require collaboration and innovation across sectors and across geographies. Arts funding comes from a variety of sources and is invested for a variety of purposes. These actors will need to find a common platform and desire to make change in the world. What is heartening though is that this is already starting to happen, and can only get stronger.
Matthew Clarke is a 2017 German Marshall Fund Urban Policy Fellow. He is the Director of Creative Placemaking at the Trust for Public Land. He recently released the Field Guide for Creative Placemaking and Parks, available as an e-book here.
The views expressed in GMF publications and commentary are the views of the author alone.