Research on arts and culture policy is not a flourishing field. While there is a Society for Social Theory, Politics and the Arts that holds annual meetings, their research tends to be narrowly focused and lacks the broad framework that could lead to greater impact. Such a framework needs to confront the implications of the rapidly changing demographic profile of the U.S., and the new ways in which people are engaging with the arts. And this framework would need to consider the implications of these changes for the future of arts and cultural policy.
While the concepts “economic policy”, “educational policy” and “health policy” have more or less understandable referents, the concept “cultural policy” most often elicits a cognitive blank. For most areas of policy there are clear guidelines on how policy is related to specific sectors, but cultural policy is buried under other policy sectors. Culture, in the United States, is never at the center of policy.
It is not as if thoughtful individuals have not noticed this and tried to do something about it. In the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, James Allen Smith (then the president of the Gilman Foundation) tried to interest other foundations in an arts and cultural policy program, but encountered considerable resistance. He did, however, succeed in getting several smaller foundations to fund a Center for Arts and Culture. Then, in 1999 the Pew Charitable Trusts announced a five-year, $50 million program to encourage policymakers to focus on issues like arts financing, intellectual property rights, zoning in historic areas and an arts curriculum for public schools. They recognized, in the words of Marion Godfrey, that “we have no organizing framework for this remarkable cultural richness and no overall context in which to understand and nurture it.” A drop in the endowment, however, led Pew to terminate the initiative almost before it started. Some 14 years later we still lack any overall framework that defines a field of cultural policy studies, and there are few scholars engaged in exciting research related to cultural policy.
Why should we revisit the issue? The issue of cultural policy is no less important today than it was a decade and a half ago; arguably it is even more important because of the profound and rapid changes taking place in technology, in the increasingly diverse racial, ethnic and religious makeup of the nation, and the squeezing out of arts education under the pressure of increased emphasis on math and science education.