Cultural policy is the area of public policy-making that governs activities related to the arts and culture. Generally, this involves fostering processes, legal classifications and institutions which promote cultural diversity and accessibility, as well as enhancing and promulgating the artistic, ethnic, sociolinguistic, literary and other expressions of all people – especially those of indigenous or broadly representative cultural heritage. Applications of cultural policy-making at the nation-state level could include anything from providing community dance classes at little-to-no cost, to hosting corporate-sponsored art exhibitions, to establishing legal codes (such as the U.S. Internal Revenue Service’s 501(c)(3) tax designation for not-for-profit enterprises) and political institutions (such as the various ministries of culture and the National Endowment for the Humanities and the National Endowment for the Arts in the United States). Similar significant organisations in the United Kingdom include the Department for Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS), and Arts Council England.
Throughout much of the twentieth century, many of the activities that now compose cultural policy were governed under the title of "arts policy." However, as Kevin Mulcahy has observed, "cultural policy encompasses a much broader array of activities than were addressed under arts policy. Whereas arts policy was effectively limited to addressing aesthetic concerns, the significance of the transformation to cultural policy can be observed in its demonstrable emphases on cultural identity, valorization of indigineity and analyses of historical dynamics (such as hegemony and colonialism)."
Cultural policy, while a small part of the budgets of even the most generous of public patrons, governs a sector of immense complexity. It entails “a large, heterogeneous set of individuals and organizations engaged in the creation, production, presentation, distribution, and preservation of and education about aesthetic heritage, and entertainment activities, products and artifacts”. A cultural policy necessarily encompasses a broad array of activities and typically involves public support for:
- Heritage, battlefield and historic preservation sites
- Zoos, botanical gardens, arboretums, aquariums, parks
- Libraries and Museums (fine arts, scientific, historical)
- Visual arts (film, painting, sculpture, pottery, architecture)
- Performing arts (symphonic, chamber and choral music; jazz, hip-hop and folk music; ballet, ballroom and modern dance; opera and musical theatre; circus performances, rodeos and marching bands)
- Public humanities programs (public broadcasting, creative writing, poetry)
Since culture is a “well” (i.e., public value) and something that is “good for you,” governments have pursued programs to promote greater accessibility. In this conceptualization, significant aesthetic works should be made broadly available to the public. In other words, “high culture” should not be the exclusive preserve of a particular social class or of a metropolitan location. Rather, the benefits of the highest reaches of cultural excellence should be made in an egalitarian manner; national cultural treasures should be accessible without regard to the impediments of class circumstances, educational attainment or place of habitation. A democratic state cannot be seen as simply indulging the aesthetic preferences of a few, however enlightened, or of overtly infusing art with political values. Consequently, a democratic cultural policy must articulate its purposes in ways that demonstrate how the public interest is being served. These purposes have often been expressed as involving either the creation of cultural democracy or the democratization of culture.
The objective of cultural democratization is the aesthetic enlightenment, enhanced dignity, and educational development of the general citizenry. “Dissemination was the key concept with the aim of establishing equal opportunity for all citizens to participate in publicly organized and financed cultural activities”. To further this goal, performances and exhibitions are low cost; public art education promotes equality of aesthetic opportunity; national institutions tour and perform in work places, retirement homes and housing complexes.
As indicated earlier, the “democratization of culture” is a top-down approach that promulgates certain forms of cultural programming that are deemed to be a public good. Clearly, such an objective is open to criticism for what is termed cultural elitism; that is, the assumption that some aesthetic expressions are inherently superior - at least as determined by a cognoscenti concerned with the acquisition of cultural capital. “The problem with this policy [is] that, fundamentally, it intend[s] to create larger audiences for performances whose content [is] based on the experience of society’s privileged groups. In sum, it has… taken for granted that the cultural needs of all society’s members [are] alike”. The objective of cultural democracy, on the other hand, is to provide for a more participatory (or populist) approach in the definition and provision of cultural opportunities.
The coupling of the concept of democratization of culture to cultural democracy has a pragmatic as well as a philosophical component. Cultural patronage in democratic governments is markedly different from patronage by individuals. Private or politically paramount patrons are responsible only to themselves and are free to indulge in their taste preferences. Democratic governments, on the other hand, are responsible to the electorate and are held accountable for their policy decisions.
The two objectives just discussed - dissemination of high culture and participation in a broader range of cultural activities - evoke a related debate about the content of public culture: “elitist” or “populist.” Proponents of the elitist position argue that cultural policy should emphasize aesthetic quality as the determining criterion for public subvention. This view is typically supported by the major cultural organizations, creative artists in the traditionally defined field of the fine arts, cultural critics, and the well-educated, well-to-do audiences for these art forms. Ronald Dworkin terms this the “lofty approach,” which “insists that art and culture must reach a certain degree of sophistication, richness, and excellence in order for human nature to flourish, and that the state must provide this excellence if the people will not or cannot provide it for themselves”.
By contrast, the populist position advocates defining culture broadly and making this culture broadly available. The populist approach emphasizes a less traditional and more pluralist notion of artistic merit and consciously seeks to create a policy of cultural diversity. With a focus on personal enhancement, the populist’s position posits very limited boundaries between amateur and professional arts activities. Indeed, the goal is to provide opportunities for those outside the professional mainstream.
“Proponents of populism are frequently advocates of minority arts, folk arts, ethnic arts, or counter-cultural activities”. Cultural “elitists,” on the other hand, argue in support of excellence over amateurism and favor an emphasis on aesthetic discipline over “culture as everything.” There are “two key tensions for national cultural policy between the goals of excellence versus access, and between government roles as facilitator versus architect”.
In effect, elitism is cultural democracy as populism is to the democratization of culture. Unfortunately, there has been a tendency to see these positions as mutually exclusive, rather than complementary. “Elitists” are denounced as “high brow snobs” advocating an esoteric culture; populists are dismissed as “pandering philistines” promoting a trivialized and commercialized culture. However, these mutual stereotypes belie complementariness between two bookends of an artistically autonomous and politically accountable cultural policy. There is a synthesis that can be termed a “latitudinarian approach” to public culture; that is, one that is aesthetically inclusive and broadly accessible.
Such a public-cultural policy would remain faithful to the highest standards of excellence from a broad range of aesthetic expressions while providing the widest possible access to people from different geographic locales, socio-economic strata, and educational background. In conceiving of public policy as an opportunity to provide alternatives not readily available in the marketplace, public cultural agencies would be better positioned to complement the efforts of the private sector rather than duplicate their activities. Similarly, cultural agencies can promote community development by supporting artistic heritages that are at a competitive disadvantage in a cultural world that is increasingly profit-driven. In sum, excellence should be viewed as the achievements of greatness from a horizontal, rather than a vertical, perspective and a cultural policy as supporting the totality of these varieties of excellence.
These attitudes about a public cultural responsibility stand in marked contrast to much of the rest of the world, where culture is a question of historic patrimony, or the national identities of peoples, whether in independent states or regions within more powerful states. Inevitably, sensitive issues are involved in any discussion of culture as a public policy. However, given the demands in a democratic system that public policies show a return to the taxpayer, cultural policy has frequently argued for support on the basis of utility. It can be argued that there is a parity between the state’s responsibility for its citi’ social-economic-physical needs and their access to culture and opportunities for artistic self-expression. However, the aesthetic dimension of public policy has never been widely perceived as intuitively obvious or politically imperative. Accordingly, the cultural sector has often argued its case from the secondary, ancillary benefits that result from public support for programs that are seemingly only aesthetic in nature. Cultural policy is not typically justified solely on the grounds that it is a good-in-itself, but rather that it yields other good results.
The future of cultural policy would seem to predict an increasingly inexorable demand that the arts “carry their own weight” rather than rely on a public subsidy to pursue “art for art’s sake”. This “cultural Darwinism” is most pronounced in the United States where public subsidy is limited and publicly supported aesthetic activities are expected to demonstrate a direct public benefit. Non-American cultural institutions are less constrained by the need to maintain diversified revenue streams that demand high levels of earned income and individual and corporate donations to compensate for limited government appropriations.
On the other hand, cultural institutions everywhere are increasingly market-driven in their need for supplementary funds and as a justification for continued public support. The American model of an essentially privatized culture is increasingly attractive to governments seeking to curtail their cultural subsidies. In a system of mixed funding, public culture can nurture the arts groups and cultural activities that contribute to individual self-worth and community definition even if counting for less in the economic bottom-line. At root, a cultural policy is about creating public spheres that are not dependent upon profit motives nor validated by commercial values. As political democracy is dependent upon the existence of civil society and socio-economic pluralism, cultural policy stands as an essential public commitment in realizing these fundamental preconditions.
Scope of Cultural Policy
At the international level UNESCO is in charge of cultural policy.
Contact information for ministries of culture and national arts councils in 160 countries is available from the website of the International Federation of Arts Councils and Culture Agencies (IFACCA).
On a local scale, United Cities and Local Governments offers cities and local authorities the opportunity to develop arts and culture with the Agenda 21 for Culture.
Cultural Policy Research
Cultural Policy Research is a field of academic inquiry that grew out of Cultural Studies in the 1990s. It grew out of the idea that cultural studies should not only be critical, but also try to be useful. Today, there are many departments of Cultural Policy Studies around the world.
- Cultural Institutions Studies
- Cultural planning
- Cultural engineering
- Cultural management
- Cultural subsidy
- Cultural diplomacy
- Arts council
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- International Federation of Arts Councils and Culture Agencies
- United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization
- Les Rencontres - Association of European Cities and Regions for Culture
- Compendium - Cultural Policies and Trends in Europe