In Defense of Decentralized Cultural Policy

Upon doing the Doris Sommer readings for class today, it struck me that what Antanas Mockus did very cleverly was to use culture to influence culture. Consider, briefly, Richard Kurin’s tripartite division of culture in popular thought: the worlds of entertainment, scholarship and politics. Mockus was able to use entertaining  cultural products to affect change in the political aspects of Bogotá’s culture.  As Sommer articulates, using art to influence how people think is by no means a novel idea, but many examples of such initiatives in the past are heavier on the conformity and lighter on the individualistic whimsy than having mimes directing traffic (see Goebbels, Joseph). In contrast, Sommer is laudatory of Mockus and other leaders that use centralized cultural apparatuses to celebrate individualism and strengthen democratic and artistic institutions in their constituencies.

In the U.S., we have a largely decentralized system for funding culture. It relies heavily on tax deductible donations to nonprofit organizations and the private sector. Even the most direct, prominent means by which the federal government funds culture are not directly controlled by the president or the legislature (the NEA, NEH and Smithsonian). While putting the arts in competition with God, sick children and other charitable causes may seem unfair, it seems that, given the current political landscape, a lot of people are coming around on the idea of a decentralized model of cultural production. However, I would like to briefly entertain my dark imagination and imagine the current chief executive of the United States with a fully-fledged, centralized cultural apparatus at his disposal (constitutional considerations aside).

People throwing yellow flags (ala NFL refs calling penalties) at people with “degenerate” fashion or haircuts.

Creepy dear leader productions in schools nationwide.

Alex Jones on PBS (for any of you that missed it, Alex Jones’ attorney actually tried to help his client in a custody battle by claiming that he is a “performance artist”).

People putting government sanctioned stickers on foreign automobiles or other products.

 

Defining American Culture?

Reading Kurin’s chapters I was struck by how almost all of us pursuing this line of work are cultural brokers. We are the “coaches” doing “strategic brokering” of cultural representations. I am interested in how the growth of the Smithsonian Institution from a place devoted to scientific inquiry to an umbrella of many museums, continues to define, preserve, and broker culture. How does this reflect our government’s definition of and stake in American culture? How does the Smithsonian, “regarded as the entity that most captures the American experience” curate and broker the cultural milieu of the melting pot in its various museums?

The additions of the National Museum of the American Indian and the National Museum of African- American History and Culture are the results of cultural brokering. Increased representation in both entertainment and scholarship created a broader understanding of American Indian and African American history and culture in the media, justifying separate museum spaces for their respective histories. Giving physical space to the stories of oppressed groups shows the diversity and complexity in defining American culture. The lore embedded in American textbooks is the idea that America is a melting pot or tossed salad of many cultures. Celebrating the cultural heterogenization in America through individual museums under the Smithsonian umbrella shows that the government believes those stories are important. And that other Americans should think so too. Of course, there are political advantages and ramifications in deeming the stories of oppressed groups in America deserving of standalone museums. It’s not inconsequential that Barack Obama signed the NMHAAC into creation. That in and of itself shows the power of government agents in determining the worth of culture.

What will the future of the Smithsonian Institution look like? As a national museum, will it continue to expand and celebrate the stores of American women, Latino-Americans, and Chinese-Americans, for instance, in standalone museums? What are the broader implications of telling minority stories separately as opposed to under one roof of “American history”? How does the government shape the public’s understanding of American culture?

Radical Transparency in the Corporate Museum

Janes’ chapter on Debunking the Marketplace made me curious about alternative ways museums (and other non-profit institutions) might convey the relationship between their funding needs and their programming.  Janes observes that the financial work museums perform burdens them with “myriad complexities and pressures that have nothing to do with the inherent purpose of museums.” (99) He then annotates a (fictional) museum director’s daily schedule with a series of “reality check” descriptions designed to illuminate the power of political and financial decisions in day-to-day museum stewardship. (101)

I am wondering what this exercise suggests about the potential of radical transparency to change how people understand the state of arts funding (and other non-profit projects).

I very much admire a model set forth by journalist Naomi Klein. On the website for This Changes Everything, a recent film and book collaboration between Klein and her husband, she offers “An Explanation of Speaking Fees.” On the page, she explains how paid speeches fit into her family’s income now that she writes independently and is also responsible for paying researchers and production staff. The full version is quite interesting, but here are some highlights.

…The truth is that I only do a handful of such speeches a year and they subsidize all this other unpaid or marginally paid work. Not just for me, but for an amazing group of people who are also working hard on things that are valuable but not economically valued in our current system.

I sometimes hear from students or professors at a school who are upset by the fees quoted—how can I preach anti-capitalism while getting paid thousands of dollars to speak? Why won’t I donate my time to “the leaders of tomorrow?” (That came from an MIT professor, who presumably draws a hefty salary). There is sometimes an assumption that if I was paid a fee once, I must be getting it every time I leave the house (rather than a few times a year). Others assume that if I turn down a speaking request it must be because of the money—and not simply that I have surpassed the number of days I can reasonably spend away from my three-year-old.

I get it. I remember being shocked as an undergrad that anti-establishment writers who I loved were being paid thousands of dollars to speak at my school. And as a writer, I fervently wish that there was a way to make my work consistently available for free, whether books or speeches. I just haven’t figured out how—not with the kind of overhead that research-intensive non-fiction carries.

Klein has a different incentive than most museums to clarify her finances because her professional writing comes from an explicitly anti-capitalist framework. But given that museums see much of their work as community-oriented (or at least not-for-profit) it is interesting to imagine how this level of transparency might change the relationship between museums and the public.

 

The Role of Government in Public Humanities Work

This week’s reading centers on the role of government in creating and preserving cultural heritage. Doris Sommer examines the government-sponsored creativity and takes the examples of mayors from Bogota, Curitiba, Tirana, and many other cities to show how government can play a significant role in reviving civic commitments in cities through art. Many of their practices are very impressive, and I like the idea of “artistic acupuncture” which values creative practices in the process of recovery. Yet I have a strong feeling that the astounding success of Mayor Mockus has more to do with his own personality and artistic/academic background than with the spirit of the local government. Sommer also acknowledges that his disarming sense of humor and his training as a Ph.D. student in philosophy contributed to his success. If individual understanding and practice of art and his/her own character are so important, then how to promote (if not copy) similar programs in other parts of the world with a less culturally active mayor, besides taking into consideration of local conditions both in cultural tradition and political climate?

Robert Janes’ critique of marketplace strategy and analysis of its practice and harms is very inspiring. His account of working at three different museums as directors and experiencing three different models of funding and government support makes me wonder the evolution of government involvement in cultural institutions. I would like to thank Rica for discussing the role of government in funding museums in the U.S. and sharing with me a Wikipedia link regarding how the NEA has changed over time. I also found another book chapter Government Policy Toward Art Museums in the United States by Charles T. Clotfelter, though it was published in 1991 and didn’t touch on the contemporary issues, this essay gives me a brief overview of public policies toward art, government support, and the practice of funding agencies like NEA and NEH. The questions I think would be interesting to consider are what are the differences in American experience in government support of Arts compared to its European counterpart? How about other parts of the world? What has been the effect of these various federal programs on art museums? What are the features in contemporary distribution of grants, such as the geographical pattern and size of the institution?

Toby Ziegler, The West Wing, and Government’s Role in Culture

The government is actively involved in creating and preserving cultural heritage. How can “ungovernable” art collaborate with government? What effect do large scale institutions have on local public humanities work? What benefits are there to a top-down approach versus a bottom-up approach? How to account for the difference between democratic and dictatorial effects of art? What happens when our governing bodies are corporations?

The questions behind this week’s readings reminded me of two  episodes of The West Wing where the national consciousness of arts and culture come into play. In S3E7, “Gone Quiet,” WH Communications Director Toby Ziegler meets with a representative from the appropriations committee who wants to cut the NEA out of the budget. Weaving in and out of their conversation through the episode, there are some great rants interspersed throughout about the need to support the arts. The representative’s real problem lies the Director of the NEA, who’s funding “outrageous” projects by funding the museums rather than individual artists.

Toby Ziegler does a couple of these rants throughout the show about democratic ideals and public-funded cultural works, but I find this one to be most interesting because of Toby’s argument. Reading through UNESCO and the NEH legislation, there is this aspirational quality to getting the government involved in creating and preserving culture. There’s this nationalistic quality around culture that Toby espouses – that government must work to fund it because there’s a possibility of a Da Vinci: because if art is thriving, society will thrive as well. I’m not as convinced by this line of thought, though I do think institutions like governments should strive to promote displays of art and culture. But I’m interested in the idea that art/culture are connected to greatness – that there’s a conscious effort by government officials to curb and direct that greatness as a form of propaganda.

The second episode I’m thinking of this week is S3E16, “The U.S. Poet Laureate,” Ziegler again gets into conversations around art and activism. This time, U.S. Poet Laureate, Tabitha Fortis (Laura Dern), chooses to speak out against POTUS’s lack of support for a landmine treaty. Ziegler tries to sweet-talk Fortis into coming to the party without publicly mentioning her politically charged position. His argument is that her confrontation, rather than the landmines issue, would become the media story. In happy-government fashion, Ziegler arranges for Fortis to have a private conversation with POTUS so that she can personally tell him about her disagreements. It’s a weird  cop-out for the show, though contextually makes sense (POTUS has a few other media-related issues at the moment.) There’s also this  line from Fortis:

“You think I think that an artist’s job is to speak the truth. An artist’s job is to captivate you for however long we’ve asked for your attention. If we stumble into truth, we got lucky, and I don’t get to decide what truth is.

Again, not entirely sure if I agree with Fortis in this moment. But in our transition from viewing art as resistance to art being part of the structure, I wonder what some of the governments looking to use socially-engaged art would think of this quote. Who gets to decide its truth? Who gets to decide its relevance? And is the role of an artist really just to capture attention, or to do something more than that?

 

Multiple Cultures, Multiple Markets?

In thinking about how Kurin’s “Brokering Culture” outlines the multiple meanings of “culture,” I was struck by how “market” also has a range of definitions. When I hear this word in phrases like “market forces,” I tend to envision something abstract, the general operation of supply and demand. But market can also imply a physical space where people gather to purchase and sell goods. In this sense, I see markets as social and relationship-driven, a site for connections between individuals.

I’m working to reconcile this idea, the balance between abstract forces and in-person connections in the market, with Janes’s point: “Some museum work is clearly subject to market forces, such as restaurants, shops and product development, while other activities such as collections care, scientific research and community engagement are not. The latter bear no relation to the market economy and, in fact, require a safe distance from marketplace and corporatist fallout.”

If all of these activities are social or tied to at least one definition of cultural, can they stand outside of the market? It seems strange to me to delineate some activities of the museum as market-driven and others as not;  does that lead to an identity-crisis for the institution? Does returning to Kurin’s point that there are multiple definitions of culture, some money-driven and others not, clarify museums’ role in the marketplace or just add to the confusion?

Museums in a post-truth landscape

While reading Robert Janes’s Museums in a Troubles World I was reminded of a story I had seen earlier that morning. White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer compared Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to Hitler as a way to justify American bombardment of a Syrian airfield, following Assad’s use of chemical weapons. Specifically, Spicer implied that Assad went where even Hitler dared not go—using chemical weapons on his own citizens. Numerous people on social media and from the press immediately fought back against this claim, including CNN’S Jake Tapper who suggested, “Sean, the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, it’s just a few blocks away from the White House. Perhaps a visit’s in order.

What struck me about this comment was that the museum was being invoked as an authority on objective, historical truth. In today’s political environment, with the constant cries of ‘Fake news’ the truth has become more commonly accepted as political, just as much or even more so than it is considered objective or factual. That Tapper referred Spicer to a museum, rather than a textbook, or a documentary, or any other potential source of historical knowledge, is a sign that museums are seen (or have the potential to be seen) as a source of objective, apolitical truth, which is especially meaningful in the current post-truth political environment.

On the whole, Janes advocates for museums to fulfill a much more explicitly political purpose than truth-telling, but given that the book was written in 2009, I would be interested to hear his thoughts on the role of the museum as a guardian of truth in the current political environment in the United States. I would also say—and this is a point that Janes makes—that engagement, and pushing information or activism into the community, and into the public sphere, is a necessary next step—and a vital one to break beyond the information bubble museums might otherwise reinforce.

Vermont Creative Network: an Example of Shared Authority?

During the second half of my time at the Vermont Arts Council, we launched something called the Vermont Creative Network. The idea was to create a network of stakeholders that could provide leadership on issues facing the creative sector in Vermont. It is based on the principle of collective impact which contends that “large-scale social change comes from better cross-sector coordination rather than from the isolated intervention of individual organizations.”

I see the model of collective impact as being a sort of transorganizational take on the kinds of shared authority practices that Robert Janes advocates in chapter 3 of his book “Museums in a Troubled World.” The most glaring similarity is the interdisciplinary nature of the collective impact model.

More specifically, many proponents of the collective impact model are also disciples of Results Based Accountability (RBA), which is a framework developed by Mark Friedman and articulated in his book “Trying Hard is Not Good Enough.” RBA is all about (you guessed it) results, an approach that Janes advocates on page 76 when he says that “the key point is for management to focus on results , rather than any particular process or means for achieving those results.” The VCN is heavy on RBA.

I also think that VCN fulfills Robert Janes’ exhortations of the benefits of primus inter pares (first among peers) management style over hierarchy. In the Collective Impact model, there is a “Backbone Organization” that is responsible for convening all the other involved organizations. Without being entirely familiar with the Collective Impact Model, I would guess that, in an ideal world, the Backbone Organization is supposed to function as a first among peers. The reality of the VCN when I was at the Arts Council was that we were doing most of the heavy lifting to get the project off of the ground, but we did try hard to get input and buy in from our constituent organizations.

Institutional Vulnerability

I was delighted by Robert Janes’ invocation of vulnerability as a “prerequisite” for institutional change. However, his treatment of the term seems deeply under-developed in light of his critique.

Janes notes, rightly, that vulnerability “does not come easily” to institutions. (58) But the problem is not just that vulnerability is challenging or uncomfortable–the problem is that museums and other institutions are, by design, hostile to vulnerability. Janes draws out many of the reasons why in assessing anxieties about funding, professional clout, political controversy, visitors, and organization. In order to be durable long-term, museums must rely on financial sponsorship, maintain some sort of recognizable brand, and furnish a set of deliberative and logistical patterns that can be consistently communicated to a rotating staff. All of these encourage museums to project coherence and institutional self-confidence. Questioning the museum requires critique and revision, and therefore, the willingness to admit imperfection.

While Janes’ explanation does track the relationship between the institutional culture of museums and their aversion to self-criticism, he drops the concept of vulnerability at its first mention. Instead, Janes continues in the usual language of museum bureaucracy, critiquing the structure and hierarchy of museums. I think this misses Janes’ biggest insight (and one we’ve encountered before): the disconnect between the technocratic function of museums and their higher ideals of learning and cultural exchange.

For me, framing this challenge in terms of vulnerability opens up the possibility for a museum to think of itself less like an apparatus and more like a human (flawed, self-doubting, always changing). Asking museums to imagine themselves in human terms might encourage them to worry less about external validation, and more about internal coherence, self-awareness, and most importantly, to focus on human interactions over data-points.

 

Significance of Mutual Development and Transformation

This week’s reading discussed shared authority between museums and community/participants. Janes points out the self-inflicted challenges Museum faced and emphasizes the significance of resilience. Frisch calls to enact a genuine dialogue between experience and expertise, between people working together to reach new understanding, employing new modes of digitalization to overcome the previous gap. Other essays adopt case studies of one certain community to demonstrate that community voices or their oral history of the past can challenge the official history presented by museums and enrich it at the mean time.

What drew my interest is the idea of “Three Agendas” and Janes’ understanding of the third one—about mental and emotional constructs in individuals within the organization. I agree with Janes about the importance of individual development, learning and transformation and how it is difficult to achieve and more negligible compared with the first two agendas. It is not uncommon to learn about visitors’ complaints regarding staff rudeness and even bias/discrimination, such as at the coat check or at the ticket office, though they gave positive feedback about exhibitions or programs in the museum. Matt also mentioned in class his unpleasant teenage memories/experiences about a rude ticket staff. In the visitor-centered age of museum, this disconnection between an individual’s actual behavior and the values, perspectives of an organization or vise versa can be very problematic.

This disconnection in the museum sphere draws a parallel (not a perfect one) with this week’s heated discussion over an Asian doctor being dragged off United Airlines flight, which arose outrage both in the US and in China. Though quite different in terms of violence and racism, the disconnection between the supposed values of the airlines and the actual perspective and practice of its staff and that of airport security can be disastrous. Harm of this disconnection also applies to other spheres, such as police brutality against African Americans, etc. Therefore, it is important for individuals and organization/institutions to come together for mutual growth and transformation in a genuine way.