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Art and the Public Purpose: Does the Country Need a Cultural Policy?

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Despite its preoccupation with the economy, health care, two wars, and other pressing matters, the administration has already shown a real appreciation for the arts. Its White House performance programs are welcoming the diversity of American culture to the "People's House." It has appointed energetic new leadership to the Arts and Humanities Endowments and increased their budgets. It is using the bully pulpit to promote creativity and the arts in education. For the first time artists are included in plans for national service programs. But it has not yet articulated an overarching strategy that takes full advantage of the potential of the arts to contribute to every dimension of the nation's mission, a strategy designed for this new moment in our history.

The debates that framed cultural policy over the last twenty years -- divisive and bitter culture war conflicts about race, sexuality, expressive freedom, and the role of government in the arts -- continue to chill the politics of culture, making progressive policymakers timid when it comes to culture. Last spring administration officials met with a group of some sixty cultural leaders from around the country to discuss the administration's plans for the arts and culture. (Three Chicagoans attended -- Bau Graves from the Old Town School of Folk Music, Arnold Aprill from the Chicago Arts Partnerships in Education, and me.) The meeting stimulated several of us to draft "Art and the Public Purpose: A New Framework."

It is long past time to change the terms of those culture war debates and develop a cultural policy consistent with the values of inclusion, participation, creativity, and community that animated the Obama campaign, built a new political majority, and drew so many artists to his cause. Art and Public Purpose is not the administration's position. It is ours. We hope it will be yours, too. It lays out a conception of how the arts and culture can be a meaningful part of "change we can believe in" grounded in five broad and simple principles:

• Use creativity for the common good. Every public purpose -- from schools to infrastructure -- can be enriched and made more meaningful if the arts are part of the design.
• Engage all of us. A democratic culture engages and cultivates everyone's creative capacities; it respects and preserves the cultural legacies of all those who have come to this place to make these United State.
• Build on cultural memory. Our social fabric is woven of special places, customs, values, and creative acts. The stronger that fabric, the more likely kids will stay and schools and neighborhoods will be peaceful. It must be preserved.
• Put artists to work supporting cultural recovery. The current crisis is not simply economic. We need a "new WPA" that, like the Great Depression one, creates public service jobs for artists to help advance our national goals -- better education, health care, rebuilding our infrastructure, improving the environment and more. Few investments will yield greater results.
• Free expression and democratic media. A democratic culture is not handed down from on high. It is not monopolized by corporate media or directed by government. It requires a free exchange of ideas, the freedom to imagine and dream, and a robust public option in media.

Please take a few minutes to read the whole paper at www.newculturalpolicy.org. Comment on the paper, endorse it if you choose. And encourage others to do the same.