How Arts and Culture Can Advance a Neighborhood-Centered Progressive Agenda

What's a progressive agenda for arts and culture in New York City? Caron Atlas offers her answer to this question in her contribution to Toward A 21st Century City for All, which offers an inclusive vision for city policy to help achieve a more just, equal and prosperous New York City. Toward a 21st Century City for All, is an initiative of the Center for Urban Research at the CUNY Graduate Center

This is the second section of the essay. The full essay: How Arts & Culture Can Advance a Neighborhood-Centered Progressive Agenda can be read here.

2. A Progressive Cultural Policy

Cultural policy is connected to such issues as economic stratification, racial segregation, immigration, education, and community development, to name a few. A progressive cultural policy should both be about protecting what is of value that is in danger of being lost (such as public ownership of airwaves or traditional cultures) and about engaging new opportunities (such as place-based cultural economies or rebuilding after Sandy). Changing demographics, gentrifying communities, and income inequality are just a few of the broader forces that inform cultural policy. 

Like our country as a whole, New York City has a policy of not having a cultural policy. It is implicit rather than explicit, and frequently invisible. This disconnects culture from social change and prevents us from having a conversation about the value of arts and culture in our city and our communities. It prevents us from knowing, as cultural agency director Roberto Bedoya asks, “Who speaks, who’s heard, what is being asked for, what views are being presented, what cultural ‘we’ are we talking about?” A progressive agenda should articulate a clear, pluralistic, and equitable vision for cultural policymaking that puts neighborhoods at the center. This vision will be realized through long-term strategies to shift power, not short term tactics to manipulate it.

A progressive cultural policy:

Is grounded and self determined, valuing neighborhood based cultural assets, traditions, and local leadership, recognizing diverse models of organizations and networks, and accountable to those in whose name it is carried out.

Reflects and engages the changing demographics of the city – what the city is now and what it is becoming. As the Social Impact of the Arts Project concludes, “an ecological model of community culture may be a better guide to policymaking than an orthodox focus on organizations” (Social Impact of the Arts 2007).

Promotes cultural and racial equity and cultural rights, supporting "the core cultural right of each person to participate fully in cultural life.” This policy ascribes value, and increases access and equity to, diverse communities and cultures through its grant making, capital allocations, definitions of excellence, design aesthetics, composition of commissions and peer panels, and choice of where to site cultural resources and amenities. This may include, for example, “fair share” responses to the historical undercapitalization of community-based cultural centers in communities of color and low income communities.

Protects public space for free speech and creative expression, including access to the Internet, the airwaves, public streets, and plazas. It values and supports neighborhood libraries, community centers, and community radio as civic spaces where the public comes together. 

Invests in artists, protects their rights as labor, and improves their working conditions. This does not mean considering artists as a special group of individuals, but rather considering artists’ issues as allied to those of other workers and individuals in our society. Many artists are freelance and independent workers, sharing with this growing workforce a need for a living wage, fair benefits, a social safety net, affordable work space, and protection against occupational hazards and unfair labor practices.

Is integrated into various policymaking contexts, for example, engaging in community development, health, criminal justice, disaster planning, and education reform. It would consider cultural impacts to a neighborhood along with economic and environmental impacts. City Council members would have cultural liaisons, community boards would have cultural committees, and interagency working groups benefit from including the arts.

Invests 1 percent of the city’s expense budget in arts and culture, as recommended by the citywide One Percent for Culture campaign (current support is less than one-fourth of 1 percent).

Continue here for full essay.