The American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress
presents the Benjamin Botkin Folklife Lecture Series
AN ACQUISITIONS & PRESENTATION PROJECT
July 22, 2010 Event Flyer
Cultural Democracy in a Time of Diminishing Resources
Presented by Bau Graves
Simply stated, Cultural Democracy is the notion that everybody's heritage and cultural expression is worthwhile and deserving of an equitable share of whatever resources are available. In recent years, Cultural Democracy has also gained traction as a descriptor for the whole realm of participatory, community-centered arts activities, practiced by millions of Americans everyday in their homes, backyards, public parks, places of worship, schools - pretty much everywhere except in the designated art spaces of our museums and concert halls, where they happen infrequently.
The mechanisms that we have inherited for the support of public
culture were inspired by the practices of the fine arts economy of the
first half of the 20th century, and were designed to validate curatorial
authority. This is the top-down version of culture. Financial and
programmatic decision-making is vested in highly-trained, credentialed
individuals who are positioned to determine what the entire community
should see, hear and experience. Cultural Democracy requires a
paradigm shift away from this curatorial model, and towards a process of
continuous and intense community engagement, using culture as a
catalyst for addressing social issues: art of the people, made by the
people, and presented for the people.
The concept of Cultural Democracy has a history that stretches back at least 90 years. The term is first used in Democracy and Assimilation, a 1920 book by Julius Draschler. There is little doubt that the New Deal arts programs championed by Benjamin Botkin were driven by a concern for the acknowledgement, celebration and preservation of the heritage of ordinary citizens whose cultural interests and achievements were seldom addressed in the halls of elite culture. In 1943, educational theorist Rachel Davis Dubois wrote, "cultural democracy - a sharing of values among numbers of our various cultural groups - we have scarcely dreamed of. Much less have we devised social techniques for creating it." In the 1970s, Cultural Democracy became official governmental policy in several European countries, ultimately instigating passage of UNESCO's Declaration on Cultural Diversity. The idea of Cultural Democracy is one that resonates easily with American ideals. We should demand it to be fair; we should pursue it to be smart; and we should employ its heightened economic benefits.
But we live in a time of diminishing resources for public culture of any sort. Direct investment in culture, through the National Endowment for the Arts, never very significant, has declined in real terms during the past 15 years. The entire budget of the NEA this year is equivalent to one hour and twenty minutes of what the US is currently spending for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Of that small wedge of support for public culture, community- and folk arts receive the smallest allocations. It is not a matter of asking "Should government support the arts?" It is a question of which portions of the cultural economy should be receiving the subsidies: the government is already in the arts and entertainment industry, big time. However, instead of supporting culture in American communities, our government devotes far more in tax breaks and give-aways to profit-making arts businesses than to the public arts sphere.
Take the motion picture industry, for example. When we think about troubled industries struggling for survival and in desperate need of a subsidy from government, Hollywood doesn't spring to mind. But it turns out that our states are competing with each other to see who can throw more money at Hollywood studios. Last year, the state of Michigan gave kickbacks of $117 million to entice film productions to shoot on location there. At the same time, due to dire budgetary challenges, the annual budget of the Michigan Arts Commission was cut to $2.1 million, about 2% of what they paid out to Hollywood studios. In all, 40 states have adopted similar programs.
Or consider the government's long history of give-aways to the commercial broadcasting industry. Beginning with the Reagan administration and continuing under both Republicans and Democrats, the government has relinquished the people's airwaves, instead subsidizing large corporations and allowing media consolidation that now chokes the broadcast and entertainment industries. The era of the independent concert promoter in America is past. The cultural impact of this is akin to the destruction of habitat that results in biodiversity collapse. A long series of legislative and regulatory choices have created a restricted and perpetually starved public arts sphere, while simultaneously subsidizing, at a vastly higher level, large corporate conglomerates with predatory practices that drive nonprofits and smaller profit-making producers from the marketplace. This system is abetted and amplified by public policy and the federal tax code.
Ordinary Americans are getting a raw deal out of our national cultural policy (or lack thereof). Americans have an unlimited well of creativity based in personal participation, but it is largely bypassed in the public arts arena in favor of passive consumption. Our government doesn't just fail to address the cultural participation of America's citizens, but in fact adopts policies that undermine it. The concept and practice of Cultural Democracy offers a compelling alternative vision, and perhaps capacity for providing a theoretical touchstone for progressive artistic, social and political action.
James Bau Graves
Bau Graves is Executive Director of the Old Town School of Folk Music, in Chicago, Illinois, the largest community school of the arts in the United States. His work is focused on exploration of the personal, political, aesthetic and ethical issues embedded in the concept and practice of public culture. He is the past Director of the Jefferson Center Foundation, in Roanoke, Virginia, and co-founder of the Center for Cultural Exchange in Maine, where he facilitated the creation of an extended series of programs, in close collaboration with community groups and artists, addressing grassroots cultural aspirations, questions of identity and social/financial power relations. Bau's work as a field researcher, arts presenter, community organizer, project manager and tour director has been prolific, winning numerous awards from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Wallace Foundation, Americans for the Arts' Animating Democracy program, the Rockefeller Foundation, and many others. Bau has performed and recorded with several jazz and traditional music ensembles, and composed original scores for two collaborative projects with dancer/director Ann Carlson. He holds a Masters degree in ethnomusicology from Tufts University, has published essays concerning cultural issues in both the academic and popular press, and has appeared on and/or produced numerous recordings. Bau Graves' first book, Cultural Democracy, was published in 2005 by the University of Illinois Press.
The American Folklife Center was created by Congress in 1976 and placed at the Library of Congress to "preserve and present American Folklife" through programs of research, documentation, archival preservation, reference service, live performance, exhibition, public programs, and training. The Center includes the American Folklife Center Archive of folk culture, which was established in 1928 and is now one of the largest collections of ethnographic material from the United States and around the world. Please visit our web site.