Misleading democracy

The comments so far on my post about the National Performing Arts Convention — have been mostly very heartening. As is one private e-mai, which I hope to be able to share. The comments are well worth reading.

One point that emerges from the comments is how silly it is — to put this in plain English — to assemble a group of well-meaning amateurs and ask them to solve a serious problem that needs the attention of professionals. Of course I mean amateurs in politics, promotion, and the planning of strategic campaigns. The democratic impulse here is well-meaning, but — in my view — terribly misguided. If the arts aren’t getting enough attention, locally and nationally, how can we fix that? Well, you might start by talking to people who deal with that kind of problem every day — people, for instance, in politics, advertising, marketing. If you assemble a group of people without professional experience in those areas, most of the suggestions you get will very likely not be useful. Or, as some of the commenters pointed out, you’ll get suggestions that have been made many times before. i’m not saying that amateurs might come up with something really workable that professionals would never think of, but if all we’ve got is amateurs making suggestions, we won’t even know when that happens!

Case in point: the most popular answer (see the NPAC blog for full details) to the question, “What should we do about arts advocacy and communicating our value at the NATIONAL level?” (Caps in the original.). The most popular answer — by far — was:

Create a Department of Culture/Cabinet-level position which is responsible for implementing a national arts policy.

But this is just silly. Yes, I know that some European countries, maybe many, have ministers of culture in their governments. But what would it take to create one here? Some kind of national upsurge in support of the arts. No president is going to support this innovation just because a convention of happy enthusiasts in Denver proposed it. And no Congress is going to pass legislation creating the post, just because people at NPAC think they should.

Once you understand that, the proposal turns out to be self-contradictory. But that can’t happen until the arts get the support they’re not getting now! The proposed solution couldn’t be implemented unless there wasn’t any problem in the first place.

Please note! I’m not saying it might not be possible to build a political movement to support the arts. I think it’s unlikely, but I could be wrong. The mistake, though, is to make the cabinet-level arts department a priority now, when you have to create the movement before any such thing would be possible.

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  1. says


    It was a pleasure to read the excellent insights from you and your readers in your earlier post about NPAC. I’d like to see more of these extended conversations in the dance world.

    I’d like to offer a different perspective in response to your point above about “well-meaning amateurs” attempting “to solve a serious problem that needs the attention of professionals.”

    I’m actually all in favor of “amateurs” addressing these issues head-on. For starters, we are talking about “amateurs” who are very knowledgeable in their own spheres of interest within the performing arts community. They may not have specific expertise that you mention in such areas as “politics, promotion, and the planning of strategic campaigns.”

    But what we need, I believe, is innovative approaches to promoting and furthering the objectives of the broad performing arts community. New voices and recommendations are a great way to tap into new directions, experiments and possibilities for the arts.

    And, realistically, when it comes to topics such as how can the performing arts better embrace the Internet, especially for the purposes of collective action, everybody is an amateur in this realm. The Internet, I believe, is highly underutilized in the performing arts and all voices and opinions that can contribute to new digital gameplans are more than welcome.

    What I do object to in terms of the AmericaSpeaks process is what appears to be a relatively shallow, time-compressed and vacuum-like process.

    The AmericaSpeaks approach, I believe, should start at least a month before a conference. Delegates ought to be provided with briefing papers, case studies and other related documents that provide context and background about the ideas that are likely to be generated during the town meetings. I’m not saying to overwhelm delegates with materials they are not likely to read. I’m recommending a thoughtful collection of reading materials that will get the participants up-to-speed.

    Then, once on-site, the worthwhile interdisciplinary conversations (I like Henry Fogel’s description of the benefits of this brainstorming) will be grounded in a more realistic understanding of what has been done and what has been successful.

    So, overall, I think the highly participatory approach of the town meetings and AmericaSpeaks is excellent in theory, but it needs some major modifications and improvements for it to have more weight and substance.

    Doug, I think you’re overly optimistic. Take for instance what you say about the Internet: “…everybody is an amateur in this realm. The Internet, I believe, is highly underutilized in the performing arts and all voices and opinions that can contribute to new digital gameplans are more than welcome.” You’re right about that, but the Internet is definitely not underutliized in other spheres of life, including popular culture. So if people in the performing arts want to know how to use the Internet, they should talk to Internet professionals, and others who know very well what to do online. The idea that because it’s a relatively new area for the performing arts, and that therefore uninformed brainstorming from performing arts people is going to be helpful — that doesn’t make any sense to me. At one point, classical music organizations weren’t very good at running their box office operations. What should they have done — sit around brainstorming with each other (the blind leading the blind), or consult people who know how a box office should be run? The latter, obviously. Why is it different for the Internet?

    As for brainstorming generally, it’s helpful when everyone is fully grounded in the context in which the ideas will be applied. In this case, the big question is how to reach outside the normal performing arts community, to generate more support in the rest of the world. So about the last thing you want to do, if this is your goal, is simply have performing arts people talking to each other! Of course they’re (as you say) “very knowledgeable in their own spheres of interest within the performing arts community.” But that’s exactly their limitation. They’re very likely _not_ knowledgeable about the world outside the performing arts, and about strategies for bridging cultural gaps. Plenty of people have in fact thought and written about those issues, and they’re the ones with the knowledge and outlook that’s most crucial to this discussion. You don’t want arts people talking to each other about how to reach out to the non-arts world. You want non-arts people talking about what might reach them. Once I was working with an orchestra to figure out how pre-concert lectures might be improved. Their goal was to make these lectures interesting to younger people who don’t normally go to classical concerts. I suggested that instead of talking to each other, we talk to the kind of people we were trying to reach, and in a single conversation with one of them we got good ideas we’d never have thought of, if all we did was talk with ourselves.

  2. says


    You didn’t really address my point:

    I described above how the quality of the discussions at the Town Meeting could have been more practical and meaningful if the delegates had been better briefed prior to the beginning of these participatory gatherings.

    By better briefed I suggested that participants be provided with briefing papers about the topics that were likely to be addressed. The papers would, of course, come from experts in their respective fields.

    These democratic forums will never be perfect, but I think they offer potentially excellent opportunities for experts in the field of performing arts to share what’s on their mind and hear opinions and ideas that they may not often be presented with.

    To what extent should the voted on strategies be formally incorporated into the gameplans of associations who produced NPAC? That’s a tougher question to answer, but I’d be dubious.

    Hi, Doug. I’m happy to be corrected.

    Though I do think there would still be some very large problems if what you talk about had happened. Briefing papers aren’t the same thing as a deep education in what needs to be known before any action is taken. Or, rather, before anyone can decide what action to take. I have a long and rash history of getting involved in discussions of things I’m not formally trained for, or experienced in. The economics of orchestras, for instance, or many aspects of orchestra management. If I didn’t have experts behind the scenes constantly challenging and correcting me, I don’t think what I say would be reliable.

    Once I was involved with the launch of a new magazine. A radio station was hoping to sponsor it. One decision we had to make was about the magazine’s name. What should we call it? One way to decide that — which I’ve seen adopted elsewhere — is to have discussions among the people already involved, which in this case would have been people from the radio station, the art director who’d been working on a prototype, and me. I myself am terrible at titles and headlines. I’ve known that from long experience.

    So what I suggested we do was bring in some friends of mine who were really good at titles and headlines. These were prominent journalists. They came up with things I and my colleagues would never have thought of, and we could then pick from among their suggestions. We could also work with them, tell them why we thought one of their ideas wasn’t quite what we wanted. And then they’d come up with another, more tightly focused suggestion.

    So back to the idea that we could have found a name for the magazine without consulting experts. I’m sure we could have had some equivalent of briefing papers — someone good at names could have talked to us about the principles of naming. It’s part of branding, I guess, and I’m sure there are people who specialize in it. Then we could have been left on our own — but I don’t think we would have done very well. The pariticipation of experts is, if you ask me, really quite crucial.

  3. Darren Rich says

    Greg –

    I wholeheartedly agree with you. Too often, my perception is that the performing arts community has this attitude that “no one outside our sphere could POSSIBLY understand the arts like WE do.” As if outside experts would be of little use. As if innovations and best practices had never been transferred across industries before.

    The ironic thing is that we very proudly trumpet the fact that companies are studying organizations such as the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra to try to learn from their management success. If corporations are willing to look to the performing arts for new and better ideas, why must we insist on figuring everything out on our own?

    You and I are very much on the same page.

    I think there might also be a fear in opening up, among people in the arts. It’s very comforting to go around patting ourselves on the back, saying our art is wonderful, and that others would surely think the same thing if only we can bring our art to them. That way, we don’t have to change! We just need to find better ways of delivering our glories.

    But if we took a different view — if we said, well, we’d better find out what’s going on in the world before we make any plans — then we’d be in a dangerous corner. Suppose we found out that the culture had changed, and people wouldn’t be as automatically interested in us as they might have been a generation ago. We then might have to change, before we could reach anyone. And we might not be ready to do that. Hence, of course, all the rush to judgment, as hard-core arts people (certainly this happens in classical music) jump to the conclusion that any change means dumbing down.

  4. says

    I attended an NPAC session that was given by former NEA Chair Bill Ivey. In that session he talked about a cabinet-level position too, in fact I believe he said he had approached senior staff with the idea during his tenure. While the idea wasn’t on everyone’s to do list people were politely listening to what Ivey had to say.

    Even though he claims to have shopped the idea, Ivey seemed to not believe in his own cause. Current events and troubles aside, one of the biggest reasons a cabinet-level arts department will never be is how arts policy is handled in ten different ways by ten different departments each with its own agenda. The NEA and the NEH are the most obvious examples. The Smithsonian, the State Department, the Pentagon, even the individual branches of the military would all have to agree to give up their agendas in favor of a national one. I don’t think it’s likely that any of these groups would yield easily.

    I can’t even get into the discussion about how or what we would promote as American culture since so much of it is imported from elsewhere. As Ivey pointed out, our biggest cultural export at the end of the last century (from a purely quantitative point of view) was Baywatch. As much as I hate to say it, what is more uniquely American than TV?

    Good points, Wendy. Reminds me of the Homeland Security department, or whatever they call it, which is supposed to consolidate anti-terror efforts from many agencies, and was created under a really strong impetus (obviously!), stronger than anything anyone can muster for the arts.

    It’s also not clear that the Homeland Security department really can lead the work of all those agencies. (Has the FBI fixed its computer problems yet?) Though it does create a government anti-terror spokesagency, which (in principle, at least) isn’t necessarily a bad thing.

  5. Bill Ivey says


    There’s nothing wrong with a sector — even amateurs in a sector — setting big goals, including something as big as a Department of Cultural Affairs. Although in the past I’ve argued against such a department, today I’m all for it; not because a central authority would serve the nonprofit performing arts, but because the agency would instead work on intellectual property, access to heritage, trade in cultural goods, mergers among arts industries, fair use, Internet access for all, media ownership, Net Neutrality, and tethered hardware and software. Absent a central agency charged with making sure policy serves public purposes, legislation and regulation that shape our arts system have allowed the marketplace to pull these and many other issues away from the public interest.

    Now, if we get it right, I’m convinced all boats will rise — including the boats holding our cultural nonprofits. But the first step is to place cultural policy on the public policy agenda, and step two is the development of the mechanisms necessary to advance a vibrant expressive life as a public good in American democracy.

    Maybe we’ll have to settle short of a cabinet department — but even a White House Council of Cultural Advisors would help.

    But Greg, I agree strongly with one of your key points. It’s not what we want, or what we think, that matters; it’s ultimately the priorities of legislators, regulators, and jurists outside the arts that count. We need to advance cultural vibrancy as a public good in post-consumerist society; maybe that will begin to get their attention.



    Hi, Bill. Nice to meet you here. We should talk sometime.

    The problem, as I see it, with well-meaning people setting goals can be that the goals are unrealistic. And nobody tells them that. So then, conceivably, you might find people in the arts devoting large amounts of time and energy (and money, too) to goals they won’t reach. The result is likely to be frustration and disillusionment.

    As for the cabinet department you propose, a lot of good might come from it, but surely it’s not at all the same thing that people talked about in Denver. There, as far as I can see, people were excited about a cabinet department that would further the goals of the performing arts. You’re talking about something far broader. I’m afraid I’m skeptical, on various grounds. One is that you’ve cast a very wide net. I’m trying to picture a cabinet secretary who takes a strong stand on net neutrality one moment, and the next is showing up in New York for the opening of the Metropolitan Opera. And not just showing up — conveying, by her mere presence, the message that the president thinks opera is a very good thing. This could happen, I guess, just possibly, but I’d love to see your example of an actual cabinet secretary, past or present (apart maybe from an activist secretary of state or defense) who ever took public leadership in as many diverse areas as you have in your list. And would any president want to spend his or her political clout by taking leadership — through a cabinet figure — in all those areas? I’m skeptical. And, again, I’d like to see an example of a cabinet member who actually functions (or functioned) in those ways.

    And would the performing arts, as traditionally defined, naturally fit into the net you’re casting here? An arts advocate might think so. But someone from the digital world — who might strongly feel that we need federal leadership in all the questions of digital policy, law, and legislation that you’ve mentioned — might not think the performing arts had anything to do with that. (In Seattle, very tellingly, people who’ve made their money from digital technology just don’t give money to the performing arts.) Verbal sleight of hand isn’t the answer. We can call the proposed agency “Department of Cultural Affairs,” and then smile happily, thinking that we’ve folded the performing arts in with other pressing concerns. But others, not as committed to the performing arts as we are, might think the department was much more needed for other things, and then exclude the performing arts from its reach, and give the department another name.

    As for cultural vibrancy, or as you also put it, a vibrant expressive life — we’ve already got that. It’s called popular culture (with participation from some parts of what are traditionally called the arts). And while obviously problems can arise, the core of this expressive life — the art that people produce on their own — needs no help from any of us. All we have to do is stay out of its way.