Mapping State Cultural Policy (Spring 2006 Trust magazine briefing)

May 01, 2006

The report Mapping State Cultural Policy: The State of Washington begins with several surprisingly basic questions: What is “culture”? What is “culture policy” and “state culture policy”? What is “mapping”? And why Washington state?

J. Mark Schuster, Ph.D., the study’s editor, took nothing for granted, and for good reason. The report, the first of its kind, addresses two forms of state activity that people might not ordinarily connect. One is funding for “the arts, humanities, heritage and allied forms of culture” (including preservation agencies and arts and humanities councils). The other is funding for activities, like tourism marketing or good local transportation, that, though not defined as arts support, help the public participate in the cultural scene.

As the report makes clear, many public policies, overt and implied, influence cultural activity. Thus, though there might not be an articulated “state culture policy,” it exists de facto, and policy makers should understand it if they are to appreciate how culture not only makes an aesthetic contribution but also plays an important economic role.

Examining this complex mix was the task of the pilot project Mapping State Cultural Policy, supported by the Trusts at the Cultural Policy Center at the University of Chicago and directed by Schuster, professor of urban cultural policy at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Through interviews and review of legislation, policy and program documents and budgets, he and his team undertook the mapping. This involved cataloguing and, more importantly, analyzing and interpreting the topography of cultural policy in Washington— clarifying the intention of policy that is both explicit (as in legislation and strategic plans) and implicit (inferred from actual practice).

The state was chosen for several reasons: its demographics, its “shift to a more knowledge-based economy,” the interest of state officials in the results, and “specific institutional characteristics,” which tend to diffuse power among many agencies and departments. The last, of course, made the terrain irregular at best.

One demographic difference revealed how intricate the research was. Washington is home to 29 federally recognized Native American tribes, and Schuster’s group discovered a “gulf in perspectives” between them and state documents on what culture means with respect to natural resources. To the state, it means “traditional places, historic sites and archaeological resources”—seemingly a broad definition, the report notes. But to Native Americans, it is narrow, because they consider culture to be interwoven in their lives. One tribal liaison offered the example of salmon, an edible commodity to most people: “For tribes, salmon is art, religion, ceremony, a way of life—food is just a small part of that.”

The study made transparent the many streams of activity that add up to a cultural policy and presented a sound account of the strengths and weaknesses of the total “ecology” of cultural policy—information that ought to help policy makers and other leaders.

And how might other states benefit from the study? According to Schuster, by using the Washington example to assess their own “opportunities, issues and constraints,” and then develop “smart practices” that “build upon local knowledge and conditions to create a better policy fit.”

For a copy of Mapping State Cultural Policy, contact the Cultural Policy Center at the University of Chicago at http://culturalpolicy.uchicago.edu.

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