Cultural Policy

If cultural policy is defined as a system of arrangements which, whatever its other purposes, supports artistic production, then the artist has some reason for interest in it as an indicator of where support lies.  Evan Alderson

What is Cultural Policy? What Does it Mean to NPN? How does NPN Engage?

by MK Wegmann, CEO & President, NPN/VAN

In 2004 the National Performance Network published a white paper by Roberto Bedoya, U.S. Cultural Policy: Its Politics of Participation, Its Creative Potential. He cites the above quote, and then opens his paper with a further explication of the importance of organizations such as NPN as active voices in the cultural policy arena:

Embracing Evan Alderson’s definition of cultural policy as a “system of arrangements,” I aim to shed light on who is participating in the discourse. I ask whether there are exclusionary practices within the field of cultural policy, and conclude that there is in fact a significant sector of the non-profit arts community—specifically artist-centered and ethnic specific arts service organizations—that has been marginalized or absent in cultural policy discussions.

The point of view that NPN/VAN can be a voice for a sector of the non-profit arts community often not represented or included in national cultural policy arenas has been a long-standing motivation for NPN. From the beginning of NPN’s “reinvention” as an independent organization in 1999, we – board, staff and NPN/VAN Partners – have identified cultural policy as a formal program area; in our last strategic plan (FY14-FY16) we further structured it as a department.

NPN’s vision and values statements are the basic points of reference for the positions we take. With that in mind, these are some of the strategies that shape our actions:

  • NPN works in Partnership: we maintain close alliances and form different partnerships where we find mutual interests in goals and outcomes, including jointly fundraising for projects. Some examples include the Network of Ensemble Theaters, National Association of Latino Arts and Culture, Alternate ROOTS, South Arts and Fractured Atlas.
  • We focus strongly on issues of cultural equity, racial equity and inclusion.
  • We identify reciprocity as a way of working toward cultural equity.
  • We identify as an artist-centered, or artist-focused, organization and try to promote the issues faced by artists in the current arts climate. We promote our program structures as striving to maintain this.
  • We periodically survey the organizations and artists we support and maintain and publish data.

Accepting the construct of “systems of arrangement” — the rules that determine who has access to resources and who those resources benefit — means that we have to be vigilant about how we make rules and distribute the resources we have. Functioning as a network is different than functioning as a service organization. NPN/VAN is not a simple pass-through mechanism to re-grant funds. Rather, we have organized ourselves to act with intention and to create an alternative system for working. In our mission statement we say that NPN is a “cultural organizer, working… to provide leadership.” As we continue to build a strong network and organization and extend both the reach and visibility of our activities, our role and influence in policy has an important place.

With this perspective in mind, while cultural policy work often resides in my lap as president and CEO, it is not in the purview of only that position. All NPN staff are part of this effort. After we have been “out there” in the field, we come back and share our experiences with the rest of the staff. By attending conferences and meetings of other organizations, both in our sector and in the larger arts and culture arena, we speak up and represent the ideas on which we base our work. We also serve on boards and panels and freely share our knowledge when asked. We try to build alliances where we find them, whether that is with individuals in institutions that are our close allies or with those who might not share our exact point of view. Thus, we are visible outside of the “choir.” Our active membership in the Performing Arts Alliance is an example. We work to be cooperative, as opposed to competitive, in both our internal structure and how we approach relationships in the field.

A final point to be made about NPN’s cultural policy work is how we are informed about the issues that we promote. While our mission, vision and values are the underlying drivers, we have to be out there, present and in contact with the field we want to represent. We need to hear directly from artists and NPN/VAN Partners what is important for them. This means we have to go where they are. Having the national office in New Orleans does have the drawback that we are isolated from the volume of artistic activity that takes place in the dominant cultural centers in the US — we are not in daily contact with diverse practitioners as is possible in other cities. We have to travel to see certain artists’ work, we have to register and propose topics at the conferences of other organizations, we have to visit NPN/VAN Partner sites to see and learn about their communities. We volunteer to serve on committees and task forces. We move NPN/VAN convenings around the country so we can meet artists in many different places. We speak up and speak out.


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