To begin a discussion of cultural policy in the United States it is unfortunately necessary to first decide not only what culture is, but what it is when placed next to Policy in the context of the state. That brings up the question of what is meant by the word ‘state’ – or that group that any policy is supposed to be a product of. In the United States, because of its peculiar and somewhat unique history of being an amalgamation of cultures imported, rather than the development of a culture out of geographical and historical necessity, there are what seem to be two or three effective cultural policies aside from the official state proclamation. This is because the government chooses to have comparatively little power over the cultural developments of its citizens. The larger part of cultural activity is the domain of the free market; however the government does set broad policies in this arena. There are strict guidelines as to the use of certain words and the description of certain acts using public channels of cultural dispersion. There are also both self-imposed and state-imposed rating systems to define the age at which children and young adults are publicly condoned to participate in certain cultural activities. Examples of this type of free-market cultural policy include drinking laws, obscenity laws, movie and video game rating systems, and even marriage laws. These examples are rarely considered as true ‘cultural policies’, yet more than any other government activity they are true cultural policy. The one area where the American representational government system has never shied away from imposing restrictions or definitions upon the general culture is where it butts up against cultural values of morality.
Yet when we speak of cultural policy we immediately think of the arts. This is because when the government sets ratings for movies or limits the sexual content of public broadcasts they are dealing with fairly measurable aspects of an art – usually sex or violence content – rather than a measurement of merit or the public good of an art. Or it has to do with an ‘un-artistic’ cultural phenomenon, such as marriage laws, that are looked at as legal rather than cultural questions. Official cultural policy concerning the ‘arts’ carries with it a connotation not of what the government will limit as in the case above, but in what it will directly support, either through monetary contributions or tax law. So if we are to discuss cultural policy in the United States, we must consider the other powerful players in the game of directly supporting the arts. These are the philanthropists and the grant-making foundations, and to a large extent, the free-market.
The economic recession in the first few years of the millennium had a profound impact on the health of mid-sized NP cultural organizations – smaller and larger ones were more flexible or better funded and able to survive easier. Although the number of NP performing arts organizations increased by 80% between 1982 and 1997, double the growth rate for for-profit performing arts organizations, real revenues for all disciplines aside from opera declined. This is indicative that the majority of these new organizations were small, and that data is from before the recession. Professional orchestras, numbering around 350, had 17 closures in roughly the same time period. It is true that many of those closures were summarily responded to with new openings and a rejuvenated effort, but it is clear that the industry as a whole – except for small scale organizations, is not a growing one. Large institutions faced record deficits in 2002 and 2003, but most had the resources to survive. Salary freezes, cutbacks in programming and closures were the order of the day for mid-sized organizations during those two years. The shift is clear against the average city’s theatre, symphony, and ballet companies, and for large regional culture icons and small all-volunteer organizations. The clichés of “the graying of the audience” and the apathy of baby boomers compared to their parents are a large part of this squeeze on the middle, but those two reasons themselves are symptoms of the overall cultural shift away from focused venues selling tickets to specific, old-world artistic traditions. What mid-sized organizations are not having problems are those that mix mediums – Broadway is the clearest example, and probably opera’s similarity to it explain its hold. Most cities are now more focused on having performing arts centers that present not only numerous types and organizations with traditional products, but which supplement this with rentals to popular, for-profit arts and entertainment. It is the most direct way for a popular art form to subsidize a fine or traditional art form – the rock band pays rent to sell out a house so that the NP house owner can present ballet the next day to a half-full house. Betting on single-disciplined organizations has become a losing battle for most mid to small sized cities and regions; betting on cultural and performance centers makes more sense. In a way it follows the mini-mall, super-center, one-stop-shop ethos created in the American cultural and economic landscape over the past few decades. It is in a real sense a consolidation of venues to more efficiently promote both new and old, for-profit and not-for-profit, cultural events.