Guest Post – ‘A Culture of Possibility’ Episode 21

By Arlene Goldbard

This post is to introduce you to the 21st episode of François Matarasso’s and my monthly podcast, “A Culture of Possibility.” It will be available starting 16 September 2022. You can find it and all episodes at StitcheriTunes, and wherever you get your podcasts, along with’s other podcasts by Owen Kelly, Sophie Hope, and many guests, focusing on cultural democracy and related topics. You can also listen on Soundcloud and find links to accompany the podcasts. 

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François started us off by putting his finger squarely on the dilemma. He’s found himself working with opera companies for the last few years in the Traction Project, which we talked about on Episode 19, “Co-creating Original Opera with Incarcerated Youth.” This was a surprising turn of events, considering the fact that when he began this work, “the Royal Opera House was almost a symbol of everything that we thought was wrong with the existing system, as the biggest recipient of of public arts money and in the 70s and 80s, that clearly catered for a very small proportion and relatively privileged section of the population.”

“We might feel very much committed to to a particular kind of practice, to a radical form of artistic work which is democratic and aims for a transformation and which is empowering and egalitarian in its in its spirit. So then the dilemma is, well, do you construct a perfect little ghetto over here that you can control? Because it’s really small, and frankly, nobody cares very much about what you’re doing on that housing estate or in that prison or whatever, because it’s really not going to change anything? Or do you try to take some of those ideas and those values to the places where the money, the power, the resources are? And if you do, what happens to your ideas, to your values, what happens to the ideas of other people? 

“This whole conversation is somewhat uncomfortable for me,” he continued, “because in the end, you’re involved in compromise, and compromise is compromising. Depending on how you look at it, it can look false, it can look self-serving, or it can be challenging and radical. The only way to find out is to see what’s happening. In the opera project I’ve been impressed by the organizations that I’ve worked with and the way they’ve changed. But will lasting change come out of this? I honestly don’t know. All I can say is that I’ve been working as I always have in the hope of moving in the right direction, and in the hope that in the longer term, you’re laying the foundations of things that other people can build on.”

Amen. François and I agreed that the dueling cultural policy paradigms of “democratization of culture” and “cultural democracy” come into play. He noted that “the real difference between cultural democratization and cultural democracy is who is intended to change. Cultural democratization is about changing audiences, changing people until they like your opera, or your classical music or your art or your Shakespeare or whatever it is. Cultural democracy is about changing the form itself, and the institutions that that represent it. Not throwing them away, not saying opera is useless, and we should never do it again. But to say it’s a living art form, and as a living art form, we can can get involved in it and create new kinds of of opera. It struck me listening to you because that’s the heart of this. We go into there in the hope that we can have an impact on the institution so that it will change. Who knows? Sometimes yes, sometimes no, sometimes a bit, sometimes in ways you can’t see.”

I began our story-sharing with one about my adventures with the California Arts Council in the 1970s. You’ll need to listen to the episode to get the details, but I think they might give you a laugh. My conclusion? “Power is real. You can do a really, really good job achieving democratic goals and bringing people into the dialogue who hadn’t been there before. You can be efficient; there can be no problem to point to in the way that you administer things. And if the people who hold the economic power and social power don’t want to see you doing what you’re doing, it’s very easy to erase you.” 

But when is the hope of impact grounded in reality and when is it whistling in the dark? Tune in and you’ll hear François talk about his time on the board of Arts Council England as well as a mysterious story from me about how a critique of philanthropic organizations led to a multi-year (and multi-book) relationship with the Rockefeller Foundation. Running through all of our stories is awareness of the larger context in which institutions operate: if the legislative or management bodies that bake the funding pie can’t or won’t make it meaningfully larger, how much can be accomplished by the announcement of a new policy that simply reslices it?

A key point for both of us is the difference between individuals and institutions. When I write about policy, I explained, “the first-level reaction I get from most people who are in that sphere is ‘but these really nice people work for this agency. And they’re trying so hard to do the right thing. And they believe in all the same values as you, and they’re doing the best they can and don’t be so hard on them.’ I always have to say the same thing, which is ‘yeah, some of my friends are in those positions, too. And I think they’re lovely people. But it doesn’t matter what kind of people they are, because the institutional forces have so outpaced them in terms of every form of power.’ 

Arts bureaucrats are probably the most frustrated people in the world, because their whole workday is pushing a big rock uphill, and then somebody at the top just puts a finger on the rock, and it slides back down again. Based on the many decades that I’ve been following this, almost without exception, there’s inspiring rhetoric that emerges from periodic efforts at self-reflection and examination and consultation and then coming up with a new way to describe and explain what they’re trying to do. But the grantee lists hardly have ever changed. So there’s a lot of money spent on putting out words that are hopeful and optimistic and and are supposed to influence people’s idea of what you’re doing and make people feel more encouraged. But very seldom does what actually happens with the resources change significantly enough to implement any of that.”

Gulliver’s Travels comes into the conversation, as do some of the funders we think are truly walking the talk and whose examples we commend to those looking for answers. We offer some guiding questions for community-based artists and other cultural democrats who are considering working with institutions, a kind of yardstick for measuring potential. We hope you find it useful!