Arts as a policy catalyst

Jun. 12, 2014 @ 11:35 AM

In October 2013 the U.S. Department of Arts and Culture was established, but the organization is not a federal agency, nor does it get government dollars. Organizers say the name is intended to spark discussions about the relationship between the arts and public policy.

To quote from its website, the USDAC seeks “to harness the power of art and culture to engage millions in envisioning and creating a more just and sustainable world.” The first step in that process is a series of 17 “imaginings” that will take place across the country this summer. One of those sessions will take place June 29 at the ArtsCenter in Carrboro.
Everyone is invited to participate in the session, which is officially called the “The Great Southeastern Imagining.” “I’m really hoping that we will have a powerfully diverse group of people there,” said Lynden Harris, creator of Hidden Voices, and one of 17 cultural agents who are preparing for their imagining sessions. “That is one of my personal goals … to be not a gathering of self-identified artists,” but to help participants understand “that we are all artists,” Harris said.
The Carrboro session will draw on North Carolina’s rural roots and be modeled like a county fair – with music, funnel cakes, photo booths and other activities. Participants will split up into groups to discuss how the arts might forge connections with issues such as transportation, child and elder care, and open space.
The USDAC is encouraging participants to imagine how this kind of arts-policy-integrated world might look in 2034. “We so often identify problems and don’t spend enough time visualizing where we want to be,” Harris said. She wants the Carrboro session to empower people “to imagine that this has already happened.”
The 17 imagining sessions are the first step in what USDAC organizers hope will be more specific policy proposals in the future. From the information gathered from the 17 sessions, USDAC will decide whether to hold more imagining sessions, or what other steps might be taken locally or nationally, said Norman Beckett, the deputy secretary of USDAC. One outcome in the future might include policy recommendations to Congress, Beckett said.
According to its website, USDAC is “founded on the truth that art and culture are our most powerful and under-tapped resources for social change.” The name of the organization is intended “to get those conversations started,” Beckett said. The “imaginings” are meant to encourage local participation. “Part of the story with this fledgling department … is trying to model government differently,” he said. “It’s not a top-down approach.”
Beckett hopes the initial 17 sessions encourage participants to collaborate, and let them know they can be agents for change. “We want to do something that really unleashes the imagination,” he said.
Harris was selected as a cultural agent after USDAC sent out a national call for participants. A friend from Florida sent her the information and told her, “This is right up your alley,” Harris said. She applied, and ended up among the 17 finalists.
Hidden Voices, which Harris has directed since 2003, uses theater and other forms of art to allow underrepresented people to tell their stories. Past projects include the play “Home Is Not One Story” and the multimedia project “None of the Above: Dismantling the School to Prison Pipeline.”
“This is the first beta run to try to figure out what we’re doing,” Harris said of the imagining session. “It’s very energizing and funny, because everyone is envisioning something different depending on their local communities. … I’m hoping we have enough people from different walks of life [at the Carrboro session] so that that will become a very catalyzing mixture.”


WHAT: “Great Southeastern Imagining” session

WHEN: June 29, 2:30 to 5:30 p.m. (Doors open at 2.)
WHERE: The ArtsCenter, 300-G E. Main St., Carrboro
ADMISSION: Free and open to the public. For more information, visit