So who are you?
I'm Adam Horowitz. I’m the Chief Instigator of the U.S. Department of Arts and Culture, coming now from New Mexico.
Is that where you’re based out of?
Yeah, these days.
Can you tell us a little about the Department and the project that you’ve been working on here at SPACE?
The U.S. Department of Arts and Culture is a grassroots action network of artists, cultural organizers, and allies all across the country. We are playfully animating this idea of a government department for arts and culture, which doesn’t exist in this country, but probably should. So we’re asking what it should look like. What would it stand for? What would it do? And how do we do it ourselves in a DIY way? I’m coming here now after two-plus years of organizing, at a time when we actually have an organization now — we actually have some infrastructure.
Part of the roots of my work are in performance and theater, so this is a delightful moment for me to step out of the nitty-gritty of running an organization day-to-day and to return to some of those ideas.
I came to work on a kind of participatory-performance-workshop-type-thing that could travel from town to town, city to city. It could help tell the story of the USDAC and the organizing we’re doing while also inviting in and lifting up the creativity and culture of each place that it visits so that it’s very participatory.
What’s this workspace you’ve been using here on Ryder Farm?
We are sitting in the chicken coop. I have it all to myself. It’s a great, open, white box with some mesh wiring. But I don’t feel cooped up, I feel rather free. I’m sitting here at a desk with hundreds of notecards and papers on the wall, trying to line up some of the ideas in sequence of how this might roll out. And if I get too much in my head, I can just look out the window and see the goats.
Are you starting to get any clarity about what this participatory workshop might look like? Yeah. I’ve got a little drawing on the wall here of a suitcase out of which springs a projector, and a screen, and an office plant, and all of the whimsical bureaucracy that comes out of being a people-powered department.
I started to sequence a flow. At first I thought it was more of a show, but what I'm learning is that it’s more of a participatory workshop. It’s rooted in three acts:
First, we introduce the Department and bring people together in a fun way. This way we can all see that this is a safe space and that we’ll get to play.
Then we dive into a personal cultural excavation. Who am I? What are the cultures that I come from? What are the gifts that my culture brings to me? And we do some exercises to bring that to the fore.
Next, we ask what is the culture of this place that we’re in? How can we begin to name what we really care about here and activate social imagination of what might be? How might we keep the culture of this place that we love? And through that, we introduce ideas about cultural organizing.
And then zoom out to a wider frame around culture and society in the U.S. We connect some of the local struggles and ideas to things that are happening all across the country.
But throughout all of this, we explore ways for people to be sharing their own stories and coming up with their own maps and ideas. Over the two or three hours in which this takes place, we hopefully build a lot of relationships among the participants so that they come to know each other and see what’s possible for them.
What are you looking to impart to workshop participants?
A lot of it would just be language and frameworks to activate and animate what they already know. For example, we talk about cultural organizing. We talk about cultural citizenship — this idea that you don’t need a passport or a green card to be a cultural citizen — what matters is creating a feeling of belonging. We talk about the idea of cultural assets — how are we looking around our communities and naming what’s there. So hopefully a set of language and tools.
These tools include things like Story Circles. Some of the methodologies by which we will gather in this workshop will be imparted in a way that enables people to then go — hey, remember that story-circle-thing we did, or that cultural barter, or that whatever, we can do it on our own.
And then, what’s exciting to me is that while organizations often come out of a story or out of a performance, it feels like this organization is different. The infrastructure came first and now we get to dip into this other way of sharing it.
So what I hope the people who experience this will come away with is— wow, not only did I have a great time, connect with neighbors, and learn about incredible projects that I can be involved with here in my community, but I can also connect to this national organizing effort through their actions, through these local circles that they’re helping to create, through etc. etc. So this becomes a Johnny-Appleseed-thing in that we leave behind a fertile soil through which people can continue to be involved.
When you talk about local projects with which community members can continue to be involved, what do you have in mind?
That could mean a lot of different things.
The workshop flow includes space to do a community PSA where people can just say — hey, I'm involved with something here that you should know about it. We’ve done this before with the USDAC: the excuse of a national organization coming to town brings people together who just ought to be together anyway but often don’t find themselves in the same room. So some of the local projects would be things that people are already doing and just need to have a platform to share.
But then the kinds of things we can help people get involved with would be Story Circles [link: http://usdac.us/storycircles/], the People’s State of the Union [http://usdac.us/psotu], and things like Dare To Imagine [http://usdac.us/dare-to-imagine/] where we support people creating an imagination station in their community. We have all kinds of toolkits, resources, and actions that people can get involved with.
And then for those who want to deepen beyond the pop-up, one off thing, we’re developing new infrastructure: we’ve created field offices, which are ongoing chapters created to articulate larger projects and goals.
In NYC, for example, they started doing Imaginings in different boroughs. Imaginings bring the community together to envision twenty years into the future using artspace methodologies. They allow us to have this dialogue about what it is we want to see in the future and how we can creatively organize toward it. So they did a first Imagining around the idea of creative strategies for fighting displacement. That brought 300 people together in a church in Midtown and quickly illuminated the need for more of these kinds of conversations. So they’ve continued to do those in different boroughs. Different cultural institutions are inviting them to do it. And that starts to become a larger strategy.
Or our friends in Kansas, who have a USDAC Field Office and are thinking about how to bring particular initiatives to city council — for instance, the idea of a Cultural Impact Report [http://usdac.us/report-on-first-two-years/ or http://usdac.us/cultural-policy/].
Is the hope that these Story Circles and Imaginings become regular on-going events in communities or are they intended to be one-off events to generate new local institutions?
Story Circle as methodology is something that I hope we can be a part of spreading, so that people remember that one great way of getting to know each other and actually doing strategic work together is by sharing our stories in deeply democratic forums.
But also the reason that we’re doing a lot of these Story Circles and Imaginings is to surface ideas from folks all across the country to then have a map — a bird’s eye view — of all the issues that are resonating in all these different places, urban and rural. We can then ask how to begin to formulate and push out ideas that really address these things. So it becomes much more than just another Imagining or just another Story Circle. Instead it becomes new programs or policies that might be supported at a local, state, or federal level.
Are you hoping that the USDAC will inspire the formation of an actual federal department?
That’s not necessarily a goal because having one is net-neutral. What matters are the values that motivate it, how much of a commitment it makes to real community culture and to cultural equity. What we’re more interested in is sharing ideas and building momentum for different kinds of programs and policies that could begin to live in government institutions — whether that’s city government, state government, or federal government.
For instance, establishing jobs for artists working in the public service, like we had with the WPA. Or we have one guy on our cabinet, Roberto Bedoya, who’s our Minister of Belonging, and he talks about how every city should have a strategy for belonging. Every city has a public health strategy — every city should also have a strategy for belonging. What’s the role of artists working in conjunction with city government or in city departments to ensure that the community is deeply engaged in processes and new projects? Not just hiring an artist to create a poster for something new.
So there are all kinds of ways of embedding arts in civic and city infrastructure that we can imagine and build support for. And there are so many of these kinds of DIY activities that we can proliferate at the same time.
Could you tell us about the other cabinet positions in the Department?
We’ve got about 35 cabinet members, each of whom has chosen their own title. Makani Themba is our Minister of Revolutionary Imagination. My core colleague, Arlene Goldbard is our Chief Policy Wonk. Yolanda Wisher — now the poet laureate of Philadelphia — is on our core team and she’s the Chief Rhapsodist of Wherewithal.
How did you develop this team?
It’s been a slow and steady build that began with initial research for the project, interviews with folks I really respected in the field. Then in the Spring of 2014, we put out this call for founding Cultural Agents. The idea being that we would create a cohort of folks who are doing awesome community-based arts and culture and organizing. We’d connect them with each other and see what we might do together. So a lot of wonderful allies came through that first cohort and subsequent cohorts. And some of them are now in a core team capacity too.
What’s coming up in the next month for you and the Department?
In about a week, we launch our Super PAC — the Super Participatory Arts Coalition [http://usdac.us/superpac/]. It’s based on projects that we supported. These are public-facing, participatory, replicable ideas for how we can counter narratives of hate during this election cycle. And then we’re gearing up for our first National Convening in St. Louis in November. [http://usdac.us/calendar/2016/11/17/cultureshift-2016] All are in invited.
2 to 3 years down the line, what would you like to see happen for the USDAC?
I'm so looking forward to having a bit more of the infrastructure through which some of these dreams can come true. And I'm seeing that happening in the next two years. We will always be scrappy, ragtag, nimble, and people-powered — and in order to support the interest, the volunteer-hunger, and desire to be a part of this, we need more in place.
Two to three years down, we have 12-15 regional envoys: folks who are in paid roles, organizing in their regions with the USDAC. Through that we see the proliferation of these learning circles, local actions, people finding each other, regional culture shifts, skill shares — that relational organizing side.
We also start to have success stories around some of these ideas. So our folks in Kansas implement the Cultural Impact Study. And we tell that story and people in a few other cities start to see it. Mayors start to say — oh yeah, our city does need a strategy for belonging, we should call up that USDAC. And then we can help them implement a jobs program for artists. So 2 or 3 years down the line, all of that kind of activity has begun.
If you were reincarnated as a farm animal, which would you be and why?
Oh, great. I was hoping someone would ask. It’s not a farm animal, but I did have a great time picking watermelons. So I’d be whatever animal got into the watermelon patch and meticulously opened and ate a handful of those watermelons.