by Sanjit Sethi

I want to make a distinction between spending the resources to fund or not fund a specific cultural project and the ability to devote resources to think about the long-term direction of where one wants to allocate resources towards cultural cultivation. Inherently cultural policy is a process of navigation. Navigation is about knowledge, the knowledge of the terrain, but just as importantly, it’s the ability to apply a series of skills to ascertain the direction one would like to go based on a range of factors some of which are in your control and some of which are outside of your control. Individuals or organizations that drive cultural policy should see themselves at the helm of a vessel where one is taking into account the determination to go in a particular direction, while at the same time accounting for multiple factors, which try as we might, are uncontrollable. The boat may be under your control, the engine may be under your control. There are many things that are under your control but those aren’t the only factors affecting your journey, and one needs to consider and think through those factors. Cultural policy should work in the same way.

Cultural policy becomes staid and automatic the moment it thinks it is the sole driver for any form of change. Similar to the navigator, the best drivers of cultural policy are ones that act with a degree of humility and with the acknowledgment of the forces they cannot change yet need to exist within. To my mind the two key ingredients to cultural policy for the next ten years are innovation and ethics. Oftentimes it can give us comfort to feel that policy drives programming. I think this is a mistake. Instead innovative programming should provide us with real world examples of how something works or doesn’t work, which then can determine a new direction in which policy itself can move. In the day of the 24-hour news cycle and twitter it is easy not to focus on the details; we can get caught up with the large picture, the big event. As millenials assume their place as the next generation it is important to take note of the many aspects that drive them, of cultural diversity and collaborative models of education, to name a few. The test of cultural policy of the future will be to harness innovation in a manner that continues to involve those individuals not already at the table.



Sanjit Sethi is Director of the Center for Art and Public Life, and the Barclay Simpson Chair of Community Art at California College of the Arts.  Sethi received a BFA in 1994 from the New York State College of Ceramics at Alfred University, an MFA in 1998 from the University of Georgia, and an MS in Advanced Visual Studies in 2002 from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Sethi has been an artist in residence at the Banff Centre in Alberta, Canada and a Fulbright fellow in Bangalore, India, working on the Building Nomads Project. Sethi continued his strong focus on interdisciplinary collaboration as director of the MFA program at the Memphis College of Art. His work deals with issues of nomadism, identity, the residue of labor, and memory. Sethi recently completed the Kuni Wada Bakery Remembrance, an olfactory-based memorial in Memphis, Tennessee; and Richmond Voting Stories, a collaborative video project involving youth and senior residents of Richmond, CA. Sethi’s current works include Indians/Indians, the Urban Defibrillator, and a series of writings on the territory of failure and its relationship to collaborative cultural practice, all of which involve varied social and geographic communities.

Don’t miss Reframing the Arts : Advocating for the Public Culture at Oakland Museum of California (OMCA) on Saturday, April 16! Register here.

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