Our Democracy’s Other Pillars: Cultural Institutions
Independence Day #242. On this day, our nation celebrates the founding of our democratic experiment — the United States of America — with fireworks, parades, and barbecues. It’s meant to be a festive occasion, yet I can’t help but feel a sense of deep concern. As imperfect as our nation has been, it still serves as a model democracy for many throughout the world. Yet, it appears that our democracy, and the important public institutions that support it, are currently threatened and facing profound challenges. Our media, institutions of higher learning, and public spaces — all vital pillars for accessing information, assembling, and exercising our collective freedoms — are under attack. Now, more than ever, our nation’s cultural institutions must engage with audiences to provide space for dialogue, inquiry, and reflection. As trusted institutions, our cultural community should play a vital role in bolstering democracy.
A series of recent reports sheds light on the state of the American democracy. This morning, I came across an article in the Washington Post (It’s Independence Day, but Americans aren’t feeling so proud) that reports on Americans’ impressions of our nation. According to the article, Americans’ trust in government is near an historic low; a record high number of Americans lack pride in the way our democracy works; and a majority feels the President doesn’t respect democratic institutions. Even more alarming, the Economist presented its Democracy Index earlier this year, which claims that “more than half the countries in the latest update of the democratic-health index saw their scores decline.” In case you’re wondering, the United States has been downgraded from “full democracy” to “flawed democracy.” Troubling findings, no doubt.
Moreover, two timely and important books examine how democracies are undermined and eroded. Harvard Scholars Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt’s book, How Democracies Die, illustrates how elected leaders can gradually subvert the democratic process to increase their power. These supposed gatekeepers attack democratic institutions including a free and independent press, deny the legitimacy of opponents, and reject the rules of the game. Former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright’s new book, Facism: A Warning, similarly shines light on the concerning state of democracies both at home and abroad. Both books draw on examples throughout the world, from the early twentieth century to the present, and raise alarm for citizens of the United States.
So, is it all doom and gloom? I think not. There are certainly opportunities with every challenge. Studies have shown that Americans view museums, libraries, and other cultural institutions as trusted sources of information. In many ways, cultural institutions reflect our society through art and cultural expression. These institutions have the ability to inform and facilitate the exchange of ideas. David Skorton, Secretary of the Smithsonian, wrote in early 2017 about the important ways museums strengthen our democracy. He stated, museums “collect, preserve and share the icons and artifacts that define America; they tell the story of country and our people; they convey the beauty and power of the arts; they explore and explain scientific progress, and they seek and share knowledge.” In his essay, Secretary Skorton warns that “cultural institutions cannot be seen as partisan or political.” I agree that museums and cultural institutions need to work hard to maintain the trust bestowed by society. However, I also believe that cultural institutions should not strive to be neutral. In fact, cultural institutions should serve as facilitators of difficult local and national conversations. Neutrality does not properly serve our public and, frankly, has the ability to inhibit trust.
Our nation’s cultural institutions are already addressing some incredibly important work. Decolonization, equity and inclusion, representation, and power structures are among the important themes guiding the internal work at institutions throughout the U.S. Public facing programs, presentations, and exhibitions are exploring difficult historic and contemporary themes and events. Moreover, many of these initiatives help to enhance our democratic values. When I was director of the Arab American National Museum, our team worked to address timely events that were impacting the constituencies we served in meaningful ways. For example, in the summer of 2017 during the 50th anniversary of the 1967 Detroit Rebellion, our team hosted a community forum delving into the causes and effects of the historic uprising. Later that year, we hosted programs including a town hall that explored the 75th anniversary of Executive Order 9066, which forced 120,000 members of the Japanese American community into desolate internment camps until after the end of World War II, and more recent executive orders by the current administration that similarly target and discriminate based on national origin and religion. Both programs were designed to inform audiences of important events and to facilitate dialogue in a safe and open environment. While opposing viewpoints and debate were welcomed, intolerance and hate speech was not. Our staff was responsible for the difficult work of preserving the sanctity of the space. In that sense, it was not neutral; rather, it was a catalyst.
A few other notable examples of cultural institutions providing space for us to explore our democracy include the Art & Healing: In the Moment exhibition and programming at the Minneapolis Institute of Art, which is a response to the fatal shooting of Philando Castile; the award-wining exhibition Prisons Today: Questions in the Age of Mass Incarceration at Eastern State Penitentiary; and the award-winning Detroit 67: Looking Back to MOVE FORWARD exhibition and project at the Detroit Historical Society. These are but a few examples of the important and brave work taking place at cultural institutions across our nation.
Far too often, our cultural institutions are perceived as nonessential amenities. This is most evident when there are proposed cuts to funding, such as those by the current administration, or during challenging economic times. Therefore, it is essential that cultural institutions rethink the ways in which they communicate this value proposition to the public. Additionally, institutions must think critically about how they empower and (re)train staff and governing bodies to be able to design and implement this timely and responsive work. Our democracy, and the communities we serve, depend on it.