- Performing Policy: How Contemporary Politics and Cultural Programs Redefined U.S. Artists for the Twenty-First Century by Paul Bonin-Rodriguez
How might we understand arts and cultural policy as more than a merely administrative agenda for divvying and delegating grant funding? How might performance—as site, method, analytic, even as policy—help us to rethink the ways public culture is, or should be, organized in America? What—if any at all—is the performing artist's role at the so-called "policy table"? Paul Bonin-Rodriguez's timely Performing Policy engages these questions by charting the development of US cultural policy discourse over the past two decades and indexing the gradual emergence of what he considers to be a new spirit of "grassroots cultural policy" (22) since the culture wars of the 1990s. The volume is a welcome intervention that tracks the complex interdependencies of artistic practice and the infrastructures of its support: public, economic, and social. Most convincingly, the book serves as a vital call to arms for working artists to hone their own infrastructural imaginations and to reimagine their capacities for collaboratively performing policy—indeed, to reimagine "how artists can more effectively become the agents and co-creators of policy's work" (2) on both the local and national level.
Bonin-Rodriguez comes to the policy table with a rich array of experience—as performing artist, arts advocate, teacher, and scholar of performance and policy inside and outside of the academy. In fact, his own career trajectory mirrors the narrative and rhetorical thrust of the book itself: the conservative onslaught of the culture wars provoked a fundamental reevaluation of the "broad public purposes" (19) of arts and culture in America and of artists themselves as essential to the cultural life of the communities in which they live and work. As a queer performance artist from rural Texas who launched his career as an "outcast" (x) in the early 1990s, Bonin-Rodriguez came up amidst and against the material and ideological undoing of the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA), which in turn necessitated his own personal engagement with policymakers and arts administrators in order to imagine a more sustainable future, both onstage and off. Bonin-Rodriguez's own varied engagements with policy, then, as artist and scholar, demonstrate the ways in which he hopes "contemporary artists might articulate their cultural contributions and use that advocacy to collectively and conscientiously create public and private support" (25).
This book is one such attempt to stake claim to that "abundance" (xvi), and the unique and effective structure of Bonin-Rodriguez's argument models the very mediations between "policy" and "performance" for which he advocates. Three of the book's six chapters track the most significant "historical developments" (25) in policy since 1997 through close readings of the policy documents themselves and the proceedings and other performative circumstances that shaped and were shaped by this "immense and densely packed period" (21). By focusing on these foundational [End Page 180] policy initiatives—The Arts and the Public Purpose meeting in 1997; the emergence of the Creative Capital Foundation since 1999; and the Leveraging Investments in Creativity program between 2003 and 2013—Bonin-Rodriguez charts a movement away from a more traditional (mid-20th-century) idea of policy as grant-based support for nonprofit institutions as the bastions of culture, towards more heterogeneous and complex systems of support, which include "for-profit and community cultural sectors, and even time-based programs that maximize innovation" (1–2). Interspersed between his analyses of these programs and publications that have "shape[d] policy's interaction with artists" (11), Bonin-Rodriguez presents three contemporary case studies that document selected artists' responses to such developments. In these engaging and more personal chapters—documenting the Strategic Plan collaboratively composed by the Austin New Works Theatre Community, detailing a course of his own devising about policy and the humanities at UT Austin, and analyzing the impact of the NEA...