Arlene Goldbard

Chief Policy Wonk, U.S. Department of Arts and Culture
Purpose Prize Fellow 2015

Long-time activist co-leads intergenerational social-change project that uses art to build community and shape policy.

The U.S. Department of Arts and Culture (USDAC) is a people-powered, artist-led effort to integrate grassroots and national policy work and advance social change through art and culture. Our fundamental commitments are to social imagination and the value of social creativity. Our innovation is to align purpose and pleasure for “serious play” that sets the stage for social change.

I co-founded the U.S. Department of Arts and Culture in 2012, joining then-25-year-old Adam Horowitz, who first conceived the idea. I never imagined that in my 60s I would muster the interest and energy for a completely new project. I always imagined I would just focus on my individual writing and activism. I certainly had no intention of starting an organization or project on this scale. It just wasn’t even a hint of a hint in my mind.

Too often, art and culture are trivialized as frills on the social fabric. In reality, they shape personal experience and civil society. Acts of imagination, celebration and cultural creation help people face challenges, bridge differences, co-create more just systems and build more vibrant and resilient communities. The assumption that quantifiable data is the only valid basis for social policy makes it almost impossible to incorporate deep concerns and powerful visions. We fall into seeing people as economic units, ignoring what they bring to our collective creativity and social possibility.


  • Over 170 communities hosted events in USDAC’s Peoples State of the Union 2015 and as many for #DareToImagine.
  • Since October 2013, USDAC has hosted community events in 40 states, involving 10,000 participants.
  • More than 4,500 volunteer Citizen Artists contribute to USDAC projects.

Our growth is thrilling: Over 170 communities signed up to host events related to our People’s State of the Union project, sharing stories online in a collective national self-portrait. Our Cultural Agents organize and host “Imaginings” – art-steeped community events that have included more than 3000 people. Volunteers come from a pool of 4,500 Citizen Artists who’ve signed on with the USDAC. Since October 2013, more than 10,000 people have been part of USDAC events in 40 states.

We engage 27 local Cultural Agents (with more coming on late in 2015), a 29-member National Cabinet and a 15-member Action Squad, which supports basic operations. We also partner with Imagining America, a consortium of 70+ universities nationwide, to develop USDAC college hubs. Because we want the projects to be replicable, we create toolkits and offer technical assistance.

My own encore story turns on an accident. When Adam Horowitz came to visit me, we had an endless conversation, aligned in our thinking. He could have been my grandson – that’s how far apart we are in age – and it was inspiring that two people in such different generations and life experiences would have a congruence of vision and shared passion for it.

I heard someone say once, “I don’t want to pass the torch, I’m handing out matches.” I like that. I want to get rid of this idea that you go sit quietly in the corner and the rest of us will fix the world. Don’t be afraid of people who are much younger than yourself. Co-creating this project with multiple generations has been one of the most engaging and meaningful things I have ever done.