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The fraught United States presidential election cycle of 2016 has revealed a country divided along geographical and ideological lines. It has also bolstered a narrative of haves and have-nots, pitting the so-called coastal elites against “heartland” America.
But the question of who has, and who doesn’t have, cultural access has garnered relatively little attention. Between 2005 and 2009, the National Endowment for the Arts distributed $38,937.71 per 10,000 residents in grants to New York County, while Arkansas’s Faulkner County received $88.31 per 10,000. While a New York or Washington D.C. resident can choose from dozens of free museums and cultural institutions where they can interact with art from across the globe, residents of rural America might be hard-pressed to reach a single one.
In Taiwan, a robust East Asian democracy that last January elected its first female president, cultural equity is serious business—and it offers a strong model for the U.S. to consider. Since 1949, when Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalist Party fled to Taiwan with imperial treasures in tow as the Communist Party took over Mainland China, cultural stewardship has been a first-order concern for the Taiwanese government. The National Palace Museum, Taipei, is recognized globally as the leading research institution for Chinese art, and the cultural objects housed in it have lent legitimacy to the Taipei government’s claims that it is the true steward of Chinese culture.
As Taiwanese society grew more democratic from the 1970s onward, and as Taiwanese identity grew more distinct from Mainland China, the role of Taiwan’s cultural policy also shifted—from elitism toward inclusivity and from cultural chauvinism toward cosmopolitanism. At the beginning of the new millennium, Taiwan’s highest legislative body, the Legislative Yuan, announced an ambitious project to provide all citizens with equal access to national cultural heritage. Proposed in 2001 by former museum director Tu Cheng-sheng, the project had an explicit mission to address “the cultural equity between Northern and Southern Taiwan.”
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By creating a new southern branch of the National Palace museum, the government would correct cultural policies that privileged the more developed, metropolitan North, where Taipei is located, over the more rural, agricultural South. With the opening of its Southern Branch in early 2016, a poor Jiayi farmer can access Taiwan’s cultural resources as easily as a wealthy Taipei banker.
To that end, museum officials transferred some of the institution’s most popular attractions to the Southern Branch and offered free admission to residents of three southern counties for the first three months after its opening. Curators ensured that prized antiquities—such as the crowd-pleasing Jadeite Cabbage, a piece of jade carved into the form of the green vegetable—would make their rounds at the Southern Branch and attract local visitors. The inclusion of a permanent exhibition about tea culture across Asia offered an additional point of entry to residents of these counties, where tea cultivation is a major sector of the local economy.
While the National Palace Museum’s two branches share many works, each has a slightly different angle on Chinese cultural heritage. Unlike the older National Palace Museum, Taipei, which showcases objects from the imperial collections of past Chinese dynasties, the Southern Branch is forward-looking, laying the groundwork for a narrative of pan-Asian identity. Driving this shift is Taiwan’s underlying geopolitical strategy to decrease its dependence on Mainland China and increase its ties with the rest of Asia.
Thus the inaugural exhibitions at the Southern Branch showcased blue-and-white porcelain objects featuring Islamic calligraphy—presented as gifts between Chinese and Persian ruling families—and Japanese and Korean ceramics, which underscore techniques shared by Chinese artisans. Permanent exhibitions on Asian textiles and Buddhist art further highlight the history of positive cultural exchange across Asia.
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Drawing nearly 1.5 million visitors in 2016, its first year, the Southern Branch doesn’t just promote globalization in the abstract, it also positions Jiayi to reap its benefits. By investing over NT$10.9 billion (U.S. $350 million) to create a world-class tourist destination in this southern municipality, the Taiwanese government intentionally placed cultural industries at the center of Jiayi’s 21st-century economic development plan.
Museum officials drew on international models—such as the relationship between the Musée de Louvre in Paris and Le Louvre Lens in Pas-de-Calais, 200 kilometers to the north—to develop integrated programming that would drive some of the National Palace Museum, Taipei’s 6 million annual visitors to the Southern Branch. Taiwanese legislator Weng Chong-Jun has stated that these visitors won’t only benefit Jiayi’s economy through the tourist sector, they will also boost the region’s historic tea industry.
With globalization, Taiwanese farmers are forced to compete with cheap agricultural goods from China and Southeast Asia. And although Taiwan has a strong organic and local food movement, it’s easy to imagine why farmers might feel fearful of the trend toward globalization. Exhibitions at the Southern Branch serve at least two important functions: to educate viewers about other cultures, and to reveal that cultural purity is a myth. By showcasing the fruits of cultural exchange, the Southern Branch suggests that the strongest defense against protectionist tendencies is a broader sense of identity.
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The right to cultural equity is broadly acknowledged within the international community. The U.N. Universal Declaration of Human Rights asserts for all people “the right freely to participate in the cultural life of the community, to enjoy the arts and to share in scientific advancement and its benefits.” And the U.N. International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights asserts the right of all people “to take part in cultural life,” as well as the responsibility of governments to “achieve the full realization of this right [through]…the conservation, the development, and the diffusion of science and culture.”
The U.S. has lagged behind when it comes to the issue of cultural access. But in 2016, Americans for the Arts, the largest U.S. think-tank and advocacy group for arts and cultural research, released its “Statement on Cultural Equity.” By recognizing that all Americans deserve “fair and equitable access to cultural resources and support,” Americans in the Arts is echoing what Taiwan has long known—that cultural equity is the bedrock of a stable and flourishing democracy.