If you work at a cultural nonprofit, think of all the time and energy poured into securing and abiding by grants or navigating the restrictions of wealthy donors. Now imagine devoting the same resources to listen to, engage, and serve the local community. I propose that a cultural cooperative offers a way to fundamentally reorient the economic and social relationship between a cultural organization and the people it aims to serve. A public history co-op in particular offers an alternative way to do our work while institutions crumble around us.
By adopting a consumer cooperative model, a cultural co-op would consist of members who contribute money or labor in exchange for a defined role in determining what services are provided. For example, residents could dedicate their time to a planning committee or a business might donate a certain value worth of resources. To resist replicating problems identified in historical societies or museums, the cooperative’s membership structure would need to be feasible and valuable to a cross-section of the community. Even then, the cooperative must make an intentional effort to collaborate with local institutions and networks connected to stakeholders with limited-to-no extra time or money.
All members would participate in the determination of services provided by the cooperative, whether an oral history project, community festival, or an after-school program for youth to paint historical murals. A cultural cooperative could, pending membership priorities, pursue cultural tourism as a way to deliver tangible financial benefits to a working-class community. With residents as members, the cooperative offers a strategy to engage with the risky economics of cultural tourism while resisting gentrification.
The resources pooled by the cooperative cover not only services, but the public historian’s income. As a result, a key component of the work of the public historian is to powerfully demonstrate the tangible value of her work and service to the community. By continually fostering buy-in, the cooperative fundamentally roots the attention of the public historian to contemporary, local issues. The public historian can—and should—still push the public to deal with contentious local issues of wealth disparity, racism, and sexism, but constantly frames the work in response to the primary needs of the cooperative’s membership.
Certainly, a public history co-op does not deliver a fully satisfying escape from the realities of capitalism. Questions remain about who funds the cooperative during the grueling early years of cultivating grassroots support before the organization is financially sustainable. Yet the concept of a public history cooperative provocatively applies shared authority on an economic level to redirect organizational focus away from donors and bureaucracy and toward the tangible realities of local stakeholders.
This post was adapted from a case statement prepared for the NCPH 2018 working group: Negotiating Power Lines: Economic Justice and the Ethics of Public History. If you would like to know more about this group’s work or are interested in building a cultural cooperative, please let me know.