Secretary of Arts: Good or Bad?

Two weeks ago I posted about an online petition in support of a cabinet-level arts official, along with a link to an article quoting arts leader Michael Kaiser, who is in favor of this. Last week, the Wall Street Journal published an article by David A. Smith, who sharply opposes the creation of a cabinet-level position. Although he recognizes that arts institutions are struggling now more than ever, Smith states that centralization is not the best way to address the problem. He writes, “It’s a fallacy to move from that idea to the prescription that all government arts policy should be centralized and placed within a cabinet-level Department of Culture.” Furthermore, he argues that comparing a department of culture to other existing departments is futile:

“Many will say (often in a testy voice) that the arts deserve a cabinet-level presence because they are just as important to the country as the Defense Department. While that’s something of an apples and oranges comparison, the deeper problem is that it assumes that the country’s defense and its arts can be furthered via the same sort of bureaucratic means. But while our nation’s defense would collapse in the absence of the centralized power of our Defense Department, having a Department of Culture – or even a “Cultural Czar,” to use that awful label we’ve apparently become so fond of – would be neither an effective nor necessary way to guarantee the health of cultural expression in America.”

I agree with Smith that art is a “more individualistic enterprise” than many other activities, but Kaiser points out that “leaving the arts organizations to themselves”, as is currently the case, results in too many divisions “among many offices”.   An arts official with a policy role would serve as a spokesperson for organizations, promoting increased support and cultural diplomacy.  We need someone to ensure that the arts aren’t continually placed on the back burner, but, as Kaiser rightly notes, Congress is unlikely to create another department because of the cost.  So, how do we save a struggling and neglected cultural environment?

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2 Responses to Secretary of Arts: Good or Bad?

  1. An arts official who ensures arts aren’t placed on back burners is equal to the bureaucratic task of lobbying and pushing legislation. Promoting cultural diplomacy is a dubious endeavor as well. How successful will one person be at generating cultural diplomacy? Art movements that combine people via geography and technology happen freely, and often in unexpected ways. Take the Japanese interest in the art of flamenco music and dance – this is an incredible elevation and sharing of the traditional Spanish art form – unaided by the countries’ governments. If anything, the flamenco is so closely guarded, many Spanish and Latin practioners look down upon outsiders. But now, the Japanese boast more flamenco schools than even Spanish and Latin countries!

    I just offer this as an example to dispel the fallacy that a culture czar can create or predict these kinds of synergies. No one is endowed with that kind of genius.

  2. Maria says:

    While I think the idea that having a Secretary of Arts would elevate the arts to the same importance of other cabinet-level matters, there are better ways of doing this. For example, creating a White House Office on the Arts would ensure that the arts are sufficiently considered by each agency. Under the past administration, the White House office of Community and Faith-Based Initiatives made sure that each agency reached out to community and faith organizations, resulting in more funding for them under existing federal programs. If coupled with a devoted funding stream– particularly something less subjective a like an entitlement program, where each state automatically gets a certain amount of money based on population or other factors– we could see funding for the arts in more sectors of our society.

    Having a Secretary of Arts could tie up and stifle the arts by overly centralizing decisions about how art is defined and which artists and art organizations are “worthy” of funding (note how controversy has been stirred up when the Department of Education has tried to get involved with curricular matters, which it generally may not– case in point: evolution, sex ed). With current laws (i.e., GPRA), all programs have to be able to statistically measure their impact and benefit. That is next to impossible with the arts. Also, having a cabinet level agency does not guarantee funding. How many times have politicians tried to eliminate or significantly weaken the Dept of Education?

    That said, a Secretary of Arts could elevate the national conversation, but we must consider the cost. Let’s instead try to think of more innovative ways to get the arts into more sectors of our society so that can be driven by public interest and the free market. Let’s get more funding for government research into the benefit of the arts in education, diplomacy, and health. Let’s get a new WPA into the stimulus package to employ artists, stimulate the economy, and make our public spaces more beautiful. For arts to stay innovative and personally-driven (rather than by a national agenda) we must preserve the element of personal choice and creativity.

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