Unicorns Unite: Another Call for a Secretary of Culture?

A cabinet-level Secretary of Culture? The arts world remains in the dark.
A Secretary of Culture?
The arts world remains in the dark.

With President Obama’s second inauguration now just memories-of the nation’s Chief Executive stuttering the word “states”; of Earth’s Chief Songbird, Beyonce, lip-syncing the national anthem-the time is nigh to trot out policy chestnuts that went nowhere four years ago and will no doubt go nowhere now. Yes, ladies and germs, we’re talking about that hoary joke called a Secretary of Culture.

Four years ago on this blog, almost to the day, the idea arose in media and policy circles. And why not? Those were heady times: a Democrat won the Presidency in a landslide and the soul-sucking nightmare of the Bush years was over. Who did not exult in thinking that this time, yes! yes!, the President would be super-hyper-mega-committed to seriously putting arts and culture into his fiscal program. Yes, it was gonna happen! You could almost taste it. Policy leaders wore bibs.

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Obama did fight for-and secure in the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009-a one-time $50M increase in funding for the National Endowment for the Arts, and that money did save jobs, create jobs and, equally important, buy the nonprofit arts industry desperately needed time to start absorbing the real impact of the 2008 fiscal collapse.

But a cabinet-level position? That horse was glue before it left the starting gate. And, in retrospect, we’re better off without it. Unless, that is, you’re a top-downer-meaning you believe that if only America had a Secretary of Culture who could formulate, dictate and implement a national cultural policy and strategy, the systemic and structural problems of the nonprofit arts world (falling contributed income, anemic earned income, audience fickleness, audience apathy, board dysfunction, et. al.) would suddenly transform into fine fettle.

One theory behind the idea of a cabinet-level Secretary of Culture is that an actual human being would be at the table as the West Wing runs the nation-to be able to get up in President Obama’s face and ensure that no matter what he does or says or whenever he goes to the bathroom he’ll think, “Arts! Arts! Arts!”

In practice, however, cabinet secretaries enjoy Presidential access through the Chief of Staff, and no Chief of Staff is going to prioritize a Secretary of Culture (“Mr. President, Malia and Sasha want tickets for Wicked“) over, say, the Secretary of State (“Mr. President, there are hostages in Algeria!“). So the top-access argument is a sweet one, but unrealistic. Not that the Los Angeles Times is deterred:

From the start, Obama had seemed a good prospect for becoming an arts president, and four years ago, as he was about to assume office, 76,000 people signed a petition, instigated by Quincy Jones, begging the new president to create a Cabinet-level cultural ministry patterned after France’s. He has stepped out to arts events and invited artists from many genres to the White House. But he’s kept that pretty low profile. The arts can be a lightning rod among populist politicians, and Washington is divided enough as it is. Clearly Obama has had other preoccupations than cabinetizing culture. But that divisiveness is precisely why we need a Cabinet-level spokesperson for culture. We have come to see ourselves as a country of opposites. The allocation of public funds for just about anything is viewed as a war between the rich and the poor. We color our states red or blue. Some of us love guns; some of us hate them. Go down the line, and there appears to be less and less on which we agree.

One thing we do have in common is our identity. Wherever we are on whatever spectrum, we see ourselves as Americans. It is that culture that makes everything else matter. The arts and the humanities help us figure out who we are.

A Department of Culture, into which the current NEA and NEH might be folded, may not be protected from budgetary vulnerability, but it would at least have more prestige and perhaps more stability.

Indeed, the author of this L.A. Times piece is a committed top-downer:

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It would also empower a public spokesperson for culture.

And therein lies another problem with this idea. In which America is one federal-level cultural bullhorn the best thing for the arts? Is not the arts world in America-for all its problems, dysfunctions and lack of unanimity-not fundamentally richer, stronger and, now and then, more innovative and dynamic for its diversity?

Four years ago, former NEA head Bill Ivey was, at least, more analytical and subtle about this subject:

So, despite what appeared on the CFR four years ago, we no longer think a cabinet-level Secretary of Culture is a good idea-never mind whether such a thing could earn Congressional approval. What we need is advocacy from, and advocacy for, the culture industries in all 50 states, from and for the millions of creative-sector workers who will act as their own spokespersons. (All right, except Kansas.) The arts in America is bigger than one voice. And no one more than Barack Obama knows the shattering power of voices joined together.