Lack of Interest and an Incoherent System
Late in my tenure as NEA chairman I awakened to the truth that our cultural system had been profoundly reshaped in the '90s by copyright extension, the DMCA, the demise of the USIA, and the 1996 Telecom Act, and no one from the "arts community" (save a few librarians) had been engaged in the runnup to these legislative, regulatory, and administrative transformations. What had passed for policy work in the arts during the Clinton administration had been about re-energizing the Arts Endowment, and while it was good to see the NEA budget grow again, the lack of interest in the system in which art gets created, distributed, consumed, and preserved was, to say the least, alarming.
Two reasons jump out at me: First, the policy arenas that define the US cultural system -- intellectual property, union agreements, media ownership, fair use, Internet openness and access, licensing agreements, music performance rights, mergers within arts industries, the promotion of American entertainment products abroad, trademark, name-and-likeness rights -- are legalistic, technical, complex, and take both artists and the nonprofit community into territory where few feel at ease. Also, I suspect that many fine arts nonprofits have viewed laws and regulations that define our cultural system as a slightly-distasteful necessity generated by the nasty "commercial sector": thus hands off.
Second, when it comes to effective advocacy, there's no policy hub, no "there-there," to push against. With copyright housed in the Library of Congress, trademark in its own department, mergers approved by the Dept. of Justice and the FTC, movies and recordings promoted abroad by the Office of the US Trade Representative, nonprofit funding in the NEA, broadcasting with the FCC, the Internet with...Well, you get my point. We've evolved some very capable advocacy groups around specific issues (several are on this blog), but at the end of the day, they can only nibble away at their singular focus. In the big picture no single entity in the arts has emerged to speak for the American people in addressing the overarching need to to balance marketplace forces against the public's legitimate interest in a vibrant, open cultural scene. Old friends of mine on this blog will not be suprised to see me state again that the US needs a department of cultural affairs. Until we have this central hub consolidating issues affecting America's expressive life the way the EPA centers environmental debate, we'll be punching pillows the the big dogs of the marketplace will rule.
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