Already anticipating a more culture-friendly president than the one who tried to eliminate federal appropriations for the National Endowments of the Arts and for the Humanities, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and the Institute of Museum and Library Services, some arts advocates are making noises about the creation of a federal Ministry of Culture, or if not that, at least a “culture czar,” as reported by Helen Stoilas in The Art Newspaper.
We’ve had this conversation before, art-lings: As I commented almost 12 years ago, when music producer (and friend of Barack Obama) Quincy Jones made a similar proposal:
The notion of a cabinet-level Secretary of Culture, promoted by Quincy Jones, music producer and friend of Barack, runs contrary to the pluralistic, appropriately disorderly nature of creative life in this country. As we saw during the culture wars of the 1990s, which imposed decency standards on federal arts grants, anything that potentially makes the arts into more of a political football is fraught with peril….
More government oversight will inevitably lead to more government interference and control.
That said, I was (and still am) open to the idea of designating a White House official “with advisory, not managerial, responsibilities,” to facilitate “better coordination among government programs involving the arts and humanities.”
The cultural community has justifiably taken heart from the Biden-Harris Transition’s inclusion of an “Arts and Humanities” group, listed first (thanks to alphabetical order) among its 40 Agency Review Teams:
David Skorton, identified in his current capacity as president and CEO of the Association of American Medical Colleges, is best known to CultureGrrl readers (and to me personally) as former president of Cornell University (my alma mater) and “arguably the most successful, least embattled Smithsonian secretary in recent memory,” as I had described him in a previous post. (He was succeeded at the Smithsonian by current secretary Lonnie Bunch.)
What I wrote the last time the notion of a Culture Ministry was broached still pertains today:
Many foreign countries have a tradition of substantial government subsidies for cultural institutions. When your government pays the culture bills, you need the oversight of a government agency. But there are big tradeoffs for being largely dependent on government handouts—not only the specter of government interference but also the sleepy complacency that comes from not having to make a strong case to outside funders….
A cabinet-level U.S. Department of the Arts would be a culture ministry without a cause. Our arts institutions are not going to get the kind of subsidies that have been common in Europe…nor should they seek them. Without a substantial financial underpinning, a ministry of culture would be added bureaucracy without adequate benefit.
For now, come join me in watching Joe Biden‘s pre-Thanksgiving address to the nation, about to begin at this writing.
UPDATE: I can’t seem to find a link for a replay of the address, now concluded. For what it’s (not) worth, here’s a screenshot:
Biden’s favored catchphrase, which I’ve heard him use before, seems to be this: “We must lead not just by the example of our power, but by the power of our example.” We can only hope…
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