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January 15, 2009, 05:06 PM ET

Do We Need a U.S. Minister of Culture?

More or less as I write, national arts groups are caucusing in Washington to formulate a proposal to the Obama administration to create a White House Arts Office, ostensibly to give the arts more prominence at the national level — but in actuality to lock in higher levels of federal funding for the arts. But they are not alone. Just a few weeks ago, Bill Ferris (chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities in the second Clinton administration) published an op ed in The New York Times calling for the creation of a cabinet level Secretary of Culture.

What’s up here? Both the arts and humanities communities were overjoyed (“flabbergasted” might be more accurate) when the legislation creating the National Endowments for the Arts and for the Humanities was passed at the height of the Great Society in 1965. They are, by the way, “endowments” in name only, since they depend upon annual appropriations for funding. Sadly, the primary architect of that legislation, Claiborne Pell, passed away only days ago. Expectations for the funding of the Endowments were quite modest at first, but in response to the public leadership of NEA Chairman Nancy Hanks (and the behind-the-scenes encouragement of Leonard Garment), Richard Nixon initiated what turned out to be increasingly generous appropriations to the two cultural endowments. There were from the start plans for a combined representation of both the arts and humanities at the federal level, but they never came to pass. Instead, a rather weak President’s Committee on the Arts and Humanities emerged, and it has occasionally been quite useful in bringing the two agencies together and appealing to the public on behalf of culture.

But, as most readers of The Chronicle will remember, the late 1980s and early 1990s witnessed what we called the Culture Wars, and with the election of the Gingrich Congress, the budgets of both endowments were drastically reduced, and neither agency has regained its appropriations level of 1993. Both agencies were also somewhat restructured in response to the political crisis, though the NEA was hit hardest, by far. In the new millennium the culture budgets have risen somewhat, as further accommodations were made to political pressure in the endowments, and both agencies are currently fairly stable. We are all waiting to see what the Obama appointees will say and do with the endowments, and those of us who have been unhappy with Republican cultural administration ought to be quite optimistic.

There have from time to time been suggestions for the creation of a federal Ministry of Culture in this country, but they have never received a serious hearing. I think the reason for this is the deeply ingrained American notion that culture ought to be local, associational, and private — and the corresponding fear that the nationalization of culture would pose a threat to the integrity of local cultural activity. Americans don’t want bureaucrats in Washington deciding what operas the Met should present or what subjects humanists should research — anymore than they want the feds to tell their schoolchildren what books to read. When we think “Minister of Culture,” we think Andre Malraux or Jack Lang (not that most Americans would recognize either name these days).

So what do Bill Ferris and the arts folks have in mind? I understand what the arts lobby wants — more money (and for the arts, since they don’t give a fig for the humanities). I assume they think a White House office would secure greater funding. I doubt that very much, and I can think of a great many reasons why such an office would be an attractive nuisance. But I am clueless as to what Ferris has in mind — he talks about “more cohesive leadership” as well as “recognition and financing.” He also wants the chairmen of the endowments to be appointed for 10 years rather than four. Does he not remember the tenure of Lynne Cheney? I could go on, but I won’t.

I think the idea of a ministry of culture is dead on arrival, and I think that is a good thing. What we need to do is to make the two endowments work more effectively. They have done it before and they can do it again. Some greater coordination across the cultural agencies (including the Institute of Museum and Library Services, the Smithsonian, the Archives, and others) would be an excellent idea, but it is a notion that we have not been able to operationalize for the past 45 years. Thinking about how to accomplish more thoughtful coordination in the cultural sector would be a fine task for the new administration. But, frankly, we face much more important problems for the Cabinet than how to please the patrons of the arts — or of the humanities — and the last thing the wildly expanding executive branch needs is a nationalization of culture.

(Brainstorm illustration incorporating a photo by Flickr user jim6800)

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