Since Obama took office, I’ve seen a number of people call for the creation of a cabinet level Secretary of Arts (or Secretary of Culture), through op-eds, online petitions, and other channels. These proposals have left me cold for a few reasons. Most of the advocates of this measure frame it as a generic plea for the government to do more to support the arts. But why can’t congress just increase funding for the numerous federally controlled arts organizations that already exist? William Ferris also points out that the several existing arts-related government organizations (NEH, NEA, PBS, Library of Congress, Smithsonian, etc) sometimes have turf wars, and could benefit from some cabinet-level coordination and delineation of roles. Ok, but what is the nature of these conflicts, and could they be solved in another way?
I’ve not yet seen a really compelling argument for the Secretary of Arts position, which would, it must be admitted, seem rather frivolous to most Americans when the incoming administration has so many huge issues to deal with. A few days ago Tyler Green at Modern Art Notes proposed what seems like a much more practical move: appointing a White House arts adviser. Green takes as his model the White House science adviser, who deals with numerous agencies in coordinating a cohesive science policy. The White House arts adviser could play a similar role: advising the Department of Education on arts curriculum, the Pentagon on how to approach cultural monuments and institutions in occupied countries (remember the Iraq museum debacle?), the State Department on granting visas to visiting artists, etc. Apart from advising federal agencies, this arts advisor could help museums deal with the thorny issue of returning foreign artifacts to their home countries, and other non-federal matters that nonetheless have dimplomatic repercussions. Green discusses all these issues and more in laying out a pretty convincing case for this new appointment. Check it out.