I know you have a lot on your plate, and the arts might be the furthest thing from your mind, what with a global pandemic and a crippled economy. However, I’d like to help you meet some of your campaign promises, and I honestly think that the arts can do it for you. I, like many arts advocates before me, have a proposal, and it's not new or original; in fact, you’ve probably heard it waft around the halls of power several times during your tenure in D.C. The time has come for a new cabinet position. Let me be blunt, you need a Secretary of Arts and Culture and a Department of the Arts to help you deliver on your promises.
To state the obvious, the arts in this country are in turmoil. The pandemic has hit this sector much harder than other industries, and we don’t really know when or if things will return to normal. The bigger question is, how many of us can survive until it does? We need a seat at your table. I know that Agriculture, Manufacturing, and Transportation are vital pieces of the economic pie, but the arts account for a large slice of the GDP, and yet we don’t have the representation that such a profitable contribution should merit.
Artists can illustrate the diversity of our populace in a way that uplifts and unifies our population.
It wouldn’t be too terribly difficult to set up either. Most of the countries that we would consider ourselves on par with have one (Canada, Australia, the United Kingdom, South Africa, Vietnam, Germany, just to name a few). The tough part would be getting it through Congress, but it can be done. After all, the Department of Homeland Security was authorized pretty quickly in the aftermath of 9/11. Imagine if we could have had arts advocates in government during the early days of the pandemic. Instead of arts institutions begging for consideration from the outside, we could have, like Germany’s Minister of State for Culture, had a champion on the inside to make sure we were not forgotten. The massive $2 trillion CARES act allocated only $232 million to the arts, and it went to large arts institutions like the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA), National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH), Institute of Museum & Library Services, the Kennedy Center, and the Smithsonian. Germany, in contrast, secured $54 billion in relief for its artists, freelancers, and small businesses that support the arts. Now, Joe, I know we aren’t Germany, so I shouldn’t compare apples and oranges, but I thought the difference in the amount of funding as well as who the funding was intended for might seem significant.
At this point, you might be wondering why we need this new cabinet position when so many different arts organizations exist within the government of the United States, so let me be clear. This isn’t about creating a larger government, it is about consolidating and organizing what we have to be a better, more efficient arm of the economy. Right now, the Legislative Branch funds the NEA, the NEH, and the Institute for Museum & Library Services, but the heads of those organizations are appointed by the Executive Branch. There is the volunteer-based President’s Committee on Arts & Humanities (which lapsed under your predecessor), government funded museums like the Smithsonian and the National Gallery of Art, and even the Departments of State and Education have arts programs. Coordination is necessary, and I think that you can see how much we would benefit from bringing all those disparate groups under one umbrella.
Now, I know that Americans are historically leery of publicly funded art, and this has its roots as deep as the first European settlers on this continent and as shallow as the proliferation of propagandistic state art that were the hallmarks of brutal regimes in the twentieth century. Additionally, since art programs are often underfunded or altogether absent from our schools, we have become a nation who sees art as a luxury for the few, rather seeing it as the soul of our country, the expression of our people, and a vital psychological and social need. However, isn’t our culture one of our largest exports? Shouldn’t we want to secure more funding for those with ideas, but no means to execute them? And finally, since the government is always so deeply concerned with cost when it comes to the arts, wouldn’t it be more economical to consolidate arts organizations under a Secretary of Arts and Culture in your government to make smarter decisions on funding or purchasing?
I beg of you, listen to the arts advocates clamoring outside. There are people-led, grassroots organizations, like #BeAnArtsHero, that are showing you how much this will help your administration. You talk about a fight for the soul of America, let artists be your soldiers! We can help to bring you the unity you seek; art can heal the deep divides that have opened up all around this republic. Furthermore, the arts are an incredibly diverse field, and you speak about our nation’s diversity being a strength that we should capitalize on. Artists can illustrate the diversity of our populace in a way that uplifts and unifies our population, helping them to dispel the seeds of fear and antagonism that have been sown so deeply. Finally, you speak of respect for America around the world. You don’t seem like the strongman type, so I assume you mean to achieve this through a more indirect route. I can think of no better way to tell the world who we are than through our art.
So, Joe, if you made it this far, I thank you for reading, and I do believe you can make an impact that will shape American culture for years to come. Remember, that this doesn’t have to mean bigger government, just smarter government. It is past time to give the arts their due in the United States.
With the greatest respect and sincerity,