It was less than two weeks after the election that Quincy Jones told John Schaefer on WNYC radio, "The next conversation I have with President[-elect] Obama is to beg for a secretary of the arts." The legendary composer and arranger wasn't the first to promote that idea, but his comment juiced the possibility like no one had before. The bassist Jaime Austria, who plays in the New York City Opera Orchestra, took up the charge, setting up an online petition, which as of noon Monday, February 2, had nearly a quarter of a million signatures.
Americans for the Arts president and CEO Robert Lynch is among those who had previously called for a senior-level arts advocate in the West Wing. He acknowledges that Washington has provided some arts support through the National Endowments for the Arts and Humanities, and that the State Department sends cultural icons on ambassadorial missions. Indeed, the NEA may get a $50 million boost on its roughly $145 million budget, thanks to Obama's economic stimulus plan. But he says that even with increased funding, the NEA can't fully leverage the possibilities that American culture offers as a representation of America to the world. And it's not just about money.
"The existing federal infrastructure in support of the arts doesn't have a senior official in the West Wing to connect the dots," he says. "So when needs or opportunities come up, there's no one to talk about cultural diplomacy. Like when the New York Philharmonic went to North Korea [in February 2008] - that happened privately, so the U.S. government wasn't involved in one of the most significant cultural diplomacy events that we've had." The Bush administration even played down the concert, which reportedly involved the largest group of Americans to visit North Korea since the end of the Korean war.
But change is in the air. The current president has put action where his advocacy is, involving artists prominently in his campaign, which included an arts platform calling for, among other things, health care for artists. Lynch says Americans for the Arts, a national advocacy organization with 5,000 organizational and individual members, pressed for the same in a 2007 pro-arts policy brief, and again last month in recommendations on how the arts could be supported in Obama's economic-stimulus package. He also points to others who have pushed for a Secretary for the Arts. In 2008, the U.S. Conference of Mayors offered a 10-point plan for how the president could help American cities. One of the points was "the creation of a cabinet-level Secretary of Culture and Tourism charged with forming a national policy for arts, culture and tourism."
And then there's Bill Ivey. In his book Arts Inc., the former NEA chairman has also called for a senior White House staff arts liaison. Ivey had a role in Obama's transition team, so his voice may have extra weight.
Besides the New York Philharmonic's example of international diplomacy, Lynch mentions others that show how some cities - like Philadelphia, San Francisco and Miami - have benefited from cabinet-level arts liaisons in their mayors' offices, connecting dots between arts organizations and local economic opportunities. Cleveland has significant support for its arts organizations, with Cuyahoga Arts and Culture as a significant public-funding mechanism and Cleveland Public Art working with artists, developers and City Hall on projects in public areas. But the city doesn't have a dedicated voice for the arts in the mayor's office.
Alenka Banko, owner of Convivium 33 gallery, forwarded the petition supporting a U.S. Secretary of the Arts to her contact list, and thinks the city could benefit from something similar, to help coordinate departments on behalf of arts initiatives. "Even trying to put up banners to identify an arts district isn't easy," she says. "And that shouldn't be a big deal."
Of course, not all artists and performers are enthusiastic about governmental involvement. There are plenty who don't want City Hall or the White House to have any part in supporting the arts because they fear that funding and a politically connected voice would come with obligations and, potentially, censorship. Or that artistic work be co-opted to promote official messages, as happened under the Depression-era Federal Art Project of the Works Progress Administration.
Lynch doesn't think that's a real concern. "Art does not become subservient. The danger is for art to be seen as simply decoration and amusement," rather than an integral part of culture.
As far as money goes, he thinks no one is talking about enough money to compromise the arts and cultural sector because, he says, ticket sales and private donations account for about 90 percent of arts organizations' revenue in the U.S. Local governments provide a little more than nine percent, primarily by investing in community-development projects. Only one-third of one percent comes from the federal government.
In meetings with members of the Obama transition team, Lynch was told that the administration is taking the Secretary for the Arts idea very seriously. "They've gathered a lot of information. I would suspect within the next month or so we're going to see closure on a senior-level position."