Do you believe in a Department of Arts and Culture?

In thinking about what ‘illusions’ by which we want to recreate our nation, might I suggest that we consider a Department of Arts and Culture for the future. Consider the amount of arts programming that already exists, yet, in what ways can the Arts have an even broader impact?

As a very young photographer, I was greatly moved by the work of the WPA photographers, and one of my first favorite photographers, Dorthea Lange- her images were striking. I was struck too by the fact that she had been a photographer – that a ‘she’ could be a photographer. I began dreaming for such a chance myself.

I remember the woman’s face in the image entitled ‘Migrant Mother,’ taken during the Great Depression of the 1930’s. I remember feeling at the time that Dorthea had so captured this woman’s experience in one photograph, I came to fear the poverty for which the Depression is known.

As federal funding of infrastructure projects is debated and considered, I want to bring up

Migrant Mother a point that I believe is important to take into account. Yes, infrastructure is important (although I believe building the digital highway is as important as repaving the Golden Gate Bridge), yet, we must keep in mind that the jobs that come out of that investment will be in the majority for men. Given the nature of two parent working families, and the historical length of women in the work force, I really hope we don’t fall back on old models for stimulating the economy. Many mothers must support their children, as did the Migrant Mother.

So, I can’t help but think that having a Department of Arts and Culture that seeks to integrate the arts, artists, and culture as a partner in the recovery process – Let’s be creative in how we stimulate our economy. What we don’t need is stale plans from years back, we need creativity.

The arts can entertain communities, lift spirits, document challenges and lessons learned from our hardships, inform public policy on important issues of our time, local internet journalists reporting to local audiences about what the heck is going on right around the corner offering virtual painting classes for home bound seniors, to creating community projects that address the pressing issues requiring citizen dialog.

If you believe having a Department of Arts and Culture is a positive, join this drive to suggest such a project to the new administration. Visit

2 thoughts on “Do you believe in a Department of Arts and Culture?

  1. While i love the work done by artists under Federal One, I don’t think that would work today. If the federal government commissions art it is a major under-taking. Something huge and infrequent like the Vietnam Memorial or the WWII Memorial required a lot of discussion. Think about expanding this to thousands of grants? It would be a political correctness nightmare.

    Sadly, if the arts are going to remain viable, they are going to need to find their own funding, in what i call the ‘NPR model’.


  2. Thank you Mike for replying. I see how involving the government in the arts can be heavy on bureaucracy, particularly if the government becomes involved in monitoring the art it (or we the people) fund. I remember witnessing and contributing to the NEA debates raging on during the early 1990’s.

    What if the Department of Art and Culture was not about having discussions about the artwork itself, but to explore in what ways the arts and culture can play in the processing and recovery journey that we are currently engaged as a country. The arts can and do already play a vital, vibrant role in our society, and indeed, our economy. Many great nations throughout history and today recognize the role of the arts in a democratic society.

    What bothered me most about the NEA debates, which I find easier to articulate now with some hindsight, and more experience as an artist, is the notion that there has to be a national consensus on the selection of every funded work.

    What other part of life works like that? So, should we go into discussion about every decision made in other public institutions? As I do every day when I trust the state’s business to my elected officials, perhaps the Department of Art and Culture will not be about judging every funded work. Maybe instead, the Department will represent a national vote that we, collectively, believe art and culture are valuable – regardless of whether we, as individuals, believe in one particular work or not. Why don’t we tap into the incredible pool of talented and experienced cultural policy makers who are experts in the myriad of ways that the arts enrich our economy, our communities, our health, our democracy, our legacy, and our creative future.

    What does finding one’s own funding mean today exactly? What functions of the government should be required to find their own funding?

    The good news is that the arts are indeed an engine of economics. According to an Americans for the Arts study released in April, 2008, Arts-related businesses employ nearly 3 million people nationwide. More inspiring is the fact that between 2007-2008, arts-related businesses grew 11.6 percent – an increase four times greater than general employment.

    If we consider the billions and billions spent in the last eight years, for which we did not get veto rights, does it make any sense that the arts should be the industry to have to make it on it’s own?

    Considering the extremely small percentage of our country’s wealth that goes to government arts funding, one of the smallest among developed nations, isn’t it amazing that the arts have funded itself so far?

    Private donations and partnerships contribute greatly to the arts already, and in this the area we as a country as fortunate. Yet, time and time again it has been proven that sometimes art does not reach its financial peak quickly, sometimes the high comes several hundred years later at an art auction in New York City.

    I think its a great idea that artists are encouraged to become more business minded, as any small business owner should. I recently took a business management and planning course, and I felt more empowered.

    Yet, I do not believe that the arts should be singled out for limited funding because suddenly each artwork had to pass national muster. Consider the language by which, in 1965, Congress enacted the NEA and instigated a pledge of federal funds to “help create and sustain not only a climate encouraging freedom of thought, imagination, and inquiry but also the material conditions facilitating the release of . . . creative talent.”

    In 1990, the NEA’s mission was amended to vest in the Chairperson the responsibility to ensure that “artistic excellence and artistic merit are the criteria by which [grant] applications are judged, taking into consideration general standards of decency and respect for the diverse beliefs and values of the American public.”

    So, one can see, its no wonder that most of the agency’s time is often spent on deciphering language about decency and respect for diverse beliefs and values instead of sustaining a climate of freedom of thought, imagination and inquiry. In my opinion, its an ocean size departure from the original language, and spirit, that I read in the 1965 language.

    Instead, the 1990 language speaks to the notion that perhaps one or two or three or four of the grants may go to works that someone else won’t consider art, but that doesn’t make it less artful or representative of freedom in ‘thought, imagination, and inquiry…’

    Consider the billions spent on bonuses for defunct industrial barons in comparison with the amounts spent through the NEA on funding and the impact of the NEA debates on funding since then (source: Wikipedia):

    ‘Between 1965 and 2003, the agency has made in excess of 119,000 grants. Congress granted the NEA an annual funding of between US$160 and US$180 million from the mid-1980s to the mid-1990s. In 1996, Congress cut the NEA funding to US$99.5 million as a result of pressure from conservative groups, including the American Family Association, who criticized the agency for using tax dollars to fund highly controversial artists such as Robert Clark Young, Barbara Degenevieve, Andres Serrano, Robert Mapplethorpe, and the so-called “NEA Four.” Since 1996, the NEA has partially rebounded with a 2004 budget of US$121 million.[1] For FY 2008, the budget is US$144.7 million.[1]

    Well Mike, we may differ in this respect…or not, but either way, thanks for weighting in!

    P.S. See Post on 2-19-09 for information on recent funding for the NEA approved as part of the Stimulus Package, a hopeful sign that the art industry is considered one of the essential pillars of a democratic society, and for the U.S. in particular.


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