Does the U.S. need a secretary for culture?

(Cross-posted at BlogHer)

Late last month, formed National Endowment for the Humanities Chair William Ferris opined in the New York Times that the Obama administration needs a cabinet-level position “to provide more cohesive leadership” for several federal cultural institutions and programs, including “the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, the Institute of Museum and Library Services, the Library of Congress, the National Archives, NPR, PBS and the Smithsonian Institution.” Pundits who are usually eager to weigh in on presidential cabinet possibilities have largely chosen not to comment on this suggestion–demonstrating exactly why we might need a secretary of culture, or as I prefer to think of it, a secretary for culture.

Why might we need a secretary for culture? In the past, federal arts and humanities projects have been wildly successful at both documentation and supporting the creation of some of America’s finest artistic works. And if pundits aren’t aware of, or don’t care about, that history, then they need to be knocked about the head by–you guessed it–a secretary for arts and culture.

Ferris lauds both Franklin Roosevelt and Lyndon Johnson for taking bold action in such tough times as these–Roosevelt for creating the Farm Security Administration, which supported struggling rural families during the Depression and spawned photography by such luminaries as Dorothea Lange and Walker Evans, and Johnson for founding the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities.

Lisa Pruitt, a legal scholar interested in rural issues who writes at Legal Ruralism, wonders how interested in rural culture any Obama secretary for culture might be:

In part because of Ferris’s role in studying Southern culture and in part because of these opening paragraphs mentiong rurality, I thought his proposal might be particularly attuned to rural and/or Southern culture. I guess I am looking pretty hard for signs that someone is thinking about rural America as we prepare for the inauguration of a very cosmopolitan President and his incredibly urbane cabinet.

[. . .]

Ferris’s piece got me to thinking about the New Deal-era W.P.A. Writers’ Project, which employed writers to produce a set of travel guides called the American Guide Series. That’s a project about which I knew nothing until the New York Times series this year, “Going Down the Road.” You can read some of the installments in that series here, here, here, here and here.

What has struck me about these guides–or at least the New York Times coverage of them — is that they documented rural places. I don’t know if this was purposeful or not. Perhaps in the 1930s, rural places were viewed as those most needing documentation because little had then been written about them, whereas cities already attracted a lot of attention as bastions of culture, as inherently interesting places. If that was the case then, it is surely even more so now, when fewer and fewer Americans have meaningful and sustained contact with rural people and places and when rural folks seem to be popularly depicted as more marginal, culturally and otherwise, than ever before.

Sounding a similar note, Steven Rosen writes that Obama should revive the Federal Writers Project. (I would argue for a revival of the Federal Theatre Project as well, especially considering how poorly shows are doing on Broadway right now.) Rosen has some excellent ideas for specific writing projects the government might subsidize in the name of increasing both cultural literacy and historical memory.

Vivian Norris de Montaigu, writing at HuffPo, is similarly advocating for a secretary for culture, but she’s more interested in someone who can help us think about the culture we export rather than examining the gaps in cultural representation (for example of rural communities) in our federal institutions. She says, in short, that we need to set aside a business mindset when we think about art and culture:

Even those who like to think of art as simply business need to remember, that one must always invest in Research and Development, even if that part of the process is not profit-making. This means investing in our creative future, without thinking about the profit motive all the time. Maybe we can bring back the “public” approach to the Arts by actually creating a Ministry for Culture which will forever show the world that we are serious about how we express ourselves to the world.

Blixity points out that by not having a secretary for culture, we’re not keeping up with the (international) Joneses:

Call me biased, but pretty much all the most powerful nations in the world have one. There are Ministers or Secretaries of Culture in France, England, China, India, Russia, Brazil, Spain, Italy. And so on and so on.

It’s the 21st Century: America needs one.

Obama’s victorious campaign itself proves that images, words, beliefs, attitudes, narratives, and aspirations can bind us together, powerfully, as a nation (and tear us apart — as Dubya’s violent legacy proves).

Culture — the ideas, practices, and ideals people share — is a dynamic and critical apparatus of any nation-state. Mightier than steel, as Obama wisely put in his acceptance speech. More primal than religion, if I may add.

In these dark, fractious days, the strength of American Culture/s (or at least, the belief in it) just might be that magical something, that je ne sais quoi, that pulls us through to a new and better era.

I think a secretary for culture would be an excellent addition to the cabinet, but we need to remember that culture is more than high culture, more than what we see in national portrait galleries or what gets performed at Carnegie Hall. The Smithsonian has done an excellent job–to the tune of nearly 140 million pieces–of conserving the nature and culture of the U.S. and the world, and as Lisa Pruitt points out, NPR has done superlative work in covering vernacular life. Because culture is so vast, and because many kinds of cultural production have in the past been deemed unworthy of, say, NEH funding (unless it has to do with Jefferson–that agency has a real TJ fetish), it would be important to have an advisory council comprising representatives from many corners of the arts and culture.

Are you interested in having a secretary for arts and culture? You can sign an online petition asking Obama to create just such a position. The petition was inspired in part by Quincy Jones’s request, made at the BET awards, or a secretary of culture position in the Obama administration.

What are your thoughts?

Leslie Madsen-Brooks develops learning experiences for K-12, university, and museum clients. She blogs at The Clutter Museum, Museum Blogging, and The Multicultural Toybox.


  1. I think such a position is problematic. The history of the NEA is frought with near-scandal and outright censorship. I don’t mean to say it cannot have an impact on the arts, but anyone who supports a cabinet position for the arts should be clear that government-funded art is different than art created in the private milieu.

    I think government funding inhibits freedom of expression, even though it may benefit certain organizations, and can increase exposure in under-served areas. But private funding can go a long way to do the same.

    I’m against the idea.

  2. Great post. A Secretary for Culture would be a great idea for these troubled times. There are so many arts related jobs that this person could oversee and create. Perhaps with the advent of digital media, something the original New Deal didn’t have, the Federal Writer’s Project can go even further. I can imagine federally funded YouTube videos, Websites, podcasts, etc… that document life in America today. Artistic documentation of the United States Post 9-11 and Iraq and in the Age of Obama would resonate for generations.

  3. Great Post Leslie….and 88,000 people agree with you. A spontaneous petition was started my a NY musician in November after he listened to an interview with Quincy Jones who suggested the same things. In the last few days the Petition has gone viral by means of email, forums and blog posts and in the last 24 hours 19,000 people have signed it making that about a person every 4 seconds. There has been no press about the petition. The comments are passionate.
    I urge everyone to read the comments, sign the petition and pass the information on.
    I am a fine artist who lived and worked in Paris for 11 years. I know and have experienced how governments can help the arts whether it was the right or the left. I miss greatly the respect I had in Europe and believe this would be a great step for our American Culture.

    Candice Johnson

  4. This is a great post. It is shocking the disproportionate amount of resource committed to commerce, politics and the military versus the arts in the US. A Secretary for Culture is long overdue.
    The pentagon’s annual budget was U.S. $ 439 billion in 2007 vs the NEA which gets about U.S. $ 120 million. This allocation of resource seems much more problematic.


  1. […] surprised in the least to discover that the idea of a Culture Secretary had already been explored by others when Googling the idea, but let me add my vision to the […]

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