By Jacqueline Trescott
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, January 14, 2009
A call for President-elect Barack Obama to give the arts and humanities a Cabinet-level post -- perhaps even create a secretary of culture -- is gaining momentum.
By yesterday, 76,000 people had signed an online petition, started by two New York musicians who were inspired by producer Quincy Jones. In a radio interview in November, Jones said the country needed a minister of culture, like France, Germany or Finland has. And he said he would "beg" Obama to establish the post.
Listening in New York, Jaime Austria, a bass player with the New York City Opera, and Peter Weitzner, also a bassist, took his suggestion to heart and started the online campaign.
Depending on how you define culture, the portfolio could cover many areas, supporters say. "We are not quite sure, especially in this environment, what the secretary of the arts could provide, but foremost is advocacy for arts education and awareness of the financial rewards the arts bring to a community," said Weitzner, the host of a chamber music series at the Brooklyn Public Library.
Jones, who has been promoting the idea for at least 10 years by his count, said yesterday that he has specific responsibilities in mind for the office. He wants an education system that teaches the history and personalities of the arts, particularly music. "I have traveled all over the world all the time for 54 years. The people abroad know more about our culture than we do," he said. "A month ago at my high school in Seattle, I asked a student if he knew who Louis Armstrong was. He said he had heard his name. I asked him about Duke Ellington and John Coltrane. He didn't even know their names. That hurts me a lot," Jones said.
The reaction to the online petition is encouraging, he said: "It tells me that we are on the right path."
Recently, the U.S. Conference of Mayors and former NEH chairman William Ferris have pushed for unification of the government's efforts under one office.
The grass-roots movement has the support of arts administrators who have called for this type of visibility for many years.
"Whether you call it a minister of culture or not, it would be wonderful to have someone with a policy role to coordinate arts education, cultural diplomacy and support for arts organizations. Those activities are not coordinated but divided among many offices," said Michael Kaiser, president of the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts.
"We need a voice that looks broadly," said Robert Lynch, president of Americans for the Arts, a national lobbying group. He is advocating a senior position, not necessarily a Cabinet post. "We are calling for a person at the executive office level who understands there is a National Endowment for the Arts, but also understands the arts portfolio in the Education Department, the State Department -- and in addition to the nonprofits arts, is looking at cultural tourism, broadband access and trade through records, movies and videos."
Last month, 15 organizations joined Americans for the Arts in petitioning the Obama-Biden transition team to stop the fragmentation of cultural policy. The establishment of a Cabinet office would take the approval of Congress. A dedicated office in the West Wing would be up to the president.
For decades, the federal government has supported the arts and humanities through the National Endowment for the Arts, the National Endowment for the Humanities, and the Institute for Museum and Library Services. Funded by Congress, they are grantmaking agencies and their chairmen are appointed by the White House. The administration also has a President's Committee on the Arts and the Humanities, a volunteer group. The government funds a number of museums, such as the Smithsonian Institution, the National Gallery of Art and the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum. Other arts-related programs are conducted by State and Education, among others.
Jones said his idea is not a criticism of any of the arts leaders in Washington. "They are doing a fantastic job," he said.
Kaiser argues that the crumbling economy, as well as the advent of a new administration, has added some urgency to coordinating all these efforts. "Right now, we have an ecology of the arts that is very scary. We need a proactive person, or agency, that is going to talk to foundations, the state agencies, the organizations about this situation. Right now, we are leaving the arts organizations to themselves," he said.
But, Kaiser said: "I am not optimistic that Congress would create another department. It is expensive, it is another bureaucracy -- but we need coordination."
And Jones admitted that Obama "is facing too many crises. I am not an unrealistic person. He has got his hands full."
During the campaign, Obama and Biden issued a platform on the arts. It called for reinvestment in arts education and said "arts should be a central part of effective teaching and learning." It proposed creation of an "artists corps," taking young artists to low-income schools and their neighborhoods." Obama said he would increase funding for the NEA and the Education Department arts grants, beef up cultural diplomacy programs and ensure artists would have access to health care and fair tax deductions.
The platform advocated more exchange of American and foreign artists. Looking back to the era of Cold War arts ambassadors, when Louis Armstrong and Dizzy Gillespie traveled around the world for the government, the platform said, "Artists can be utilized again to help us win the war of ideas against Islamic extremism."
The leader of the arts and humanities review team of the Obama-Biden transition office, William Ivey, declined to discuss the idea.
Artists of every genre were part of the new team's campaign, and are highly visible additions to the inaugural festivities. In a recent interview on "Meet the Press," Obama, a best-selling author who has Jay-Z on his iPod, said that his White House would have room for "jazz musicians and classical musicians and poetry readings."
But Ivey, a former chairman of the arts endowment, wrote last year that the cultural environment had been neglected and needed to be fixed. "If the task requires consideration of a new government agency -- a Cabinet-level department of cultural affairs -- so be it," said Ivey.