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Biden reinstates arts committee that disbanded under Trump

On Friday, the president signed an executive order reestablishing the President’s Committee on the Arts and Humanities and proclaimed October 2022 National Arts and Humanities month

President Biden speaks during a ceremony unveiling the official White House portraits of Barack Obama and Michelle Obama. (Al Drago/Bloomberg News)
correction

A previous version of this article incorrectly referred to the Institute of Museum and Library Services as the Institute of Museum and Library Sciences. The article has been corrected.

President Biden signed an executive order on Friday reestablishing the President’s Committee on the Arts and the Humanities. The advisory group had been inactive since August 2017, when all committee members resigned in protest of Trump’s delayed condemnation of hate groups at the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville.

In the order, Biden highlighted the broad sociopolitical benefits of supporting arts and culture. “The arts, the humanities and museum and library services are essential to the well-being, health, vitality and democracy of our Nation,” the order reads. “They are the soul of America, reflecting our multicultural and democratic experience.” He also emphasized that the arts “compel us to wrestle with our history.”

The order was announced on the eve of National Arts and Humanities month, which Biden designated for October in a separate proclamation that was also released on Friday.

The move to reestablish the President’s Committee on the Arts and the Humanities (PCAH) continues a kind of cultural repair led by the Biden-Harris administration, which has proposed large increases in funding to federal arts agencies, following the Trump administration’s attempts to eliminate that funding and shut down those agencies. The administration has also overturned Trump-era regulations that controlled the type of art that could hang in government buildings and the style of architecture that could be used in new federal construction. The reinstatement comes after 2½ years of a pandemic that has left arts institutions reeling from decreased ticket sales and prolonged closures.

In the order, Biden recognized the arts’ sweeping impact, from bolstering “efforts to tackle the climate crisis” to advancing the “cause of equity and accessibility.” The president also specifically pointed to underserved communities and veterans as potential beneficiaries of his administration’s cultural efforts.

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The reestablished committee is purely advisory and will guide the president as well as the heads of the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH), the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) and the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS). It will help advance policy goals, promote philanthropic and private engagement in the arts, enhance the effectiveness of federal support and engage the nation’s artists and cultural leaders.

According to the executive order, the committee will be funded by the IMLS and will include no more than 25 nonfederal members. (Leaders of the Library of Congress, the Smithsonian Institution, the Kennedy Center and the National Gallery of Art will be invited to participate as nonvoting members.) The committee’s budget and membership have not yet been announced.

In a statement responding to the executive order, Maria Rosario Jackson, chair of the National Endowment for the Arts, celebrated the way arts “help us steward our authentic, deeply rich, and varied histories and narratives.”

“This is an extraordinary moment for the arts and humanities with this whole-of-government approach that will be integral to advancing the health, economy, equity and democracy of the nation,” Jackson said.

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Established in 1982 by President Ronald Reagan, the President’s Committee on Arts and Humanities is one of several groups that advise the president on topics as varied as business and fitness.

Under the Obama administration, the committee helmed the Turnaround Arts initiative, which brought arts education resources to low-performing schools. In 1998, it created the National Arts and Humanities Youth Program Awards to honor after-school arts and humanities programs.

In August 2017, the committee, which consisted of members appointed during the Obama administration, disbanded in response to Trump’s comments that there were “very fine people on both sides” at the Unite the Right rally, organized to protest the removal of a Confederate-era statue. In a mass resignation letter, the commissioners — including actors Kal Penn and John Lloyd Young, author Jhumpa Lahiri, artist Chuck Close and others — called out Trump’s support of “hate groups and terrorists.”

Previous members of the committee praised Biden’s decision to relaunch it. “As a working artist and arts advocate, I know deeply and passionately how important it is for America to have an elevated spotlight on the power of arts to help make us more human and connected to each other,” said Paula Boggs, a musician and public speaker, in a statement to The Washington Post. “Our Committee resigned honorably in 2017 but now it’s time for this Committee to get to work. I feel joy.”

“In such a hyperpartisan climate, it was encouraging to know the President’s Committee on the Arts and Humanities had survived uninterrupted through each administration since Ronald Reagan,” said John Lloyd Young (“Jersey Boys”) in a separate statement. “A West Wing that looks out for the vitality of our museums, libraries and cultural institutions is one of the rare things all Americans can get behind.”

The reestablishment follows increased investment in the arts by the Biden administration, whose American Rescue Plan, signed in March 2021, allocated $135 million for the NEA and the NEH. The White House’s proposed 2023 budget calls for $203 million to be allocated to the NEA, higher than 2022′s record-breaking proposal of $201 million.

The White House has also made strides in representation in the arts. Last year, Biden made two historic appointments, tapping Jackson to become the first African American and Mexican American leader of the NEA, and appointing Shelly C. Lowe to become the first Native American to chair the NEH. Earlier this year, Biden established a commission of experts to study the creation of a Smithsonian museum devoted to Asian American and Pacific Islander history.

Penn, who is best known for the Harold & Kumar films, believes the impact of Biden’s efforts on behalf of the arts could extend beyond American borders. “The arts are a critical part of our economic infrastructure, cultural exports and diplomatic efforts,” Penn said in a statement, in which he recalled a visit by a delegation of committee members to Cuba in 2016. “It’s so reassuring on all these levels to see President Biden and Vice President Harris relaunch PCAH. Not just as artists or as previous appointees, but as Americans.”

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