People have been sending me e-mails lately that urge me to sign an online petition calling for Barack Obama to create a cabinet level Secretary of the Arts. It’s an idea that was floated a few weeks ago in an interview by the musical plenipotentiary Quincy Jones. At first glance the notion of a high profile champion of the arts has some appeal. Why not have somebody at the big table to remind Americans that the arts are right up there in importance with Pentagon procurements and hog farm inspections? And God knows, with the economy in the tank, arts organizations will need somebody in Washington keeping them on the president’s radar screen.
All the same, I think I’ll remain a skeptic on this one. For one thing, we don’t require the creation of a cabinet level position in order to provide federal funding for cultural pursuits. We already have a National Endowment for the Arts, and increased funding for the NEA, which I’m all in favor of, was a part of Obama’s arts policy platform. But a full fledged Secretary of the Arts would a bad idea for a few reasons. For one, what do we mean by culture? Would the Secretary come from a background in the visual arts, music, theater or writing? Whichever it was, would he or she have the expertise to make informed decisions about the other fields, or even to appoint deputy secretaries who could? And would a deputy secretary for say, the visual arts, favor museums that did safe art historical round ups over contemporary museums that occasionally court controversy? (Meaning the sort of thing that the NEA has been careful to avoid for years, since the blow ups over Robert Mapplethorpe and Andres Serrano.)
And in the hope of getting federal dollars, would museums find themselves tempted to avoid mounting shows that might make the U.S. Department of Culture unhappy? In which case, what happens the next time a conservative Republican is in the White House? I don’t know about you, but I’d just as soon be spared the prospect of Elizabeth Hasselbeck as culture czar.