Figurehead based

For Round III of Spring for Music’s Great Arts Blogger Challenge the third question is: “Many countries have ministries of culture. Does America need a Secretary of Culture or Secretary of the Arts? Why or why not?”

This is my answer.

Government support for the arts is always a point of argument. Advocates say it is necessary for the development, support, and expansion of artistic expression, stability for artists, and the acceptance of cultural diversity; others argue that it elicits favoritism, censorship, and stifles growth by wrapping it in red tape.

I keep trying to answer the original question by asking other questions: Should the government provide support – politically and financially – for the arts? Should art be subjected to politicization (disregarding the fact that art often makes political statements)? Should artists learn to rely on government support like welfare wards? Is it the government’s role to dictate what art is or what is culture? What the hell exactly does a minister of culture do?

The role of a minister of culture is to promote, protect, support and guide the culture of a nation. In many of the countries where this role exists, the position also oversees tourism, sport, education, and religiously sanctioned censorship. With 23 positions in or at the level of the President’s Cabinet, adding another seems excessive, but tacking additional duties onto Education (who has enough to worry about) or Human Services (sounds appropriate, but I’m not sure that’s what they meant) doesn’t ring true.

Do the arts – does the culture – need a leading political figure head? Don’t we already have it? Rocco Landesman, chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts, already fulfills much of the job description for the role. The NEA is an independent federal agency; President Obama appointed Landesman to the position. Would creating another position benefit the culture of America?

Instead, maybe we bring the NEA under the wing of the White House, rename it the Department of Culture, redesign the letterhead, print up some new business cards. Ba-da-boom.

Or maybe what we need is a CFO of the arts.

One of the issues faced by arts organizations in the current economic situation is purely financial: how do we afford to do this work, to pay the rent, to research, develop, learn the craft? Endowments, which were generated by private donors, had the rug pulled out from under them when the stock market tanked. Government funding was diverted through other channels. Most organizations were rattled by the situation; some closed up shop unable to evolve into the new environment.

Was this a necessary shake-up for arts organizations (and here I’m referring mainly to the large, cumbersome ones – symphony orchestras, opera companies, theaters, etc. though smaller organizations were hit badly, too), the wake-up alarm that signaled an unsustainable infrastructure? Would a national leader have applied a tourniquet to the monetary artery, staunched the outflow for weak organizations by providing additional funds? Or would that leader have supported innovative systems, financial diversity, allowed organizations to rise or fall based on the needs of their communities?

As I’ve stated in my first post for this competition, culture is constant. It is where we live, how we live, the way we live.

I live in Kansas.

Last year, shortly after we moved to Kansas, Governor Sam Brownback issued a line-item veto to the proposed budget to legally, underhandedly, and effectively eradicate the Kansas Arts Commission. While the Commission still exists, there are no funds and no staff. Because there is no state support, the NEA and Mid-America Arts Alliance could not grant financial support to arts organizations in Kansas. The state, while “saving” hundreds of thousands of dollars, lost out in $1.3 million projected funds from those groups.

Were Kansan arts organizations hurt by this action? Of course. Did that mean that the culture of Kansas ended? Of course not.

I asked my neighbor about the situation back in the fall, since he’s on the art committee for our community. He scoffed at my naiveté, “I’ve never had any budget.” Yet this community has been acknowledged for its display of public art.

After an onslaught of opposition, Brownback has suggested a new Creative Industries Commission which combines and replaces the currently unfunded KAC, but at a portion of their former budget. The legislators have accepted that proposal provisionally, allotting a budget over three-times the size of the governor’s. The bill is tabled, with voting in two weeks.

The newly proposed commission would operate under the auspices of the Department of Commerce. One of the main arguments from arts advocates was that arts generate funds within communities, but that they need “seed money” in the form of tax dollars. Brownback is calling their bluff, so to speak, and demanding that the arts become a viable member of income generating industry.

There are arts supportive organizations that don’t necessarily follow the taxpayer/grantee give-and-take structure. Instead, they try to get the commodity of art to pay for itself along the lines of a standard business model.

(Le) Poisson Rouge in New York follows a bar/club model and used investors for their start-up capital. Many groups, of course, still rely heavily on donation campaigns, with a mix of public and private monies. But they use the funds to create sustainable practices: Creative Capital is an organization that operates on a venture-capitalist model; Artist INC  is a Kansas City-based group that promotes better business practices for artists (and also receives and funnels national funds).

Do we need a Secretary of Culture? In my state, we’ve seen what can happen when a political move attacks and undermines cultural institutions. When energy is diverted to protect the means for making art – instead of being able to concentrate on creating art – the cultural integrity of a community, a state, and a nation is weakened. Does America need a cultural figurehead, a leader to organize, promote and protect our cultural heritage? I think we do.

Please head on over to Spring for Music and vote for “Proust.” You are able to vote at least once a day and I would appreciate if you did. Thank you for reading and for your support.

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