THE FIRST 100 DAYS: Do We Need a Secretary of the Arts?

By Leonard JacobsWriter/Political Commentator/Editor, The Clyde Fitch Report

As of today, more than 224,000 people have signed a petition asking President Obama to create a Secretary of the Arts. I signed the petition, but reservedly: At the federal level, I prefer the arts to stay depoliticized. What I favor more is a public policy toward the arts that emphasizes its impact on jobs and economic growth. The numbers may pique both left and right.

Given these statistics--and the Obama campaign's articulation of a cultural policy as part of its national vision--arts advocates are eager for their part of whatever stimulus finally emerges from Congress. But arts advocates must be careful what they wish for, how hard they push and what language they employ in their cause.

Let me give you an example of what I mean. In a recent New York Times story, "Arts Leaders Urge Role for Culture in Economic Recovery," Robert L. Lynch, president of Americans for the Arts, expressed fear that artists could be "left out of the recovery." Any stimulus, he said, must show an "artist's paycheck is every bit as important as the steelworker's paycheck or the autoworker's paycheck."

Certainly Lynch is doing his job by saying that. But it would serve him well to heed the long tradition of American antipathy toward public arts funding. Later in The Times story, Lynch said that the Labor and Transportation Departments should also think about artists as they ponder their slice of the stimulus. So hypothetically, let's say it authorizes new high-speed train stations to be built. Ideally for Lynch, there might be a mandate for those train stations to feature taxpayer-funded art. While I am all for the many "percent for art" programs that some states and cities use as part of their capital spending projects, Lynch inches close to favoring a 21st century version of the Works Progress Administration, a signature effort of the Roosevelt era. And that would likely mean war with conservatives. A quick primer on W.P.A. will explain why.

During the worst stretch of the Great Depression, the W.P.A. literally saved the nation's creative economy-the Federal Theatre Project and Federal Art Project, to name two of its efforts, put tens of thousands back to work. When the Living Newspaper, a W.P.A.-sponsored performance piece, offered a work excoriating the Supreme Court for striking down aid for farmers, conservatives were furious. Already wary of federally funded art, this was the heyday of red scares, so the right rose in protest. Soon, Congress de-funded the W.P.A., satisfying those who saw in it only a slippery slide into socialism.

Federal arts funding has been a thorny, touchy issue ever since. President Johnson signed legislation creating the National Endowment for the Arts in 1965, but the agency's name is a misnomer: the NEA is not an endowment in the sense of a pile of cash invested in the market with a percentage of returns annually dispersed to worthy recipients. Instead, the NEA relies on annual Congressional appropriations-another hand in the Treasury's till. So when we're discussing the fiscal impact of the arts, when we're thinking about it in a stimulus-plan context, I believe Congress would be wiser to approve an appropriation of sufficient size and heft so the NEA could be made autonomous of the federal budget. For the left, a genuine endowment would ensure American creative professionals receive the support they need and deserve. For the right, an NEA that manages it's funding through the market, like any endowment or foundation, would comport with conservative ideals.

Well, one can dream, right? Tentative plans for the stimulus call for an appropriation of $50 million on top of the current $144 million annual NEA budget. And that returns us to the subject of the economic impact of the arts. Another $50 million will generate fiscal growth, sure: Arts advocates have proven statistically for years that every dollar spent by the NEA returns a multiple of that dollar to state and local economies. But over the long term, don't we also have to recognize that at some point, someday, somehow, the federal deficit will need addressing? What will become of federal arts funding then?

A nearly $200 million NEA budget, by the way, is minor compared to the comprehensive recommendationshanded to the Obama team by leaders of 16 arts-service organizations. They argue that their proposal-a $319 million NEA budget-would represent "a step toward providing a more appropriate level of artistic benefits to the American people." I'd like to see some numbers: How much fiscal activity would $319 million generate and how many jobs? But more than that, how likely is it that such appropriation levels can be maintained? How does this funding fit into Obama's long-term national cultural policy?

Those with ambivalence toward public arts funding are watching and waiting. In a Wall Street Journal op-ed, "An Old, Bad Idea for the Arts," David A. Smith, a senior lecturer at Baylor University, writes that he'd frown upon a Secretary of the Arts not to "oppose the National Endowment for the Arts or a government role in the culture of the nation," but because he rejects the idea that "all government arts policy should be centralized." Note how the final word of that quote alludes to socialism.

Nor is Smith's position the most extreme. In an essay, "A Plea to Unendow the Arts," Burt Prelutsky, a former TV writer and noted conservative, writes:

"If an artist can't be self-sustaining in a capitalist country as large and as rich as America, he should get into another line of work. It's certainly not the business of the politicians and the bureaucrats, who you notice aren't spending their own money, to support him and his artistic pipe-dreams." Prelutsky adds: "If 300 million of us have decided we don't wish to underwrite inferior work, where do a handful of senators and congressmen get off wasting millions of our tax dollars to keep these dilettantes in beer and skittles?"

Surely 300 million Americans have notdecided that all public arts funding equals bad work. But that's all right, Prelutsky assails private foundations, too:

"[I]f the trustees of the MacArthur Foundation see fit to bestow $300,000 in grants on a bunch of weirdos who write Eskimo poetry or build sand castles, that's their affair.... I can't imagine why they'd rather give all that money to some beatnik who makes giraffes out of pipe cleaners, and will probably blow the dough on cheap hooch and wild women."

My point is that arts advocates should focus on the economic-impact case for their sector, and soft-pedal the idea of a cabinet position and bloating our already bloated government bureaucracy. And while increasing the NEA budget will guarantee economic growth in the arts, unless the NEA can be made independent politically and fiscally, it is unlikely that higher funding levels will be sustainable. Only a genuine federal endowment for the arts stands a chance at long-term success.