More Obama/Arts Tea Leaves

Here’s an intriguing idea on the arts, from an guest editorial in the New York Times. Arts Czar, anyone? (Maybe in some kind of pseudo-uniform like C. Everett Coop used to wear as Surgeon General…a splattered painter’s smock with epaulets, folk art yarn sash, Kaiser Wilhelm spiked helmet decorated in day-glo swirls and rhinestones with a silvery papier mache bird’s nest riding the spike. One hand thrusting a dripping paintbrush forward above Ralph Steadman spattered lettering of: I WANT YOU.)

PUT CULTURE IN THE CABINET

By WILLIAM R. FERRIS
Published: December 26, 2008
Chapel Hill, N.C.

IN 1935, as part of the New Deal, President Franklin Roosevelt created the Farm Security Administration, which reached out to rural families as they struggled during the Depression. Roy Stryker, who oversaw the agency’s photo documentary program, captured the strength of American culture in the depths of the country’s despair. The photographs of Walker Evans, Dorothea Lange and Gordon Parks showed us both the pain of America and the resilience of its people.

In 1965, President Lyndon Johnson drew on his Texas roots when he created the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities, organizations that share America’s arts and humanities with the American people.

Both Roosevelt and Johnson demonstrated their forceful commitment to the preservation and celebration of American culture — and they did so in challenging times.

So what will President-elect Barack Obama do? Well, here’s a suggestion.

Over the years, America has developed an impressive array of federal cultural programs — in addition to the endowments for the arts and the humanities. These include the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, the Institute of Museum and Library Services, the Library of Congress, the National Archives, NPR, PBS and the Smithsonian Institution.

Each of these organizations has helped preserve our nation’s rich folklore — its music, stories and traditional arts — as a uniquely powerful voice for our culture.

But as chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities from 1997 to 2001, I learned firsthand that these institutions, though united by a shared goal, can sometimes run into conflict with one another. There were bureaucratic tangles, overlaps and missteps that, with foresight, could have been avoided.

Which is why I believe the president should create a cabinet-level position — a secretary of culture — to provide more cohesive leadership for these impressive programs and to assure that they receive the recognition and financing they deserve.

The president should initiate another change, too. The leaders of our cultural institutions should all have renewable 10-year appointments. (Some now serve only four-year terms.) Such a change would help to provide continuity and insulate the organizations from the tumult of political change. This move would allow each agency to develop long-term agendas in coordination with the secretary of culture in each administration.

Mr. Obama has an opportunity to revitalize our national spirit by strengthening our cultural programs at every level. It’s hard to imagine what could be a more important — and enduring — legacy.

William R. Ferris is the senior associate director of the Center for the Study of the American South at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

About Steve Patterson

Steve Patterson has written over 50 plays, with works staged in Portland, Los Angeles, Chicago, Detroit, Austin, Tampa, and other U.S. cities as well as in Canada and New Zealand. His works include: Waiting on Sean Flynn, Next of Kin, Farmhouse, Malaria, Shelter, Altered States of America, The Continuing Adventures of Mr. Grandamnus, Bluer Than Midnight, Bombardment, Dead of Winter, and Delusion of Darkness. In 2006, his bittersweet Lost Wavelengths was a mainstage selection at Portland Center Stage's JAW/West festival, and, in 2008, won the Oregon Book Award (he also was an OBA finalist in 1992 and 2002). In 1997, he won the inaugural Portland Civic Theatre Guild Fellowship for his play Turquoise and Obsidian. View all posts by Steve Patterson

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