Has anyone stopped to ask what might be good about a "Secretary of the Arts"? I can't see anything beneficial.
Do we need more support for the arts? Definitely for non-profit arts institutions. We need more assistance for regional theaters, and museums and orchestras in smaller cities. Maybe some tax breaks for commercial arts in certain economically troubled areas. (New York City's film office brought a lot of of production work to the city during the city's financial crisis in the late 70's.) Does this kind of support require a cabinet position? I don't think it does. Maybe an Undersecretary of Media and Arts in the Commerce Department.
More importantly we need better arts education in elementary schools. If children are taught to sing, play an instrument, perform in a play, dance and to draw a picture, they are more likely to appreciate the arts as adults. They are more likely to attend the theater, a concert, a museum. They are more likely to bring their own children to the arts to share in their passion.
Do we need a Secretary of the Arts to increase funding for arts education? Maybe an Undersecretary for Arts Education in the Education Department might be appropriate.
But what exactly would a Secretary of Arts deal with - would he oversee the commercial arts (Hollywood, Broadway, the recording industry?) Or the 'fine arts’ only (symphonies, museums, opera and dance companies)? What would be his priority when commercial and fine arts come into conflict?
Would he only deal with giving out support money (like the present National Endowment) or would he also be involved with copyright policy and policing piracy? Would his/her job be to protect the arts industries or to protect the individual artist? Or to protect the consumer of the arts?
Like the present Endowment, an Arts Department would be dictating what is ‘American’ art by what it chose to support. There is no denying the present Endowment sways in the political breeze of whatever administration is in power. Why would a cabinet position be any different?
And while everyone is in the glow of Obama's election and the idea of who he might appoint as a Secretary of the Arts, how about the hypothetical Secretary of Arts appointed by President Palin, eight years from now?
As someone working in the theater, I have seen how helpful government funding can be - the path from Off-Broadway to Broadway is a great example of how government support can produce more jobs, bring more economic benefits to the city and (sometimes) create great theater. But I have also seen government funding used as a form of censorship, frightening producers or museum directors from provocative projects when it’s time to apply for new grants. Moving the arts up to a cabinet position only put the dangers of government funding on a larger stage where politicians are more likely to use it as a medium for their own agendas.
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In the age of the internet, the arts are in a complete uproar. All assumptions are off - all the paradigms are changing. The internet is also changing the nature of the consumer himself - tastes are changing - musical and visual vocabularies are changing. In such a turbulent time a Secretary of the Arts seems like a quick fix to help preserve some of the institutions that are suffering and disappearing.
But those institutions may have to disappear - or they may have to reinvent themselves as something that better responds to the changed world. Music and theater won’t disappear - but concert halls and Broadway might. Live performances will always occur - but in the future audiences may not even be in the same space.
In this shifting environment, government policy is the last place for the arts to find good ideas.
Instead of a Secretary of the Arts, how about an Arts Lobby, fighting for arts education, support for regional and non-profit institutions, and informing both the politicians and the public how the arts can benefit our society.
How about a Commercial Endowment, where a portion of the taxes normally paid by commercial arts institutions (media companies, movie studios, record companies), get siphoned off directly to the National Endowment to support non-profit institutions.
In the end, I think it’s all about the education - if we expose our children to the arts, they will become hungry for more. Their hunger will find the new forms when they appear.
But first we have to bring our children to the arts in a real, tactile manner. Once you have held an instrument and felt it vibrate from your own manipulation (even for just a few months) you forever hear music differently - you hear it as a musician.