When Joe Biden signed the American Rescue Plan last week, the $1.9 trillion bill included a significant bump for arts and cultural agencies: $135 million each to the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities, and $175 million to the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.
Just weeks earlier, he signed an executive order that changed the formula so that self-employed sole proprietors, the lifeblood of arts and culture, could be eligible for larger PPP loans.
In probably the most visible expression of the value that Biden places on the arts came in the breakout talent from his inauguration: Poet Amanda Gorman.
Almost two months into the Biden Administration, arts advocates are encouraged but wish for an even greater commitment: A White House adviser, or even an office of the arts, bringing the U.S. closer to the cultural ministries of other countries. The idea is that an arts presence in the White House will elevate the importance of the creative economy.
The idea, says one of the boosters, Nina Ozlu Tunceli, chief counsel of government and public affairs and executive director of the Americans for the Arts Action Fund, is to see “more of a multi cross-lateral approach to get arts in every federal agency to be part of their planning and programming.”
She said that would be an important part of policymaking “to help integrate the arts into a larger federal effort into what is appearing to be a new economy coming out of this pandemic.”
As it grapples with the urgency of the Covid-19 pandemic, the Biden administration has not indicated whether it supports such a proposal.
But advisers on Biden’s campaign recommended such a post. Megan Beyer, who was co-chair of the campaign’s Arts Policy Committee, compares it to the White House office of Science and Technology Policy, which advises the president on policy across agencies. “To me, the arts are another powerful interdisciplinary tool,” Beyer said.
Kal Penn said that such a position could “coordinate arts policy across the government.” That may prove especially important in the recovery from the Covid-19 pandemic, which has been devastating to the arts and cultural workforce, as live and theatrical venues shut down, exhibitions and other events were canceled and small and large institutions saw a big drop in their contributions. It’s also an issue of a community’s economy, as cities and towns often depend on venues as centerpieces of downtown revitalization.
Such a position also would be different from that of NEA chair, as that agency has a primary task of distributing grants to arts organizations. The administration is said to be vetting candidates for that position, while it appointed four senior staffers in early February.
“There needs to be someone who can help use the bully pulpit of the White House,” Penn said, adding that it would be “empowering an administration official who has a 40,000-foot point of view.”
He recalls that when he served in President Barack Obama’s Office of Public Engagement, he was tasked in part to be a liaison to the arts community. Among other things, he recalls delving into issues like the problems musicians had when forced to check instruments when they got on flights, to difficulties that foreign artists had in obtaining visas.
“The reason a position like this would be useful, for even a nominal investment, are because of examples like this,” he said. But his focus on the arts could not be 100% because he had other communities in his portfolio, like young Americans and Asian Americans.
A Cabinet-level post is an idea that has been floated before. When Barack Obama took office in 2009, Quincy Jones called for the creation of a secretary of the arts. The proposal didn’t go anywhere, perhaps because it would take congressional approval. A White House office or adviser on the arts, however, perhaps could be created by executive order. Under one idea floated by advocates, an arts policy team could be placed within the Domestic Policy Council.
If there is political fallout for such a move, it would be predictable. The NEA long has been targeted from the right as unnecessary or even elitist, but the agency has survived. Even when the Donald Trump White House proposed zeroing out the funding for the agency and other cultural entities, the Republican-controlled Congress soundly resisted it. Trump eventually tapped a chair for the post, Mary Anne Carter, and she, too, urged an increase in arts funding. particularly during the Covid-19 crisis, and also backed the idea of a Cabinet level arts post.
Still, advocates see the Biden administration’s approach as far different than his predecessor, Trump, who seemed to have a love-hate relationship with the community. Before he took office, reports flew that Trump wanted to offer Sylvester Stallone the top NEA post, only to have his administration propose eliminating funding for the agency in each of the four years of its budget proposals.
Trump appointed some of his loyal associates and others to the board of the Kennedy Center and, for a brief moment at least, defended the D.C. cultural center from attacks from the right when it was allocated the first round of Covid-19 relief funding. But he also shunned the Kennedy Center’s signature event, the Kennedy Center Honors, after some recipients said that they would boycott a pre-awards White House ceremony.
Trump handed out the National Medal for the Arts but also let the President’s Committee on the Arts and Humanities dissolve. That happened after some of the remaining members of the PCAH, appointed during the Obama administration, resigned in protest over Trump’s response to the Charlottesville white nationalist rally.
The PCAH was created by President Ronald Reagan in 1982 to elevate the importance of the arts and through the years has included such celebrity figures as Sarah Jessica Parker, Forest Whitaker, Edward Norton, Yo-Yo Ma, Kerry Washington and Bryan Lourd, as well as the co-chairs during the Obama years — George Stevens Jr. and Margo Lion.
Rachel Goslins, who was executive director of the committee from 2009-15, said that the operating budget came down to rent and three salaries that were split between the NEA and the NEH.
“Every administration kind of used it differently,” Goslins noted. Bill Clinton’s administration saw it as much more of a think tank, producing reports and research around arts and culture. George W. Bush’s administration used it as more of a diplomatic tool. The Obama administration, she said, focused its work on using the arts and humanities on boosting communities.
Among other things, the Obama-era committee worked with Sundance Institute on a film diplomacy program, and on another initiative called the National Student Poets Program. First Lady Michelle Obama regularly hosted major figures to lead student workshops. The committee also was one of the champions of the National Youth Poet Laureate program, of which Gorman was the first.
Goslins said that one of the benefits of the committee was flexibility, as it could work across government agencies and with the private sector. An initiative called Turnaround Arts, designed to help struggling schools via arts education, was launched in 2011 in coordination with the White House, the Department of Education, the NEA and private foundations. A study released in 2015 of the eight pilot schools that were part of the initiative showed improvements in reading and math proficiency. The program has since been expanded to 70 schools but, before Trump took office, was moved over to the Kennedy Center.
Goslins, who now is director of the Arts and Industries Building at the Smithsonian, said that while reviving the committee would certainly be an option for Biden’s administration, she sees a benefit in putting the PCAH within the White House rather than have it the shared responsibility of the NEA and the NEH.
“I am so hopeful for the Biden administration,” she said. “I worked with Vice President Biden and Dr. Biden during my time and believe that they really get and understand the power of arts and humanities, and understand their importance.”