Over the next several weeks, President-elect Joe Biden will assemble his Cabinet. Politicos are scrutinizing the rumored contenders, from the suddenly all-important post of Health and Human Services, to the question of if there will be a place available for Biden's viral surrogate Pete Buttigieg (Veterans Affairs, perhaps?).
But unlike the governments of at least 50 other countries — including France, the United Kingdom, Japan, Ethiopia, Thailand, and Syria — there will be no culture czar to look for on Biden's list. The United States has no Department of Culture, and thus no Secretary of the Arts.
That doesn't mean Biden shouldn't attempt to create such a post while president: In the aftermath of a White House that was historically hostile to the arts, and in the midst of a pandemic that threatens some of the country's most treasured institutions, the American people need a centralized official with a direct line to the president to advocate for the humanities, both as a spiritual necessity and an economic one.
For most of its modern history, the U.S. has supported the arts through a fractured web of offices and institutions: The National Endowment for the Arts (NEA), the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH), and the Institute for Museum and Library Services (IMLS) are the biggies, and are given White House-appointed leaders. Other institutions, like the Smithsonian Institution or the National Gallery of Art, are likewise funded by the government. The White House also traditionally had its own volunteer advisory group, the President's Committee on the Arts and the Humanities, and there are some cultural programs that fall under the purview of the State Department and the Department of Education. Still, the support offered by these groups collectively is relatively meager: the NEA and the NEH cost taxpayers "approximately 0.004 percent of the federal budget individually," The Atlantic reports. For the most part, arts in the United States have to rely on private funding, and "efforts to create a centralized cultural agency" in the past have been "hampered at least in part by negative associations with Nazi propaganda and 'cultural planning' in the USSR," Slate has written.
The institutions we do have in place, meanwhile, are frequently under attack. The National Endowments for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities in particular have been regular targets for conservatives, who promise to eliminate their "wasteful" spending. President Trump, though, was exceptionally hostile: in 2017, 2018, and 2019, he attempted to entirely defund the NEA and NEH (Congress thrice rejected his call to cut the endowments, even boosting the budgets slightly). The President's Committee on the Arts and the Humanities also lapsed under Trump, after 16 of the 17 members resigned in protest over his response to the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia; Trump then announced he would not be renewing the Executive Order to continue the committee. Trump, further, has shown only marginal interest in culture, naming his first and only National Humanities Medal recipients last year.
The pandemic has added further strain on the humanities. "Based on our creative-industry analysis, we estimate losses of 2.7 million jobs and more than $150 billion in sales of goods and services for creative industries nationwide, representing nearly a third of all jobs in those industries," the Brookings Institution wrote in August. In July, NPR reported that a third of the museums in the U.S. might not survive the year. While Congress' March stimulus package ultimately offered relief for government-funded arts institutions, Republicans grumbled about the allocation, preferring the humanities were left out to dry.
To say the arts have taken a bruising, then, is an understatement. The creation of a new executive department, though, would protect America's cultural institutions from being perennial political footballs. Additionally, it would give the humanities a full-time advocate to organize the various agencies and foundations, rather than leaving each to fend for itself — something that would be especially important during a recovery process from an economic crisis like the one that's resulted from the pandemic. There is little dispute that exposure to art, music, and film make us better citizens either; when President Lyndon B. Johnson founded the NEA in 1965, he did so because he believed, however idealistically, "that if Americans could see what was on the other side of the tracks or the other side of the country, once intractable problems would disappear," art critic Philip Kennicott writes. Then there is the symbolism of elevating Culture alongside other executive departments like Agriculture, the Interior, and Education, which sends a message to Americans about the importance and priority of the arts to our national identity. After all, who wants to live in a country that funds Defense, but neglects its own culture?
Biden is likely to understand this far more than his predecessor, too. While he is "no aesthete," the president-elect has been "a consistent advocate for government funding for the arts" throughout his political career, The New York Times reports — including helping to negotiate $50 million for the arts in the 2009 stimulus bill while serving as vice president. Further, Biden is likely no stranger to the push for the creation of a Culture Department, having been lobbied for it before. In 2009, legendary producer Quincy Jones said he planned to "beg" the incoming administration to install a Secretary of Arts. "I have traveled all over the world all the time for 54 years," Jones told The Washington Post. "The people abroad know more about our culture than we do." Additionally, at least 15 organizations joined Americans for the Arts in petitioning the incoming Obama-Biden administration to centralize the nation's cultural policies once and for all.
Admittedly, Biden can't just wave a wand and create a new executive department; the process requires the approval of Congress, and a potentially Republican-controlled Senate threatens the sort of gridlock that would make the words "Secretary of Culture" a pipe dream for at least another term.
But Biden is also a man who is, first and foremost, concerned about the nation's soul. "I've long talked about the battle for the soul of America," he said in his presidential acceptance speech, returning to the theme several times throughout. "We must restore the soul of America." And while health and science and the environment will undoubtedly dominate his tenure in office, no country should neglect that spiritual core, the arts, particularly in times of deep division and hardship. As Jones so articulately argued to NPR: "Teach the kids throughout the country what their roots are about. Every country can be defined through their food, their music, and their language. That's the soul of a country."