By Ruth Vitale
It’s Inauguration Day, and a long list of challenges await incoming President Joe Biden. From slowing down the rampaging pandemic to reversing economic catastrophe and healing our divided nation, he is going to have his hands full.
And yet, while I certainly do not wish to distract the President from the grave concerns facing America today, I would make one more request – because it is important.
We need President Biden to help protect our creative communities. An important component of that could be creating a position in his Cabinet for arts and culture.
America’s creative industries enthrall, enlighten, and invigorate us, employ millions of Americans, inject over $1.5 trillion into our economy, and constitute one of our most valuable international trade assets. Yet the arts and culture have never been in more serious jeopardy.
Pandemic-related closures threaten ruination to museums, theaters, concert halls, and cineplexes in every corner of the country. Production lockdowns have stifled a film and television industry that employs 2.6 million Americans, and, with people hurting financially and forced to stay at home, the already devastating plague of streaming piracy has become an existential threat.
The more than 5 million people employed by arts and culture organizations, and the 5.7 million workers in the core copyright industries – which include music, motion pictures, television, video games, and publishing – should have a voice. Not just because of artistic livelihoods but because creativity is so vital to American society. What if President Biden named a top-ranking government official who is devoted to, in the words of Washington Post theater critic Peter Marks, “nurturing artistic endeavors”?
There could be great value in having a national leader charged with coordinating the disparate public agencies that fund various parts of our arts and arts education, mostly on shoestring budgets. In the near term, it could be impactful to have someone who can spearhead a concerted movement to offer relief to artists, arts employees, and creatives who are suffering right now. And longer term, it would be great to have an advocate for strong intellectual property rights and sound trade negotiations, someone who can push back about policies that sell out creatives and create unfair carveouts for Big Tech.
High-level national arts and culture ministers can be found around the world. More than 50 other nations designate a similar official. The United States has never had one, yet the U.S. is the global leader in arts and culture. The value added by the core copyright industries to U.S. GDP reached more than $1.5 trillion in 2019, accounting for nearly 7.5% of the U.S. economy. Exports of our creative works not only thrill and inspire people around the globe but outpace those of other major U.S. industries including pharmaceuticals, agriculture, and aerospace – each of which sectors, I might add, have a representative member in the Presidential cabinet.
In other countries, arts ministers often accomplish remarkable things. In Germany, for instance, Monika Grütters, the Federal Government Commissioner for Culture and the Media, helped secure an astonishing $54 billion in COVID-19-related aid for citizens in cultural, media, and artistic pursuits. As actor and arts advocate Kal Penn recently told NPR, such dedicated support in the U.S would have a far-reaching positive impact:
When you say, ok, well, why did you spend all this money to save this theater — yes, you’re saving the theater, and maybe you’re saving the 500 jobs that the theater provides for the local community, but you’re also then saving the restaurants that people go to the night of the show… You’re saving the hotels that the visiting artists stay at. You’re saving, you know, the parking facility. And it may sound like very little, but when you start to multiply that by the numbers of businesses like this that exist around the country, you can see why investing in in the arts really makes economic sense.
The idea of having a Cabinet-level representative of arts and culture makes economic sense – and, at a time when our nation is in desperate need of healing, it makes social and psychological sense as well. Besides entertaining and edifying us, arts and culture help us understand each other. They promote diversity and empathy. They engage us with new ideas and voices from different backgrounds and traditions. And they show a thoughtful, engaging, and even humorous side of us to the rest of the world that can outshine political grievances and violence.
President Biden has declared that he really wants us to “see each other again, listen to each other again, and to make progress”. Lifting arts and culture to the Cabinet level can advance those goals.
It will not be easy – authorization would have to come through an act of Congress. But then again, copyright and creativity have always been bipartisan issues.
This seems like the right time in our history to evaluate the idea of a Secretary of Arts and Culture. What do you think? Please leave your comments on our social media pages.