Office of the Vice President for Global Communications

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Guest Opinion

Secretary of Arts cabinet post needed, deans say

Addressing a nation in crisis, Abraham Lincoln ended his first inaugural address with a musical metaphor: “The mystic chords of memory … will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched … by the better angels of our nature.”

Almost 150 years later, hundreds of thousands on the national mall and millions worldwide witnessed the arts engaged to convey deeper meaning to this shared experience. The pre-inaugural concert at the Lincoln Memorial, performance of John Williams' original composition prior to Barack Obama taking the oath of office, Aretha Franklin's stirring rendition of "America the Beautiful," the spectacular visual/architectural setting, the media production, all serve as testaments to the spiritual grandeur evoked by some of the nation's greatest artists. The arts — textual, performing, visual, architectural, media — promoted and contextualized a significant global event.

Clearly the arts are a fundamental, inspirational, healing and transformative element of being human, yet they often are taken for granted. Their creation and performance chronically are relegated to positions of lesser importance. This can change.

Legendary music producer Quincy Jones, Americans for the Arts and other cultural leaders were emboldened during the primary campaign by President Obama’s call for a reinvestment in the arts. They and others are leading a nationwide petition calling for a Secretary of Arts cabinet position or a White House Council on the Arts to promote a more prominent place for the arts in national life, support the relationship between thriving arts scenes and strong communities, and foster the arts’ connection to economic and cultural development. We whole-heartedly endorse that petition.

Currently, the United States deploys some 100,000 arts and cultural organizations. According to Dun & Bradstreet, approximately 612,000 arts-related businesses employ more than 3 million people. Moreover, compelling evidence shows that arts organizations improve the quality of life of a region, and, in many cases, are economic catalysts. On average, about $166 billion in economic activity is stimulated by nonprofit arts events each year, according to Americans for the Arts.

Placing a prominent emphasis on the arts in everyday life is an important step toward moving away from materialistic values to a broader redefinition of American social values at a time of profound change. Innovation — a hallmark of the artistic process — is needed in all areas of American culture, politics and commerce as we struggle to find a way out of the current economic crisis. In Michigan, for example, where the 11.6 percent unemployment rate is a 25-year high, state government has embarked on a campaign to attract filmmakers. Through tax incentives and high-profile marketing campaigns, more filmmakers are conducting business in Michigan. It’s a modest, yet significant and innovative, addition to diversifying Michigan’s economy through the arts.

A White House arts leader would promote the essential role of the arts among the White House staff, the departments of state, interior, commerce, education and others by creating connections and stimulating dialog. In addition to advocacy, the role would include serving as America’s top arts ambassador.

Jones and other supporters of the Secretary of Arts idea point out that Louis Armstrong and Dizzy Gillespie traveled the world as cultural ambassadors during the Cold War. Imagine how many of today's artists could help rebuild and strengthen cultural bridges among people around the world. Not since the Kennedy administration has there been greater emphasis on the power and significance of the arts in American life.

On the education front, the arts can serve on the front lines of critical interdisciplinary activity. For example, at U-M, with support from the University’s top leadership, a new initiative — Arts on Earth — joins the arts with engineering and other disciplines to explore the creative power enabled through arts collaborations. High-level federal leadership could leverage, for many purposes, models like this occurring throughout American higher education.

Historical moments like the inauguration of Obama remind us of the inspirational common bond of citizenship. Likewise, creating a Secretary of Arts or White House position, whose role would be to celebrate and connect the arts throughout society, could be a powerful step toward helping all to appreciate something much broader — our common humanity.