At the start of this year, when then President-elect Joe Biden began announcing his Cabinet picks, he threw in a bonus nugget, boosting the director of the Office of Science and Technology Policy to a Cabinet-level position. That’s welcome news after four years of the Trump administration’s chronically dismissive attitude toward science-based information, whether hurricane-track forecasts or coronavirus cures.
But Biden’s announcement elicited a what-about-us reaction from another sector that has been marginalized for an even longer period of time. Across the country, representatives from the fields of music, theater, and other arts disciplines began to clamor for the creation of another new Cabinet post, this one dedicated to culture.
For most of the history of American government, arts and culture have been treated like second cousins, the afterthoughts. One of Biden’s predecessors in the Oval Office, Lyndon B. Johnson, acknowledged as much back in 1965.
“Somehow, the scientists always seem to get the penthouse,” he said, “while the arts and the humanities get the basement.”
It remains to be seen whether the Biden administration will consider bringing the cultural folks “upstairs.” But it’s worth knowing that the production of arts and cultural goods and services contributes over $870 billion annually to the nation’s GDP, according to the Bureau of Economic Analysis. The cultural sector represents a larger slice of our economic pie than agriculture, or construction, or transportation/warehousing. Also, cultural workers have the unique ability to be relevant and contribute to a broad spectrum of endeavors – in infrastructure projects, educational systems, health initiatives, social justice efforts, and much more.
If you look at the United States’ history of investment in the cultural sector of this country, the support has been spotty. Perhaps it began in 1800, when the nation’s capital was removed from Philadelphia. At the time, Philly was considered the cultural and financial center of the fledgling United States. Washington, D.C., on the other hand, was a brand-new city of grand design, but it was situated within a wilderness of thick forests and mosquito-infested marshes.
President John Adams signed legislation that provided $5000 for the purchase of books that would serve as a civilizing base of reference for Congress in this land that his wife Abigail described as “trees & stumps in plenty.” Thus the Library of Congress was born. But for decades after that, the library struggled with a small staff, a shortage of space, and the lack of a consistent annual appropriation.
A few blocks away, on the other side of the Capitol, the Smithsonian Institution experienced similarly unpromising beginnings. James Smithson died in 1829 and left his estate for the purposes of creating a center for the “increase and diffusion of knowledge.” But it took nearly two decades before the organization finally was founded.
Eventually, both of these institutions became Washington D.C. landmarks, within sight of the legislators who came to work in the Capitol Building every day, and impossible to ignore. But if it took Congressional members a long time to recognize the value of investing in culture in the nation’s capital, it took twice as long to get the federal government to understand that there was value in promoting and supporting culture out in the “hinterlands” of Alabama, say, or Idaho.
A National Conservatory of Music was established in New York in 1891, and the following year Czech composer Antonin Dvorak arrived to serve as the Conservatory’s artistic director. During his tenure in America, he composed his famous New World Symphony. But Congress neglected to provide financial support for the Conservatory, so it folded within a matter of years.
It wasn’t until Franklin D. Roosevelt was elected President during the Great Depression that culture got a real shot in the arm. Roosevelt announced his Works Progress Administration in 1935. A massive federal back-to-work scheme, it included programs to hire tens of thousands of artists of all stripes – composers, musicians, painters, sculptors, theater folk and more. Artists were tasked with designing posters for public health messaging, or high profile public art for post offices and schools around the nation. They trained unskilled laborers to create handcrafted toys for preschools and woven rugs and textiles for park lodges. Performing artists brought plays and concerts and puppet shows to areas of the country that never had seen such things before, while writers and photographers documented the stories of common Americans who had lived through enslavement in the antebellum South or the ravages of the Dust Bowl.
Building Back Better:
for the Arts
By Barbara Lloyd McMichael
Workers in Tieton, WA, install one of the fruit label
inspired mosaics in a project funded from the NEA.