President Obama has appointed 25 new members to the President’s Committee on the Arts and Humanities, a Reagan-era creation that combines representatives of federal cultural agencies (i.e., National Endowments for the Arts and the Humanities, the Institute of Museum and Library Services, the U. S. Department of Education, the Smithsonian Institution, the Library of Congress, the National Gallery of Art and the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts) with presidential appointees from the private sector.
The Committee’s composition suggests a kind of coordinating mechanism, something that links and aggregates cultural initiatives, focusing their impact as instruments of national cultural policy.
Although this could and should change, the Committee has done so remarkably little during its 27 years that its Web site has trouble filling itty-bitty boxes with substantive things to say about what has mostly been a parking place for important people who need to be acknowledged but not entrusted with much to do.
President Obama’s appointees represent a kind of change, to be sure: his list includes a glittering array of celebrities, tilting the balance toward consumer and marketplace culture, albeit at its best. It includes madly talented artists and people who’ve made significant contributions to the public good by lending their names and efforts to good causes. If this were the President’s Committee on the Consumer Cultural Industries, then I’d say it was an impressive group, if still flawed (for instance, almost all the practicing artists are in the performing and media arts; and it’s pretty much a black and white group—evidently no one felt much call to appoint a greater diversity of members, which makes a cultural statement, but not the one I would have hoped).
But since it’s the closest thing we have (which is not to say very close) to the type of public-sector collaborative other countries may seek in a coordinated cultural ministry, it becomes necessary to point out that despite community artists’ and teaching artists’ support of and role in the Obama arts platform, despite their active, energetic commitment to cultural recovery and its role in national recovery, despite all of their contributions to actually practicing cultural democracy, their commitment to embodying the values that got President Obama elected, there is not a single appointment reflecting the knowledge and perspective they bring. Nor is there anyone who is known for a body of work on the important issues of culture, community, democracy and equity that ought to inform the deliberations of any such body. Nor is there anyone whose work focuses entirely on art in the service of social justice.
So there’s change, and there’s that other thing: the fact that no administration thus far has taken cultural questions seriously enough to entrust them to people whose vision and knowledge is comparable to leaders in the areas of public interest they actually do treat seriously. Liberal or conservative, none of them have been able to wipe the stars from their ideas and see the real and important challenge of policy for culture in a democracy. I am so disappointed that the rapture with celebrity we’ve seen since the new administration’s earliest arts-related initiatives seems to have won out over the impulses that should shape policy.
Since this is such an impressive group of well-known individuals, though, virtually all of them seen as accomplished, intelligent and independent in their fields; and since all of them are free to exercise their duties as they see fit, I hope they will decide to bring two things to their task:
First, I hope each of them feels a keen desire to educate themselves about the parts of the cultural landscape they may not know as well as the precincts they frequent. (Start by investigating Art & The Public Purpose: A New Framework and the Community Arts Network, I suggest).
And second, given than the President has not yet appointed the full possible complement of 30 members, at least a couple of seats remain free. I hope that as good public citizens, the new appointees will encourage the President to name additional members who at least begin to fill the gaps I’ve highlighted.
The new appointees (who join Chair George Stevens, Jr. and Co-Chairs Margo Lion and Mary Schmidt Campbell) are:
- Edward Norton, New York NY
- Forest Whitaker, Los Angeles, CA
- George C. Wolfe, New York, NY
- Alfre Woodard, Los Angeles, CA
- Kerry Washington, Los Angeles, CA
- Anna Wintour, New York, NY
- Teresa Heinz Kerry, Washington, DC
- Vicki Kennedy, Pacific Palisades, CA
- Jill Udall, Santa Fe, NM
- Thom Mayne, Los Angeles, CA
- Damian Woetzel, New York, NY
- Bryan Lourd, Los Angles, CA
- Dick Cohen, St. Paul, MN
- Ricky Arriola, Miami, FL
- Alexa Wesner, Austin, TX
- Liz Manne, New York, NY
- Anne Luzzatto, New York, NY
- Agnes Varis, New York, NY
- Reggie Van Lee, Washington, DC
- Paula Crown, Chicago, IL
- Christine Forester, La Jolla, CA
- Madeleine Berman, Franklin, MI
- Sarah Jessica Parker, New York, NY
- Yo Yo Ma, Boston, MA
- Andy Spahn, Universal City, CA