Meaningful Engagement International

Development, Arts and Cultural Policy Consulting


A Seat At the Table: Supporting a U.S. Secretary of Culture

Posted on January 29, 2009 at 4:46 PM


Until the demise of my mother (The Minister) last year, we had a nice tradition of practicing our southern hospitality by opening our holiday table to those that couldn’t get home to family.  As a result, over the years, I cannot tell you how many Thanksgiving and Easter dinners I have shared with theological seminarians. Ever discussed theological doctrine over marshmallow yams while dodging sharp digs from a sibling?  All I can say is, "God help me." (I must have earned a special place in heaven by now).  Inevitably, before we would cut into the intellectual meat and I started praying for deliverance, that dreaded moment would come:


“And what do you do?” 
“I do cultural policy work.”
Insert sarcastic comment by sibling.
“What is cultural policy?”
Insert cynical comment by sibling.
“Does the U.S. have cultural policy?”
Insert cynical and sarcastic comment by sibling.
“I don’t understand”…or even worse, “That’s nice.”


Yet, even after my best explanation (and it’s good even if I say so myself) at a time when I was employed by a reputable nonprofit organization, I would be met with many blank looks before everyone turned back to the mashed potatoes and their preferences between the Old and New Testament. In a decade of trying to prove that cultural policy work is remotely as important as God’s work the grand total is: Seminarians: 12 Me: possibly 2.25. 


But this ignorance is not contained to holiday dinners.  For the past ten years, when sitting around any given table, the topic of my work would come up with mixed results. Ever tried to explain the cultural policy field to a date or prospective in-laws? I wouldn’t recommend it—it’s enough to get demoted to the kids table.  At best, someone can reference the National Endowment for the Arts, the Culture Wars, or arts management.  Even with long-term friends, there is still a mystery about my work.  I have several friends and acquaintances who really believe that my cultural policy consultant “work” is just a cover for James Bond activities; until I remind them that if that were the case I would be getting paid a whole heck of a lot more and I’d be more physically fit to boot.  Abroad, with cultural policy colleagues, there is a different challenge to address: the disbelief that the U.S. can care about culture or have cultural policies if we don’t have a cultural ministry. This view is often held equally with the erroneous belief that the homogenization of culture is directly and intentionally supported by the U.S. government through the financial support of the creative industries.   


 “All this to say” (to quote my favorite Canadian expression), at this time in history when American dreams seem possible again, I would like to share mine.  I want to live in a world where just once at a table I can state simply, “I work in U.S. cultural policy” and have that mean something. Now, after ten years of passionate commitment to this growing, albeit little-known and little-understood field, I can finally see the light at the end of the tunnel.


For the first time that I can remember, the idea of a cabinet -level representative for culture has made it into the mainstream.  Last week, newspapers around the country picked up the news that Quincy Jones was advocating for a Secretary of Culture and NPR featured a segment, “Does the U.S. Need a Culture Czar?” Support for such an idea has been building all year: In Arts Inc, Bill Ivey recommended a cabinet-level position for culture and the arts service organizations have recommended having senior representatives with a cultural voice at the White House, on the National Security Council Council and the Domestic Policy Council as well as a senior-level representative to coordinate culture. But these articles and the petition it featured just might be the catalyst I have been waiting for.




Dear Mr. President:


You have made me believe in the possibility that myself, my fellow citizens and my country can live up to our highest potential and so I ask you to please seriously consider a Secretary of Culture. This is not only to support the successful pursuit of my own happiness made possible by  continuing to work in a field I feel called to, but because the greater good of the United States depends on it.   Although, America’s arts and cultural field has certainly contributed to the cornucopia of U.S. wealth through opportunities and resources, creativity, economic prosperity, vibrant communities and a healthy democracy, we have been forgotten when it comes to having a seat at the table of governance.


Recently, a petition was started to gather support for such a position.  Please sign me up in full support! However, please also consider the following.  Do not be too hasty in your appointment. Not only because the idea of a Czar, or any dictator for that matter, gives me the shivers.  But, because, any cultural leader will need to unify and communicate effectively to both build bridges domestically and abroad.  The cultural field is broad-- stretching from the creative/copyright/cultural industries to the nonprofit sector encompassing  popular, traditional and hybrid expressions-- and as such has a variety of needs. I would be wary of a representative that emphasizes any one part of the agenda over another and so will the rest of a field that has a history of jealous competition over prestige and resources.  In the past, our lack of an executive voice for culture has kept us from many tables and prevented us from making the most of our cultural resources as policies were implemented that inadvertently affected culture without proper consideration of the consequences. Additionally, too many times the U.S. has been excluded from serious international discussions on cultural policy related issues because we do not have a representative. Thus, it is imperative that before selecting an individual, we as a nation need to carefully consider what our Secretary of Culture should actually do!


First of all, this conversation is more than just about investing in arts and culture financially and this position should be more than giving a posh job to a celebrity or a favored political contributor. Consider the following seven-area framework established by the Center for Arts and Culture that identifies where public policy intersects with culture along with some examples:


Access and Equity: media consolidation, net neutrality, digital divide
Community: health of communities, urban planning, public art, demographics, arts and healthcare
Education and the Creative Workforce: arts education, educating a creative workforce, creative economy, new technologies
International and Globalization: cultural diplomacy, comparative studies, cultural diversity
Investment: supporting a healthy arts and cultural field and diversity of expression
Law: intellectual property rights, privacy, immigration, language policy
Preservation: maintaining cultural resources, heritage lists, museums


Then consider: Where are some of the areas where cultural policy touches your own life?

  1. Does it matter to you what kinds of content you can access on TV, in the news or the internet? What if we lived in a world where every channel was Fox News or we couldn’t get our favorite paper?


  2. Do you care how many times you can duplicate files from iTunes or whether you can access files from the Gutenberg Project on your electronic book reader? We need to consider how much competition there should be in industries that support creative products.


  3. Do you worry about if your kids will get the skills they need to work in an increasingly globalized, competitive and creative economy?


  4. Does it bother you that companies own the majority of all creative content effectively keeping it out of the public domain in the equivalent of the Disney vault?


  5. Do you think it is important to have access to our cultural heritage?  Consider that the Smithsonian is renowned world wide because it is FREE and available to all regardless of income.


  6. Do you care that the predominant perceptions of American life are spread through, often outdated, popular cultural products that emphasize stereotypes to the rest of the world?


  7. Have you reflected that the U.S.'s reputation, prior to your election, was at an all time low because we haven't done an effective job of explaining our values?

Now that I hopefully have your attention, I want to assure you, this new Secretary doesn’t need the biggest office or the biggest budget in Washington. Woo the field by taking us seriously and considering what we actually need.   

  1. We need a point person for culture. U.S. cultural policy is completely decentralized to the point that it is harmful. American cultural policy for the most part is passive and linked to other more established policy fields. Ultimately, this does more harm than good.  Don’t be alarmed. I am not talking about replacing the cultural agencies or even coordinating all policies out of the Secretary’s office. Instead, we need a liaison with a bird’s eye view that has enough cache to work with other fields to represent the consequences of policies on cultural life. 


  2. We need to establish what our cultural values are.  Bill Ivey, your arts and culture transition guy, established an excellent statement of cultural rights; a framework that puts us more in alignment with international conversations on culture (see the book Arts Inc. it’s a must read!).  The United States needs to adopt a similar value statement on how best to serve the public interest on matters pertaining to cultural life and expression.


  3.  We need a designated key international cultural ambassador. Other nations and international NGOs want to engage with us on cultural issues and don’t know where to start.    


  4. We need to educate the next generation and provide tools to ensure the health and sustainability of our creative communities.

Consider further what the establishment of a Secretary position could do. It would give credibility to the field. The environmental field didn't take off until the EPA was established and we are poised and ready to take flight. As a field we need to transfer knowledge and provide mentors. We have a huge gap between generations and our methods of transfer are inadequate.  For a long time, our academic answer in the U.S. has been to serve arts management with a diet slice of arts policy on the side--and trust me it doesn’t taste the same.


There are so many members of my generation and younger who want to work in cultural policy but move on to other fields, arts management or generic public policy because the training and the opportunities just aren’t there.  Upon graduation, many find that it is difficult to find work in the field, even as an arts manager.  In a country that prides itself on its diversity, heritage and creativity, this is not serving our cultural community or the public interest.  Numerous studies have shown that the nonprofit sector is expected to shrink. So why are we primarily turning out managers?  We need to be turning out lawyers, creative economists, cultural demographic specialists, community activists, lobbyists, technical specialists, researchers, cultural trade and comparative experts.


The arts and cultural policy field has increasingly professionalized and maximized its interdisciplinary nature.  We are ready to be taken seriously and given the chance to fully use our resources to make the U.S. the strongest it can be. It is time to give us a real voice. 


Thank you for your consideration!


And for the rest of you…U.S. citizens, residents and foreign friends alike, if you plan on sitting across from me at any point: happy hour, a meeting, on public transportation, or at a family dinner, I beg you please, please sign this petition which can be found at this link ( And if everything goes right, maybe by American Thanksgiving we’ll have a Secretary of Culture. If so, I’ll even invite the seminarians back for dinner.  

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Reply Barbara Figge Fox
10:45 AM on February 11, 2009 
Aimee, you are doing such important work. The timeline -- it is mind boggling. And this is a great blog entry because you piqued my interest with the personal and led me chuckling to the main course. I will forward it to my dance critic colleagues...
Reply M. Sharon Jeannotte
2:39 PM on March 10, 2009 
Good comments Aimee. As someone from the Great White North who has attended many international conferences and symposia on various aspects of cultural policy, I have always found the absence of Americans rather strange. Occasionally, there are individuals attending who are working in (as you say) arts management in a specific field, but rarely does one meet someone at such gatherings who has a broader perspective on the cultural policy challenges of the United States. I can identify many individuals who are doing excellent work, but it is usually not seen as representative of American national interests or priorities. It would be great if there were an organization within the administration with a broader focus than the NEA that could weave these many threads together into something resembling a national cultural policy.

Good luck in your efforts in this regard.
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