Should the U.S. Have a Secretary of Culture?

Some 50 other countries carve space in their governments for artistic advancement -- the case that the U.S. should follow suit


"I see little of more importance to the future of our country and our civilization," President Kennedy once remarked, "than full recognition of the place of the artist."

Fifty years later, the United States both recognizes and systematizes "the place of the artist" -- think, for example, of the National Endowment for the Arts or the National Endowment for the Humanities. 

But does it do enough? Not according to Murray Moss.

During a discussion at the Aspen Ideas Festival, the industrial designer engaged in some designing of the political variety. He argued that the United States should further systematize its support of art and culture -- through, specifically, adding a Secretary of Culture to the presidential Cabinet.

The position as Moss described it wouldn't simply carve a place for the recognition of art (and its related field, design) within the executive branch; and it wouldn't simply give active representation to the interests of artists and designers. A cabinet position as Moss sees it would also, more broadly, provide a market-transcendent (but perhaps also market-friendly) mechanism for supporting artistic ingenuity.

Take Italy. After World War II, Moss said, the economically devastated country supported its industrial and other designers financially -- and the nation in turn was able to export those designers' products, thereby bolstering its economy. Today, Moss noted, several European countries give grants and provide other types of support to their artists -- and to, more generally, "people with ideas but without the means." And several other countries currently have ministries of culture, Moss noted. (There are actually about 50 of those countries. Among them: Albania, Brazil, Britain, Cambodia, Ethiopia, France, Greece, Haiti, Italy, and Spain.)

Yet "in America," Moss said, "we're one of the few countries that doesn't have a minister of culture, or a cabinet post."

Moss's is a design-focused spin on an argument Quincy Jones has been making, as well: in 2009, the producer started a campaign asking President Obama to appoint a Secretary of Culture. The idea, broadly, is that a cabinet position could ostensibly oversee grants to artists and designers. In Moss's vision, it could also engage in education and advocate for the interests of design as an art form -- "this connection," Moss put it, "between the functional object and the deliciousness of how it solves a problem." Design, Moss said, "is about discovery": its point is that it has a practical application. Designers are dreamers, but they are also thinkers and tinkerers whose work can accrue to other people. And "this playfulness of these serious people," Moss noted, "leads us to discover things ... that weren't even on the radar."

At the moment, federal oversight of the arts crosses governmental branches: the NEA, the NEH, and the Institute for Museum and Library Services are funded by Congress, yet their chairpeople are appointed by the White House. At the executive level, the administration has a President's Committee on the Arts and the Humanities -- a volunteer group. The government also funds museums like the Smithsonian Institution, the National Gallery of Art, and the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum. And the Departments of State and Education have their own arts programs under their auspices.

Museums, in fact, might be the best places to seek staffing for a Culture Secretary, Moss said. Potential candidates for the post, he noted, could be the director of the Smithsonian Institution (ready for a promotion, Wayne Clough?) or the Cooper-Hewitt (looking at you, Caroline Baumann!). But speculation like that is putting the cart ahead of the (well-designed, aesthetically pleasing, potentially government-funded) horse. First would have to come the position itself. "Without that," Moss said, "we're not going to get anywhere."