As we stand at the precipice of a fundamental shift in the way the Federal government functions (and quite likely life as we know it), recent gossip has focused on the possibility of a new White House level arts office that would be responsible for what Artnet News reports as “overseeing all things having to do with the arts and arts education.” I’m going to propose something that might seem like heresy but read the rest of the article before heading out for effigy supplies: perhaps we don’t need a White House level arts office with that much authority…
Allow me to qualify that by pointing out some potential hurdles that could not only derail good intentions but end up hurting overall Federal arts spending. The most obvious concern is how this new office will interact with the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) if it is rumored to have what Artnet News reports as “real access to funds and power?” Will the NEA report to this new office or will they remain separate entities? What sort of coordination will exist to eliminate redundant programs or prevent turf wars?
For an incoming administration that recently appointed a chief performance officer (CPO) with a mandate Bloomberg reported as “scour[ing] the budget, wring inefficiencies out of federal programs and establish more accountability in government,” it seems creating a new White House level office dedicated to arts issues may inadvertently reduce cumulative Federal arts spending. Assuming the government’s new chief performance officer is as capable as she seems, it won’t take very long for her office to uncover redundancies in spending programs between the new White House Arts Office and the National Endowment for the Arts.
I know that there’s a strong movement among the larger arts community for the creation of some sort of national figurehead for arts issues (at least according to group opinion during the NPAC 2008) but the process used to realize that notion makes the difference between success and failure. As a result, is the arts community positioning itself in a favorable position by supporting a system with strong tendencies toward redundant efforts if it is subject to oversight by a shrewd and accomplished CPO? And what would be the likely outcome if those oversight efforts are conducted without the aid of impartial insight into the arts or the time to painstakingly review programs in both departments so as to avoid a reduction in cumulative arts spending?
Certainly, a well funded Federal office dedicated to the advancement and support of arts in the United States that is chaired by a savvy leader is something that would be beneficial for the entire business. Personally, I’m all for a major change in the way the Federal government allocates and distributes arts funding. There is no doubt in my mind that we need a better system with relevant resources that is a source of pride throughout the country and revered by DC insiders.
Ultimately, if the White House decides to go down the path of establishing a White House Arts Office, the country would be better served by bringing existing NEA resources under its auspices or foregoing that option in favor of a restructured NEA with new leadership throughout all levels.
Postscript: If you still feel like burning me in effigy I suggest building a model filled with sassafras or butternut sawdust so once lit, it will not only deliver the warm feeling of satisfaction that comes with public displays of odium but the air will be filled with a sweet aroma. “Ah, that’s good effigy…”