Perhaps you, like myself, have received the e-mail forward that apparently originates with Quincy Jones talking about the need for a Secretary of the Arts. Neither the e-mail nor the linked petition explain why such a thing would be important.
This reminds me of a certain... perhaps I should say problem or issue that's come up for me a lot in my experience with arts advocacy over the past few years. There's an overemphasis at times on symbolic demonstrations of the importance of the arts. So having a Cabinet Level Secretary of the Arts, for example, is prima facie awesome because it would prove how important the arts are to this country. Or Barack Obama giving a major speech talking about the arts would be great because then the President would be saying publicly how important the arts are.
Why do I find that problematic? It is necessary, after all, and a good thing to have the President say the arts are important. It would be great to have a Cabinet level arts person. It would Send A Message. Okay fine, sure, but the problem is not our Government's rhetorical and symbolic commitment to the arts. Every President since Kennedy has reaffirmed that commitment rhetorically and symbolically, even while cutting the NEA's budget. There's a Congressional Arts Caucus as well (described by a friend of mine in Government as "one of the feel good/do nothing caucuses you find all over the place in the House"). What we need are fewer statements about the importance of art and more actions that will make art important.
(To briefly digress: This also intersects with another chicken-and-egg debate about Gov't arts funding, namely whether the funding comes first thus causing art to be more important to society or whether the socially vital art comes first thus creating a demand for the funding. I side more with the former view in that debate, but I think arts funding needs to be focused on creating both supply and demand.)
Anyway... back to Cabinet Level Arts Czar. Why do we need one?
Well, it turns out there's a good case to be made that we need some kind of Minister of Culture or Cultural Policy Coordinator position in our government. Here's why.... and this is my own belief although I've noticed it start to percolate out of other places and a lot of this comes from the arts committee work I did so I guess this is one of those organically reached consensus moment:
The future of arts funding in America is not solely about increasing funding the NEA and State Arts Councils. It is instead about embedding the arts comprehensively throughout federal and state government agencies. It's about arts based diplomacy at State, it's about using Community Development Block Grants to help with arts real estate issues, its about using the Small Business Administration to help new arts organizations start. It's about different agencies having resident artists (did you know Laurie Anderson was NASA's resident artist for two years?). It's about the Department of Education handling arts education. Its about viewing art as a necessary part of society that's therefore integrated into the levers that make that society move.
Think for a moment about the way science is funded by the government. Science is funding by all sorts of different agencies and quasi-gov't entities. You have the NIH, the Army Corps of Engineers, NASA, the NSF etc. and so forth. Some of it is very practical and has to do with societal needs, some of it is basic/pure scientific research. Who funds what might surprise you (did you know that the bulk of prostate cancer research is done by the army not by the NIH?).
Something similar could be done for the arts, thus freeing up the NEA and State Arts Councils to do what they were originally designed to do: fund the creation of art, be the Pure Research arm.
Now this isn't a radical idea. The Federal Government already does a lot outside of the NEA to fund the arts, it's just not called "Arts Funding" and its not put under that rubric. We don't tend to think about the Smithsonian's budget as "arts funding", for example, even though some of it (not all of it, obviously, not, say, the Museum of Natural History) most certainly is. There are people out there (including myself) already trying to find ways to creatively conceptualize and agitate for integrating the arts throughout the Federal Government.
What we don't have is someone organizing this and making it work in a comprehensive fashion, we don't have someone coordinating arts policy across the federal government. Someone who does things like set arts policy and help coordinate (for example) comprehensive arts education with DOE. We need someone to do those things.
That person does not necessarily need to be a Cabinet Officer. Although that's where the positive aspect of symbolism comes in, but we do need someone to do it and to take an expansive and creative view of how to fund the arts in this country.
UPDATE: Just to make one thing clear, as judging from some of what I've seen written about this post I think mistakes one important thing. I do still believe in increasing NEA funding, preferably to somewhere around $450 million dollars a year (its peak level adjusted for inflation). It's just that I also believe in a new attitude towards arts funding in this country.