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America needs a Department of Arts and Culture

It has the enormous, tantalizing potential to democratize and make much more egalitarian the reach and role of arts and culture in American society.

When freelance ​work dried up after COVID-19 hit, Boston trombonist Skye Dearborn​ ​had to live off her savings and eventually qualified for unemployment benefits and food stamps.Craig F. Walker/Globe Staff

During an interview last August with Lin-Manuel Miranda, one of our superstars of the theater, President Biden said something extraordinary: “The future of who we are lies in the arts. It is the expression of our soul.”

Yet the coronavirus pandemic has ravaged America’s artistic and cultural life. Theaters and concert halls of every shape and size were dark for over a year; museums and other cultural venues too. Artists without institutional affiliations — huge numbers of actors, musicians, photographers, painters, sculptors, dancers — have had nowhere to turn for assistance. Under our current safety net system, because these members of the arts and culture community did not have full-time employers, many did not qualify for unemployment and other benefits.


The failure of our federal government to provide meaningful financial support, and other types of support such as tax and unemployment designations (France handles these issues adroitly for its arts and culture community), has been devastating. The music critic Alex Ross wrote: “Working musicians are reeling. Most American orchestral players have had to accept considerable pay cuts, and freelancers are in a desperate state, some of them being forced to give up on music entirely.”

Throughout the world, other governments spend exponentially more than the United States does on arts and culture. In 2019, London received $269 per capita spending on the arts from England’s national arts lottery; Finland spent $95 per person that year. France spent $3.2 billion in 2016 — roughly $50 for each citizen of the country.

Even after recent funding increases (collectively $445 million) through President Biden’s $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan bill, federal spending on arts and culture is paltry. Adding it all up, including what our federal government spends on the remarkable Smithsonian Institution and the hundreds of millions (not kidding) spent on military bands, it now comes to about $2.5 billion — approximately $8 for each American.


President Biden should seize the chance to change fundamentally the federal government’s role in arts and culture in America, and not in a timid way. A White House Office of Culture is now being considered, and would be significant, but it is much too small a step to take. Such an office would also be easy to do away with, or sideline completely, when another administration arrives.

America needs a full-fledged Department of Arts and Culture. One that forges into a cohesive entity the National Endowment for the Arts, National Endowment for the Humanities, Corporation for Public Broadcasting, Smithsonian, Institute of Museum and Library Services, and all other federal arts and culture entities. One that plays the paramount role in advancing arts education throughout the country — neglected for decades now. One whose regional and local offices show that federal government support of arts and culture is not the focus solely of insiders in Washington, D.C. And one whose bureaucracy and size provide the armor needed against current and future proponents of the belief that there is no role for the federal government in our artistic and cultural lives.

A budget of $7.5 billion should be established for the new Department of Arts and Culture. Tripling what we currently spend at the federal level would show the seriousness of the undertaking.


Criticism of such a department includes carping that federal involvement in arts and culture is effete and elitist. Nothing could be further from the truth. What is effete and elitist, and also antithetical to our burgeoning diversity, equity, and inclusion efforts, is how the United States currently funds arts and culture. America’s private philanthropy model, consisting of individual support from wealthy, elderly white people, and from foundations and corporations largely run by wealthy white people, has a “baked-in inequality” to it — a phrase composer Nico Muhly used this past March when commenting on how the performing arts will emerge from the pandemic.

In truth, a federal Department of Arts and Culture has the enormous, tantalizing potential to democratize and make much more egalitarian the reach and role of arts and culture in American society.

Biden is undoubtedly already thinking about his legacy — all presidents do. Should he take the bold, visionary step of establishing a Department of Arts and Culture, he will go down as one of our great presidents. He will have been the first president to champion, elevate, and institutionalize through the federal government that an artistic and cultural life is cathartic; fundamental, really, to each and every American, and profoundly important to our “psychic and social health,” as art critic Jason Farago has written.

The arts are indeed an expression of our nation’s soul. Please, President Biden, act accordingly.

Jonathan Kaledin, the former Massachusetts Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs general counsel, trained professionally as a cellist and musicologist.