Should Biden Name a ‘Dr. Fauci’ for the Arts?

By Nathalie Murillo and John-Mark Mills

Many countries—including the United Kingdom, Canada, and Germany—have recognized the importance of the arts by establishing a minister of arts and culture at the cabinet-level. Meanwhile, despite the continued economic stress placed on the arts by COVID-19, the U.S. has yet to follow the lead of its sister nations, which means that funding for the arts remains in the hands of organizations like the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities. Some within the art community have taken it upon themselves to propose a remedy to this dilemma.

They argue that their livelihoods are in need of an advocate—a Dr. Fauci for the arts, if you will. 

Director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID), Dr. Anthony S. Fauci, is receiving international recognition for his efforts in overseeing the prevention, diagnosis, and treatment of COVID-19. With the pandemic claiming over 5.1 million jobs of arts workers, the question of implementing a national champion for arts & culture in the White House is gaining attention. 

The arts are struggling big time

Nathalie Murillo and John-Mark Mills take on this question and highlight various perspectives.

John-Mark: It’s no secret that the arts are struggling right now, Nathalie. COVID-19 has ravaged everything from theaters and museums to concert halls and amusement parks. With Trump out and Biden in, it’s high time that the arts gain a voice in the U.S. government. 

Nathalie: No doubt, John-Mark. Just take a look at the empty stadiums and concert halls that have left the country looking like a ghost-town. The recent buzz regarding the arts having a seat on the US cabinet has been gaining momentum in recent years. A number of politicians have expressed their support for an arts seat on the cabinet. I know the Obama administration brushed the idea aside when it desired to take effect.

John-Mark: That it did. Even with a petition for a dedicated arts and culture cabinet member garnering over 115,000 signatures back in 2009, the arts have remained relegated to the scant funding provided by the National Endowment for the Arts and National Endowment for the Humanities. And that was 11 years ago, long before 5.1 million arts workers would be put out of work by a global pandemic, leaving art institutions around the country looking, as you say, like cultural ghost-towns.

Nathalie: You’re right. A survey from the Labor Department I saw the other day shows how the pandemic has shred 22.2 million jobs. The majority of job losses being restaurant owners along with their staff, and retail workers following closely behind. In July, less than half of job losses were recovered, leaving the majority facing unprecedented economic strain. The survey, one of the most accurate measures of US employment, so it accurately portrays our unemployment rates. With rumors of a coming stricter lockdown, possibility of relapse is very much possible. 

John-Mark: Yes, the arts certainly are not alone in their economic struggles. The potential for another lockdown in the near future poses a threat to a plethora of different industries. Yet arts workers are as much a part of that 22.2 million job loss statistic as restaurant and retail staff. The difference is that such workers have a voice directly in the ear of the President through the Secretary of Commerce. The arts, on the other hand, remain underrepresented and on the outskirts. What with the importance of art in our culture, the industry’s continued economic trials, and the warmth Biden has expressed toward artists in the past, wouldn’t you say that now is a better time than ever to appoint an ambassador for arts and culture at the cabinet-level?

Nathalie: John-Mark, you should know that appointing an ambassador for arts at the cabinet-level is a hefty process. Before considering to proceed with this idea, we must take into consideration the current cultural climate. The 5.1 million jobless arts workers undoubtedly need a remedy, and quickly. 

However, prioritizing an arts ambassador position negates COVID-19’s destructive implications. Health care workers are achingly frazzled by the prolonged hours of work to combat the surging number of COVID-19 patients. Americans that refuse to wear masks are violating COVID-19 restrictions also need to also be handled. With vaccines advancing to the public in the coming weeks, its distribution remains an obstacle for the White House. Wouldn’t you agree that the first order of business should be getting this virus under control?

John-Mark: Definitely. Making sure that a vaccine is safe before getting it to those who are most at risk should certainly be a top priority for Mr. Biden as he takes office. And you’re right about the process of appointing a secretary of the arts not being an easy one. Doing so would require congressional approval of a new federal department. But the fact of the matter is that the arts are suffering mightily. Thus, it is key that they find representation at the crucial moment when Biden eventually turns his attention to the economic toll that the virus has taken on our country. If we wait until the pandemic is under control, the moment to provide our country’s thousands of museums, art galleries, and theaters with the support they need will have already passed.  

Nathalie: Let’s take a step back. The last time we had an event that truly shook America to the core was 9/11.  Shortly after the catastrophe, the White House reevaluated its safety. We realized the US was in desperate need of an organ in the White House solely responsible for public security. President George W. Bush decided to proceed with the process of implementing an extra chair in the US cabinet and declared the need for the Office of Homeland Security (OHS) a few days after 9/11. The department’s duty is to oversee possible terrorism, border security, immigration and customs, disaster relief and prevention, and other related tasks. Though the department was officially formed in November 2002, it wasn’t until spring 2003 that the gears began to turn. 

In other words, it would be more or less a two-year-long process to get the art & culture a seat at the table, and for the secretary to begin making changes in the arts industry. Besides, the NHS and NAS are two fully capable independent federal agencies that already have significantly helped the arts industry throughout the pandemic. Don’t you think it would be most appropriate to wait until the pandemic settles down before beginning the lengthy process?

John-Mark: While I cede your point that wading through bureaucratic apparatus to the eventual installation of a legitimate, functioning cabinet-level department for the arts would be a lengthy process, the fact remains that we are still in desperate need of something greater than what we have now. You mention that the NHS and NAS are two fully capable organizations. Though they do what they can, they both operate with minimal budgets of around $162 million each. This is a meager 0.00034 percent of the federal expenditure. Furthermore, to return to your example of the creation of the OHS in 2001, while it’s true that the office didn’t grow into the  Department of Homeland Security as we know it today until 2003, the OHS was still able to assume a role relatively quickly following the tragic events of 9/11. 

So maybe asking for a fully-fledged department to appear out of thin air amidst a global pandemic is unreasonable. But as sources reporting on this issue have noted, an advisor close to the president, a “cultural czar” of sorts would do the trick. Members of the art community like theater critic Peter Marks have likewise supported such an idea. In fact, many in the industry would likely see the appointment of a personal counselor to the president for the arts that bypasses the need for congressional approval as a major step in the right direction.

Nathalie: That I can agree on. A arts & culture czar at the right hand of the president would be not only doable but also less time consuming than the previous option of installing a new cabinet member in the office. If anything, this would be a win-win! The 5.1 million arts workers get their chance to be heard, and President-elect Biden can focus on all the challenges the pandemic has posed on our nation-state. With this plan, our future is looking brighter.

John-Mark: Indeed should be! It will be interesting to see Biden’s first moves as he takes office. Especially if he chooses to distance himself from the work of the Trump administration as he claims he will. Given Trump’s moves to cut art funding throughout his tenure, appointing a Dr. Fauci of the arts may be one way for Biden to do just that.