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Some in arts community favor creation of Cabinet-level cultural position

Sunday, February 15, 2009 | 5:27 p.m. CST; updated 12:02 p.m. CST, Monday, February 16, 2009

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The secretary of arts petition can be signed at the following address: http://www.petitiononline.com/esnyc/petition.html



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COLUMBIA — For 20 years, Nina Loory of Columbia danced ballet at the historic Bolshoi Theatre in Moscow. After a successful career in dance, Loory continued to work at the theater for 14 years before moving to the United States.

Loory, who is artistic director of the international ballet prize Benois de la Danse, which the Bolshoi supports, knows what it's like to function as an artist in two markedly different government systems. In Russia, part of the national budget is allocated to the ministry of culture. The United States does not have a similar department. Based on her experiences, Loory has decided the arts need to be addressed "on a regular basis at a cultural level."

An online petition asking President Barack Obama to create a Cabinet-level secretary of arts position has gotten more than 233,600 signatures. The petition was posted after musician and producer Quincy Jones made a plea in a November radio interview for the creation of the Cabinet position to oversee and support various activities of the national arts community.

Supporters of the petition hope that with the creation of this position, greater financial support for the arts and arts education will be available in the U.S. Loory explained that in many European countries a minister of culture has a say in the national budget and is able to allocate a significant amount of financial support for the arts.

The Russian minister of culture supplies Benois de la Danse with half of its budget. But in Missouri, for example, Jennifer Wampler, development director for the Kansas City Ballet, said less than one half of one percent of the company’s annual costs are covered by funding from the National Endowment for the Arts. Nicole Ambos Freber, development director for the Opera Theater of St. Louis, said the theater receives one percent of its funding from the NEA.

Loory said the level of support provided to Benois de la Danse by the Russian government does not interfere with the content or style of Russian ballet. “They support us, but we report to them only financially, not artistically,” she said.

Supporters of Jones’ petition hope that by installing a secretary of arts, arts education will be promoted and supported. “One of the things that got Quincy Jones so worked up about this is the pathetic condition of arts education in public schools,” said David A. Smith, a senior lecturer at Baylor University and author of the book "Money for Art: the Tangled Web of Art and Politics in American Democracy."

“Not only are kids missing out on arts education, the message is being sent to them that the arts are expendable. It’s little wonder that when these kids grow up to be tax-paying adults, they have little inclination to support the arts,” Smith said.

Supporters of the petition also argue that having a secretary of arts would improve foreign relations. Loory said using the arts as a means to improve foreign relations has worked in the past, saying that during the Cold War many Russian artists, including herself, came to the U.S. to perform with hopes of easing international tension.

“You can’t imagine how people greeted us," Loory said. "It was great because they could see who Russians really were, not just the polar bears with guns, but real artists."

Robert Shay, director of the School of Music at MU, also recognizes the positive influence the arts can have in building relationships abroad. “We have to understand that art transcends language and nationality," Shay said. "A lot of what we consider great art here is considered great art in other countries.”

Still, Shay and others are concerned that centralizing the arts could be damaging.

“You can have a high level of advocacy and support for the arts without having centralization,” Shay said. “Centralization, to a lot of people, is going to sound like control or censorship.”

Smith, who recently wrote a column for the Wall Street Journal pointing out the weaknesses of a Cabinet-level arts secretary position, said the petition raises questions about the effectiveness of the current U.S. institutions that support the arts, such as the National Endowment for the Arts. He said the arts cannot be successfully contained by a separate government department.

“Making the implication that the arts can be furthered in the same ways that foreign policy can, that is, via centralization, is erroneous and ultimately destructive to art," Smith said in an interview. "It would also imply that the NEA isn’t doing its job correctly.”

Centralizing funding for the arts through a government department could also take away funding from state and local arts institutions, Smith said. “A national program is not going to be responsive enough," he said. "The state level arts commissions will be better equipped to understand local needs than the national level."

“It's culture," Smith said. "It's not something that is capable of bureaucratic efficiency, and it shouldn’t be subject to that.”


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