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What will Joe Biden's culture policy look like?

The art world cheered at Joe Biden’s victory in the US presidential election. But, with a formidable to-do list—not least dealing with the coronavirus pandemic—where will the arts feature on his agenda?

There are high hopes that President-elect Biden and Vice President-elect Harris will put the arts at the heart of White House policy-making Olivier Douliery/AFP via Getty Images

Joseph Biden’s victory in the US presidential election last month was met with widespread joy in the art world—as well as trepidation about what comes next, as a second wave of the coronavirus (Covid-19) pandemic raised the threat of another lockdown in major cities. And despite the refusal of the current White House resident, Donald Trump, to concede, President-elect Biden has already made the arts part of his transition plans. There are even signs that culture could have a central role in the new administration, with an office in the White House dedicated to the arts and humanities under discussion.

Since the Reagan administration, there had been a President’s Committee on the Arts and the Humanities, which advises the president on cultural policy. Created by executive order, with members from both the public and private sector, the committee’s term was renewed by each administration. Soon after President Trump took office, and in response to his controversial comments about there being “very fine people on both sides” of the violent protests that erupted during a white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia in 2017, the private committee members resigned en masse. Rather than appoint new members, Trump allowed the committee’s authority to lapse.

When President-elect Biden takes up the presidency on 20 January, “the recommendations are for even some stronger body to be involved, closer to the White House”, says Nina Ozlu Tunceli, the executive director of the Americans for the Arts Action Fund. This could take many forms, she adds: “There’s more than one way to get a high-level position that is a direct adviser to the president and a representative of the country to the world on cultural issues.”

Things are going to change Nina Ozlu Tunceli, executive director of the Americans for the Arts Action Fund

The options could include a cabinet level position for the arts, the equivalent of a culture minister or secretary that many other countries have. Calls for such a post in the US have been made before, notably by the legendary record producer Quincy Jones when Barack Obama took office in 2009. “That would be amazing,” Ozlu Tunceli says. But it would also require an entire federal agency to be created under that position, perhaps encompassing existing organisations such as the National Endowments for the Arts and the Humanities, and the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs in the State Department. This might be too difficult a proposition to broach in the middle of an economic crisis, with the US Congress still split along partisan lines. “It would take a lot of initiatives and merging of bureaucracies to make it to a cabinet level agency,” Ozlu Tunceli says.

Biden could instead name a “cultural czar”; past presidents have appointed individual advisers dedicated to a specific issue. Or there could be a full advisory body, like the Committee on the Arts and Humanities, but with a more direct line of communication to the president. “Having something that is stationed and embedded within the executive office of the White House, I think would carry a lot more weight,” Ozlu Tunceli says.

This is what cultural advisers on the Biden election campaign have suggested to the new administration. “The big idea was to create a White House office on arts, culture and the creative industries,” says Megan Beyer, the co-chair of the campaign’s Arts Policy Committee and a former executive director of the President’s Committee on the Arts and Humanities under Obama. She compares this to the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, which was established by Congress in 1976 with a broad mandate to advise the president on domestic and international policy that could be applied across federal agencies. “This office was able to identify and deploy the science assets when they needed it, and how they needed it, in the space race,” Beyer says. “And so now, as we try to heal the soul of America, and we understand the arts as being so much more powerful and interdisciplinary than we ever understood before, we think it’s time to create the White House Office on Arts and Culture—and it would be, by the way, a de facto cultural ministry.”

An office approved by Congress within the White House could also mean more of an assured budget for arts and culture policy making, rather than cobbling funding together from other agencies, as has been done in the past. “I’m hoping that it will be something that will have the ability to be nimble, and also have some mandate to work with all of the federal agencies,” Ozlu Tunceli says. “Because what the arts have evolved into is a policy solution at every level and every extent of government, whether it be transportation, housing, diplomacy, education. My hope is that the arts are not siloed. Certainly, we need to focus on building up the cultural infrastructure in this country, but then have some mandate that enables these arts initiatives to be deployed in all aspects of government in a more holistic way, so it’s not limited to one person, but an entity that’s always looking out for ways for the arts to be incorporated seamlessly into larger domestic and foreign policy efforts.”

There is also a push for the arts to be included in Biden’s $2 trillion jobs and infrastructure plan. “There needs to continue to be relief for arts organisations around the country to be able to weather the pandemic financially, as well as artists individually, because their livelihoods are essentially gone, particularly in the performing arts,” says Erika Mallin, the executive director of the Aspen Institute Arts Program. Meyer suggests that the estimated “five million creative workers in America should be thought of as part of the revitalisation of the economy”, pointing out that the arts industry regularly outperforms fields including transportation, construction and warehousing when it comes to job creation. “It’s not about just giving money to, say, artists and artist organisations to do the work that they normally do,” Ozlu Tunceli says. “We are citizens of this country too. We want to help. We can make things. Not only can we help in the recovery, we can make it better.”

There are some signs that this is the direction the new administration will take. The Biden-Harris transition recently announced its agency review teams (see below), and the Arts and Humanities group includes two former members of Obama’s White House Office of Science and Technology Policy: Kei Koizumi and Mahlet Mesfin. While their arts experience seems limited, they could help guide the logistics of creating a new Office on Arts and Culture. Robert Lynch, the chief executive and president of Americans for the Arts, is also on the team and he has long lobbied for more ambitious cultural policy and funding from the federal government, highlighting the positive impact of the arts on the US economy. And another member of the group, David Skorton, spent his term as Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution, emphasising the importance of the arts.

Perhaps the most promising clue of how much the arts will be involved in the new administration comes from President-elect Biden and Vice President-elect Kamala Harris themselves. Both have spoken warmly in support of the arts—Biden regularly quotes Irish poets such as Seamus Heaney and W.B. Yeats—and both have been involved in museum building projects in Washington, DC. And when Biden’s projected victory was announced last month, the campaign released a celebration video that was inspired by the artist Lorraine O’Grady’s 1983 performance piece Art Is “Biden’s got the heart and soul for the arts,” says the writer and producer Tanya Selvaratnam, adding that the fact the campaign reached out to O’Grady to secure her approval before releasing the video “was an example of the deep respect that this administration will have, not just for art and culture, but for the artists behind that art and culture”. Ozlu Tunceli adds that Harris has “a very authentic understanding of the role of the arts as being much bigger than what’s in an institution—it’s something that is a civic right. She sees it as part and parcel of what it means to be an American, what it means in terms of our history, our identity, our future.”

The question then is not whether the arts will play a role in the new White House, but how big a role and what form it would take. “You just have to be patient. It’s not all going to happen at once,” Ozlu Tunceli says. “But things are going to change.”

Who will be advising Biden?

As part of the transition process, the incoming Biden-Harris administration has announced agency review teams that will help form the new government and advise on key appointments, policies and structures. The Arts and Humanities group will be involved in decisions about the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB), the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA), the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH), the National Science Foundation and the Smithsonian Institution.

Courtney Chapin, team lead

Currently the executive director of the Better Angels Society, which promotes understanding history through documentary films, Chapin previously served as chief of staff, White House liaison and director of congressional affairs at the NEH in the Obama administration. Before that, she handled corporate partnerships for the Corporation for National and Community Service, and was a fundraiser for Obama.

Lauren Dugas Glover

Since 2017, Glover has managed the Public Art Department at the DC Commission on the Arts and Humanities, and before that served as the White House liaison and senior adviser to chief of staff at the NEA, during Obama’s second term.

Kei Koizumi

Most recently a visiting scholar in science policy at the American Association for the Advancement of Science, he served in the Obama White House Office of Science and Technology Policy for eight years as the assistant director for federal research and development and senior adviser to the director of the National Science and Technology Council.

Bob Lynch

The long-serving president and chief executive of the advocacy group Americans for the Arts, Lynch started his career shaping public arts policy as the executive director of the National Assembly of Local Arts Agencies, which later merged with the American Council for the Arts to create Americans for the Arts. Before that, he served as the director of the Arts Extension Service at his alma mater, the University of Massachusetts Amherst.

Mahlet Mesfin

A visiting scholar at the Penn Biden Center for Diplomacy and Global Engagement at the University of Pennsylvania, Mesfin also recently served at the American Association for the Advancement of Science as the director of its Center for Science Diplomacy. She was also a member of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy during Obama’s second term.

Juan Sepúlveda

Now a visiting professor of practice in urban education at Trinity University, San Antonio, Texas, Sepúlveda was the senior vice president of station services at PBS from 2014 to 2017. Before that, he was the executive director of the White House Initiative on Educational Excellence for Hispanics during Obama’s first term and a senior adviser for Hispanic affairs at the Democratic National Committee during his re-election campaign.

David Skorton

A cardiologist and the president and chief executive of the Association of American Medical Colleges, Skorton was recently the first physician to serve as the Secretary of the Smithsonian, from 2015 until 2019. He is a dedicated and vocal supporter of the arts, and an amateur musician.

Appeared in The Art Newspaper, 329 December 2020