Does U.S. Need A Culture Czar?

The idea of a Cabinet-level official for the arts has gotten some buzz lately. After all, many other countries have ministers of culture. High-profile artists such as Quincy Jones think it's necessary in the U.S., but not everyone agrees.

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Of the various government institutions dedicated to the arts, none offer a Cabinet-level post. Among those who think it's time for a Secretary of the Arts, the U.S. conference of mayors, a former chair of the National Endowment for the Humanities and a music mogul. NPR's Elizabeth Blair reports.

ELIZABETH BLAIR: Quincy Jones, with help from two classical musicians in New York, started an online petition asking President-elect Obama to create a Secretary of the Arts, because he believes the arts have a spiritual benefit Americans need.

Mr. QUINCY JONES JR. (Composer; Producer): (Unintelligible) arts is just as important as military defense, you know? Emotional defense is just as important.

BLAIR: So far, the Quincy Jones' petition has more than 115,000 signatures. Right now, arts and culture have fragmented representation throughout the U.S. government. There's the National Endowment for the Arts, which provides federal funding to groups around the country; then there's the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Library of Congress, the Institute of Museum and Library Services, even the State Department. Bob Lynch is head of the advocacy group Americans for the Arts. He says a Cabinet position would have direct access to the president and could bring arts and government under one umbrella.

Mr. ROBERT L. LYNCH (President and CEO, Americans for the Arts): The breadth of things that are happening in State Department for example, cultural diplomacy or in trade issues, when we see sales of CDs and videos internationally is really big business, copyright. A lot of things in different parts of government that are really not talking to one another right now - very, very separated and spread throughout government, so much so that when other nations have a meeting of all of the cultural ministers of the world, very often, the United States is not invited, because we don't have a person that speaks for that kind of breadth. Sometimes they may ask the head of the National Endowment for the Arts to come, but that is just one piece of the cultural puzzle. So, that is why Americans for the Arts a year ago started to talk to all of the presidential candidates about the idea of a senior-level administration official with an arts portfolio.

Dr. DAVID SMITH (American History, Baylor University): Having a Department of Culture with a secretary of Culture would create the wrong impression about the arts in the United States.

BLAIR: David Smith teaches American History at Baylor University in Waco, Texas. He's also the author of "Money for Art: The Tangled Web of Art and Politics in American Democracy." He does not like the idea of a Cabinet position, because he doesn't think the arts should be so closely connected to government.

Dr. SMITH: Maybe the greatest thing about the arts in America is their decentralized nature. And I think the perception would be detrimental to that decentralized vibrancy if you wound up with something as ponderous as a Department of Culture and a secretary of Culture.

BLAIR: Quincy Jones thinks just the opposite. He believes artists helped to find a society and that having a secretary of the Arts would send the message that America values its culture.

Mr. JONES: Teach the kids throughout the country what their roots are about. Every country can be defined through their food, their music and their language. That's the soul of a country.

BLAIR: Quincy Jones' petition is still online. He plans to talk to President-elect Obama about his desire for a secretary of the Arts soon. As for whether he'd like the job, he says he doesn't know. Elizabeth Blair, NPR News, Washington.

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