A Biden Cabinet Secretary For Arts? Advocates Are Hopeful The arts employ nearly five million people in America, but advocates say President Trump's record of support for arts and humanities has been mixed. Will that change under the Biden administration?
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A Biden Cabinet Secretary For Arts? Advocates Are Hopeful

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A Biden Cabinet Secretary For Arts? Advocates Are Hopeful

A Biden Cabinet Secretary For Arts? Advocates Are Hopeful

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Arts and culture are a nearly $900 billion industry, generating more than 5 million jobs across the country. But federal funding for the arts is tiny when compared with smaller industries like agriculture. NPR's Elizabeth Blair has this look at how the arts fared under President Trump and what arts advocates are hoping for from the Biden administration.

ELIZABETH BLAIR, BYLINE: The National Endowment for the Arts gives grants to organizations across the country - big ones, like Lincoln Center and NPR, to small ones, like the Wichita Falls Alliance for Arts and Culture.

MARGIE REESE: West Texas - Wichita Falls. We're not in Kansas.

BLAIR: Executive Director Margie Reese says they used one of their NEA grants to commission regional artists to make murals in economically distressed areas. For Vernon, Texas, 25-year-old Selena Mize painted native son, the late Roy Orbison. It was a name Mize didn't know until Margie Reese played her song.

SELENA MIZE: At first, I didn't know that was Roy Orbison. I thought it was Elvis Presley (laughter).


ROY ORBISON AND THE CANDYMEN: (Singing) Pretty woman walking down the street. Pretty woman...

BLAIR: Mize's mural shows Orbison with his trademark dark sunglasses, playing his guitar. She says the attention she got for the work was life-changing.

MIZE: The community was very, like, excited and open about it. And it's just something that I would never forget.

REESE: This bright, sunshiny mural is bringing pride back to Vernon, Texas. The power of the visual arts to bring a community back to life. This is what our attempt was with that mural.

BLAIR: When it comes to government support of the arts, Margie Reese is a veteran, having worked in the cultural affairs departments in Dallas and Los Angeles.

REESE: When you have a change in administration and a shift in philosophy about arts funding, the entire field begins to worry about what's going to happen. How is this change going to affect us?

BLAIR: Steady is the word Reese uses to describe federal arts funding under President Trump. Even though each of his budgets proposed eliminating the arts and humanities endowments, Congress rejected the cuts. He also called for cuts to the Institute of Museum and Library Services.

CROSBY KEMPER: There's a lot of love for libraries and for museums inside the Beltway.

BLAIR: Crosby Kemper was the Trump administration's pick to head the IMLS. Like the endowments, they distribute grants and help shape policies that affect museums and libraries. Even though Republicans often talk about cutting funding for the arts, Kemper points out that all three budgets have increased slightly over the last three years.

KEMPER: I think you have to look at what actually happens. And what actually happens for the IMLS and the NEA and the NEH is they have a lot of support in the political world and including inside the administration.

BLAIR: But for actor Kal Penn, Trump's rhetoric has been damaging to the arts. Penn was appointed by President Obama to the President's Committee on the Arts and the Humanities, an advisory group founded in 1982. Penn planned to stay on, but after Trump's handling of the deadly white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, he and everyone else on the committee resigned.

KAL PENN: The President's Committee on the Arts and Humanities was then never relaunched under the Trump administration - just to show you it really wasn't a priority at all.

BLAIR: Penn wants to see the Biden administration and Congress give the Endowments a, quote, "astronomical increase." He says the arts benefit education, innovation, mental and emotional health. Plus, he says, it's a good investment.

PENN: When you say, OK, well, why did you spend all this money to save this theater? Yes, you're saving the theater and maybe you're saving the 500 jobs that the theater provides for a local community, but you're also then saving the restaurants that people go to the night of the show. You're saving the hotels that the visiting artists stay at. You're saving, you know, the parking facility. And you can see why investing in the arts really makes economic sense.

BLAIR: The Bureau of Economic Analysis and the National Endowment for the Arts released a report that said in 2017, the arts contributed 4.5% to the country's GDP. That's more than agriculture and transportation. Arts advocate Charles Segars, head of the Ovation TV network, says it's time for the arts to be taken just as seriously by the White House by creating a Cabinet-level Secretary of Arts and Culture.

CHARLES SEGARS: It centralizes, in the positive sense of the word, all of the leverage of the United States government. Remember, you have arts pockets throughout - the Department of State, Department of Defense. You - even Transportation and Agriculture has a taste of that (laughter), of arts programs that they help support.

BLAIR: Segars says a Secretary of Arts and Culture would also handle intellectual property rights and exports. Years ago, producer Quincy Jones tried to get Obama to create a Secretary of the Arts - never happened.

Do you think it's realistic?

SEGARS: I think it is realistic. I think it's going to take time (laughter), but we all have to talk about it.

BLAIR: Crosby Kemper of the IMLS says he can't predict what the next administration will do, but he thinks Biden's personality points in that direction.

KEMPER: I'd say the first and most important thing is that he's a great lover of Irish poetry and, therefore, clearly a civilized man.


JOE BIDEN: The Irish poet Seamus Heaney once wrote history says don't hope on this side of the grave. But then, once in a lifetime...

BLAIR: The Biden transition team did not respond to requests for comment. Elizabeth Blair, NPR News.


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