A White House Office Of The Arts?

As we stand at the precipice of a fundamental shift in the way the Federal government functions (and quite likely life as we know it), recent gossip has focused on the possibility of a new White House level arts office that would be responsible for what Artnet News reports as “overseeing all things having to do with the arts and arts education.” I’m going to propose something that might seem like heresy but read the rest of the article before heading out for effigy supplies: perhaps we don’t need a White House level arts office with that much authority…

think it about
Think about it: Is it worth the risk to support a system with strong tendencies toward redundant efforts?

Allow me to qualify that by pointing out some potential hurdles that could not only derail good intentions but end up hurting overall Federal arts spending. The most obvious concern is how this new office will interact with the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) if it is rumored to have what Artnet News reports as “real access to funds and power?” Will the NEA report to this new office or will they remain separate entities? What sort of coordination will exist to eliminate redundant programs or prevent turf wars?

For an incoming administration that recently appointed a chief performance officer (CPO) with a mandate Bloomberg reported as “scour[ing] the budget, wring inefficiencies out of federal programs and establish more accountability in government,” it seems creating a new White House level office dedicated to arts issues may inadvertently reduce cumulative Federal arts spending. Assuming the government’s new chief performance officer is as capable as she seems, it won’t take very long for her office to uncover redundancies in spending programs between the new White House Arts Office and the National Endowment for the Arts.

I know that there’s a strong movement among the larger arts community for the creation of some sort of national figurehead for arts issues (at least according to group opinion during the NPAC 2008) but the process used to realize that notion makes the difference between success and failure. As a result, is the arts community positioning itself in a favorable position by supporting a system with strong tendencies toward redundant efforts if it is subject to oversight by a shrewd and accomplished CPO? And what would be the likely outcome if those oversight efforts are conducted without the aid of impartial insight into the arts or the time to painstakingly review programs in both departments so as to avoid a reduction in cumulative arts spending?

Certainly, a well funded Federal office dedicated to the advancement and support of arts in the United States that is chaired by a savvy leader is something that would be beneficial for the entire business. Personally, I’m all for a major change in the way the Federal government allocates and distributes arts funding. There is no doubt in my mind that we need a better system with relevant resources that is a source of pride throughout the country and revered by DC insiders.

Ultimately, if the White House decides to go down the path of establishing a White House Arts Office, the country would be better served by bringing existing NEA resources under its auspices or foregoing that option in favor of a restructured NEA with new leadership throughout all levels.

Postscript: If you still feel like burning me in effigy I suggest building a model filled with sassafras or butternut sawdust so once lit, it will not only deliver the warm feeling of satisfaction that comes with public displays of odium but the air will be filled with a sweet aroma. “Ah, that’s good effigy…”

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About Drew McManus

"I hear that every time you show up to work with an orchestra, people get fired." Those were the first words out of an executive's mouth after her board chair introduced us. That executive is now a dear colleague and friend but the day that consulting contract began with her orchestra, she was convinced I was a hatchet-man brought in by the board to clean house.

I understand where the trepidation comes from as a great deal of my consulting and technology provider work for arts organizations involves due diligence, separating fact from fiction, interpreting spin, as well as performance review and oversight. So yes, sometimes that work results in one or two individuals "aggressively embracing career change" but far more often than not, it reinforces and clarifies exactly what works and why.

In short, it doesn't matter if you know where all the bodies are buried if you can't keep your own clients out of the ground, and I'm fortunate enough to say that for more than 15 years, I've done exactly that for groups of all budget size from Qatar to Kathmandu.

For fun, I write a daily blog about the orchestra business, provide a platform for arts insiders to speak their mind, keep track of what people in this business get paid, help write a satirical cartoon about orchestra life, hack the arts, and love a good coffee drink.

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