As published in the New York Times
By WILLIAM R. FERRIS
Chapel Hill, N.C.
IN 1935, as part of the New Deal, President Franklin Roosevelt created the Farm Security Administration, which reached out to rural families as they struggled during the Depression. Roy Stryker, who oversaw the agency’s photo documentary program, captured the strength of American culture in the depths of the country’s despair. The photographs of Walker Evans, Dorothea Lange and Gordon Parks showed us both the pain of America and the resilience of its people.
In 1965, President Lyndon Johnson drew on his Texas roots when he created the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities, organizations that share America’s arts and humanities with the American people.
Both Roosevelt and Johnson demonstrated their forceful commitment to the preservation and celebration of American culture — and they did so in challenging times.
So what will President-elect Barack Obama do? Well, here’s a suggestion.
Over the years, America has developed an impressive array of federal
cultural programs — in addition to the endowments for the arts and the
humanities. These include the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, the
Institute of Museum and Library Services, the Library of Congress, the
National Archives, NPR, PBS and the Smithsonian Institution.
Each of these organizations has helped preserve our nation’s rich
folklore — its music, stories and traditional arts — as a uniquely
powerful voice for our culture.
But as chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities from 1997
to 2001, I learned firsthand that these institutions, though united by
a shared goal, can sometimes run into conflict with one another. There
were bureaucratic tangles, overlaps and missteps that, with foresight,
could have been avoided.
Which is why I believe the president should create a cabinet-level
position — a secretary of culture — to provide more cohesive leadership
for these impressive programs and to assure that they receive the
recognition and financing they deserve.
The president should initiate another change, too. The leaders of our
cultural institutions should all have renewable 10-year appointments.
(Some now serve only four-year terms.) Such a change would help to
provide continuity and insulate the organizations from the tumult of
political change. This move would allow each agency to develop
long-term agendas in coordination with the secretary of culture in each
Mr. Obama has an opportunity to revitalize our national spirit by
strengthening our cultural programs at every level. It’s hard to
imagine what could be a more important — and enduring — legacy.