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Minister of Culture: Vital to Artists in Covid Times

Posted by Jacob Hawthorne on

With a long-time obsession with royalty and titles like Queen and Duchess, Americans are familiar with government positions outside the United States. However, few may have heard of the title of Minister of Culture. While more than fifty countries around the world consider the cabinet position vital to their economy, the United States has not created the position within its cabinet. While the idea might sound new, the concept of appointing a minister of culture has been a subject of debate for a long time.   

What is a minister of culture?

A minister of culture is a common cabinet position in more than fifty countries around the world. Typically, the position is responsible for cultural policy which includes art policy and measures to protect the national heritage and cultural expression of a country. The areas that fall under the minister’s responsibilities are diverse. The minister plays a role in protecting historic sites as well as maintaining national archives of cultural work including museums, galleries, and libraries. Most importantly, the minister of culture is tasked with creating art councils that disburse funds to artists and arts organizations.

While the position may sound like some contemporary addition to government, the minister of culture dates back to a French writer named Andre Malraux. Malraux can be credited with the creation of the role when he pushed, while serving under Charles de Gaulle in 1959, for a democratization of culture. Malraux’s was ahead of his time as he desired to make the arts available to all people at a time when it was considered a privilege of the elite. It was then that countries began to create ministers of culture to support the artistic community. Some countries have appointed artists from the arts community itself to the position as Brazil did back in 2003 when then President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva appointed singer/songwriter Gilberto Gil. A prominent singer for decades, he was one of the few government officials to have won a Grammy. In France, former minister of culture Jack Lang helped organize the Louvre Atlanta, a collaboration between the esteemed Paris institution and Atlanta’s High Museum of Art.

As Covid continues to ravage countries all over the world, we are learning how vital a minister of culture is to the arts.

Germany’s Minister of Culture Monika Grutters

Monika Grutters has been Germany’s Minister of Culture since 2013. In every sector of business there were shutdowns and millions found themselves unemployed. For those in the arts, the closing of museums and galleries and cancellations of fairs vital to their livelihood was devastating. However, in a move that had the art world buzzing, Germany’s Grutters along with Prime Minister Angela Merkel, announced a jaw dropping aid package. The fact that the package included freelancers from the creative sectors made it headline news. Grutters empathized with the hardships that hit this sector of the population due to many being self-employed. Germany pledged almost half of its annual culture budget, around one billion dollars, to a fund to support museums in an effort to open their doors as soon as possible. The goal of the fund was to secure the country’s cultural infrastructure as Grutters believes is key to creating work opportunities for artists and creative heads throughout the country.

Italy’s Minister of Culture Joins with The Italian Ministry of Health

While many can recall soothing images on the news of musicians standing on balconies in Italy as they serenaded people listening from windows, the people weren’t the only ones listening. The Italian government took note, and a two hundred twenty-million-dollar fund was established to help support those in the performing arts during the strict lock down. In a show of how the country places a value on the arts, Italy’s Minister of Culture is working carefully with the Italian Ministry of Health to implement sanitization methods so that museums vital to their cultural heritage can reopen safely without spreading the virus.  

France’s Minister of Culture Roselyne Bachelot

In the summer of 2020, France was one of the countries who had created a special unemployment plan for those in the arts. They had previously announced the country’s pledge to help the arts and cultural sector. At that time they had gone so far as to extend the special unemployment plan until August 2021. But additional aid for the arts came when President Macron, working with Minister of Culture Roselyne Bachelot, announced art festivals would be eligible for aid through a special seven-billion-dollar fund to help with losses.  

Spain’s Minister of Culture Jose Manuel Rodriquez Uribes

In Spain, the culture minister Jose Manuel Rodriguez Uribes emphasized how if the country had learned anything from the Covid crisis it had learned the importance of working together. Uribes pointed to the importance of working together to consolidate the importance of cultural policy throughout Europe. Uribes is urging it be brought into line as a priority like the European Green Deal and European Digital Agenda. In May of 2020 Uribes announced a seventy-six-million-dollar package created to aid and protect what he deemed one of the country’s essential sectors, the arts. In addition, he extended credits and specialist financing up to seven hundred eighty million dollars to aid struggling cultural businesses.

Ministers of Culture in Madagascar and South Africa

Even the poorest of countries have recognized the importance of ministering to artists and others in cultural sectors. While funds were not there to aid artists in Madagascar, the country’s Minister of Culture Ravelomanantsoa Elia took to the only way she could to help – by handing out bags of rice to the struggling. South Africa, the most developed country in sub-Saharan Africa, allocated seven million dollars to relieve struggling artists. The country went even further by launching a tremendous package of grants to boost the economy, qualifying artists to get funds. Shortly after Covid began to shut down the world, over a hundred African intellectuals came together to write a letter to the continent’s leaders asking them to take the crisis as an opportunity to restore Africa’s “intellectual freedom and … capacity to create”.

The Ongoing Debate: Should the United States Have a Minister of Culture?

During an event to honor poet Robert Frost on October 26, 1963, President John F. Kennedy stated, "I see little of more importance to the future of our country and our civilization," President Kennedy once remarked, "than full recognition of the place of the artist." Two years later the National Endowment for the Arts or the National Endowment for the Humanities was created. Even still, as the ways other countries have stepped up to support artists are witnessed, Americans must think about whether it’s enough.

As American artists struggle with museum and gallery closings and income generating art fairs are canceled, many in the art world believe it’s time for the United States to add a Minister of Culture to the cabinet.

The advent of Covid wasn’t the first time the idea was bantered about. In 2013 Murray Moss, founder of the design art company Moss, discussed it during the Aspen Ideas Festival. Moss emphasized how the United States was one of only a few countries that didn’t have a minister of culture. However, before Moss was arguing for the position, producer Quincy Jones was urging President Obama in 2009 to appoint a secretary of culture. A position was envisioned that would oversee grants to artists and designers as well as engage in education and advocation for art. Moss believed it should start by looking to museums to find the right person for the position. As he speculated over a myriad of institutions where the right candidate might be found, he predicted that without the position “we’re not going to get anywhere.”

As we have seen how the country’s top doctor, Dr. Anthony Fauci, has ministered to worried Americans with steadfast information, we also see countries around the world ministering to their artists and their art communities. As President Biden rolls out his circle of close advisors, the long debate over the United States creating a Minister of Culture looks closer to fruition. Leaders and advocates in nonprofit and for-profit groups alike have become interested in a person being named to coordinate arts funding. The fact that the position continues to be discussed serves to point out and emphasize just how important art is to a culture’s psychological, social, and financial wellbeing.

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