National Cultural Agencies

Public Law 89-209 created the National Foundation for the Arts and Humanities in 1965. This enabling legislation defined the scope of the NEA as including, but not limited to:

. . . music (instrumental and vocal), dance, drama, folk arts, creative writing, architecture and allied fields, painting, sculpture, photography, graphic and craft arts, industrial design, costume and fashion design, motion pictures, television, radio, tape and sound recording, the arts related to the presentation, performance, execution, and exhibition of such major arts forms, and the study and application of the arts to human environments.

The NEA’s administrative twin, the NEH, provides public support for studies in the following academic disciplines:

. . . history, philosophy, languages, linguistics, literature, archeology, jurisprudence, history and criticism of the arts, ethics, comparative religion, and those aspects of the social science employing historical or philosophical approaches.

The creation of the arts and humanities endowments represented the first permanent commitment by the federal government to support cultural programs since the New Deal. However, the role of the national government in cultural affairs was to be guided by a “hidden-hand” system, lest it become a state-imposed culture at odds with the American pluralist tradition of artistic autonomy (Mulcahy 1995a). As grant-making agencies, the endowments normally provide only discretionary funding, awarded on a competitive basis. These grants were to partially underwrite the costs of specific projects undertaken by non-profit cultural institutions. There was no provision for subsidizing an institution’s operating costs (Wyszomirski 1995a).

Administratively, the NEA is an independent agency that reports ultimately to the president. Its chief administrative officer is a chairman, who is appointed by the president for a four-year term upon Senate confirmation. The chairman is responsible to a 26-member National Council on the Arts appointed by the president, and confirmed by the Senate, to staggered 6-year terms. Typically, Council members are distinguished artists, scholars, cultural administrations, but not representatives of arts service or advocacy organizations. As such, the National Council represents the principle of “arm’s-length” decision-making. Since the 1990s, statuary provisions have provided for congressional representation on the National Council.

As specified in P.L. 89-209, all grant-making decisions are made by the chairman with advisory recommendations by the National Council. This means, theoretically, that the NEA chairman can approve grant applications at will. In fact, chairs have rarely acted unilaterally and traditionally ratified recommendations; the principle of arm’s-length decision-making typically represented the dominant influence (Wyszomirski 1995b).

Proposed grants are initially vetted by specialized panels. Panel members are appointed by the NEA chairman for terms of up to four years from candidates proposed by the NEA staff, arts lobbyists, cultural administrators, local officials, and other concerned parties from the cultural community. The panels were, in many ways, the bedrock of the arts endowment’s administrative organization. They were intended to provide the disinterested decision-making associated with “arm’s-length decision-making” as well as to insulate the agency from the argued perils of politicization (Hillman and McCaughey 1989). This insulation device, however, did not guarantee a protective fire wall.

For example, the panels have often been criticized for serving as “mutual admiration societies” characterized by “cronyism” or personal favoritism. Panel members have also been said to have manifest preferences for certain aesthetic expression and implicitly exclude expressive forms that were outside the dominant, if unacknowledged, aesthetic paradigms. Typically, these alleged cultural biases were said to reflect the views of the major cultural institutions and the New York art world. (Galligan 1993)

In addition to the NEA and NEH, there are two other national agencies with clear cultural responsibilities. The IMLS, established in 1976 as an independent executive branch agency, is endowed with a small budget to provide libraries and museums, predominately local entities, with technical and management assistance. The CPB, created in 1967, serves as a conduit for providing funds for technical assistance to the various not- for-profit radio and television stations around the country that provide non-commercial cultural and public affairs programming. It is beyond the competence of the CPB to produce or directly underwrite programming. This is the responsibility of the not-for-profit telecommunications sector: PBS and NPR (Katz 1982).

It may be worth noting, given a widespread belief in the contrary that both NPR and the PBS are not governmental agencies; in fact, they are not-for-profit corporations. There are some state and local governments, as well as some public universities at school systems, which maintain television and radio stations. PBS and NPR are not public, not national, and not broadcasting systems.

This summary of the national government’s involvement with culture does not include government agencies that are involved with cultural matters, but as ancillary activities. There are several of these, a few of which are discussed below.

The Library of Congress (headed by an appointed Librarian of Congress) and the National Archives (similarly under an appointed National Archivist) have important cultural responsibilities. However, the former is at root a legislative-reference service and the latter is a document- preservation agency (Curiously, the National Botanical Gardens is a congressional agency because of its location on the Capitol grounds).

In one of the rare cases of direct patronage by the national government, the General Services Administration commissions art work to decorate national buildings such as federal courts. This 1 percent of buildings budget for artistic works is also followed by the states at that level or higher.

The Interior Department supports historic preservation efforts in cooperation with the (private, non-profit) National Trust for Historic Preservation and maintains the National Register of Historic Places. The Interior Department’s Park Service also manages a number of commemorative sites and historic monuments—most prominently those in proximity to the National Mall in Washington.

The State Department supports cultural and education exchange programs through grants such as Fulbright Fellowships. The semi-autonomous Voice of America broadcasts informational and cultural programming for international audiences.

The Smithsonian Institution originated from a gift of $500,000 by James Smithson and was established by Congress in 1846. The Smithsonian comprises 19 museums and research centers principally, but not exclusively, located in Washington. These range from the Air and Space Museum (the most visited) to the National Zoo and the Cooper-Hewitt Design Center in New York City. Their operations are directly, but not entirely, underwritten by government. However, they are administered as autonomous institutions.

The National Gallery of Art, a gift to the nation by Andrew Mellon in 1937, is an autonomous museum that originated as a bequest from Andrew Mellon. The National Gallery is an administrative hybrid where its physical operations are supported by federal appropriations while art acquisitions and exhibitions are privately funded.

Overall, the cultural programs of the national government are highly diversified, located in a number of administrative agencies, overseen by different congressional committees, supported by and responsive to a variety of interests and necessarily articulate the policy perspectives of discrete segments of the cultural constituency. The national government has eschewed the idea of establishing a unified public culture in which the state would act as a major patron of the arts.

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