Biden should name a secretary of culture and creative industries to drive economic growth
Other nations already recognize that arts, culture and design, from video games to my field of opera, are major economic drivers now and in the future.
President Joe Biden has left one key cabinet post unfilled. It is a position that even conservative estimates suggest is responsible for almost 9 million jobs, 15% of monthly average earnings in the United States, and a higher percentage of U.S. Gross Domestic Product than the entire agriculture sector. It is a position that speaks for millions of Americans who are among the hardest hit by the current economic crisis — nearly 3 million jobs lost, according to a study late last year from the Brookings Institution. And it is a position that would serve a sector vital to our recovery, growth and competitiveness.
This vacant post is Secretary of Culture and Creative Industries. In Biden’s defense, the job does not exist, nor does the cabinet agency to support it. He should remedy this serious oversight in the way the U.S. government is structured.
Admittedly, I have a vested interest in the creation of a position like this — I have worked my entire career as an opera singer and arts advocate. But other governments have not made this mistake of omission. America has long been an outlier in this area.
Creative industries drive the economy
Last November, the G-20 convened its first ever meeting of its culture ministers. They recognized the growing importance of culture and creative industries to national competitiveness and cohesion. In country after country around the world, creative industries account for 2% to 7% of GDP, and few industries have been hit so hard by the COVID crisis. UNESCO estimates annual revenue from the cultural and creative sectors is $2.25 trillion, the exports related to the sector are $250 billion and the number of people employed in the sector is 30 million. Some estimates suggest this sector will soon be responsible for a tenth of all global output.
The U.S. federal “arts budget” is a pittance. The National Endowment for the Arts, despite efforts by the Trump administration to kill it, is roughly $170 million — less than one fully equipped F-22 aircraft. A new cabinet-level position for the arts and even a new agency need not be massively more expensive than that to begin with. More essential in the years ahead is leadership: working with states and localities that fund culture and the arts, and identifying the steps needed to undo the economic arts crisis.
Creative industries have typically been defined to include fine and performing arts, design and advertising, publishing, crafts, motion pictures, television, radio, creative technology, architecture, fashion and cultural heritage. Of these, for example, fine and performing arts have been devastated by COVID. Roughly half of all jobs in the sector have been lost in the past year — 1.4 million jobs representing $42.5 billion in sales.
But consider the knock-on effects. While shutting 41 Broadway theaters in New York City not only cost the jobs of casts, crews and administrative staff in theaters, it also hit airlines, hotels, restaurants, cabs and car services and retailers hard. Overall, Broadway is estimated to generate more than $13 billion of New York City’s economy, and everyone within that economy will suffer until the lights are back on. And this story is repeated city by city across America to varying degrees.
Depression-era federal programs for artists, like the Works Progress Administration, illustrate the ways the country can use creative talent that's out of work. Federal leadership — planning, coordination, tax incentives, funding — is also needed going forward to recover from what has been a national cultural depression, and to understand the importance of this sector to our collective future.
Arts and culture are not luxury items
I have seen up close the impact federal arts programs can have. As an arts envoy with the State Department since 2004, I have seen how the arts can be used to advance key international objectives. As part of the President’s Committee on the Arts and Humanities Turnaround Arts program during the Obama administration, I saw the impact arts education can have on academic performance in underserved communities.
In fact, I was one of those students. As the daughter of a Bulgarian refugee father and a Mexican immigrant mother, the music programs where I grew up, in a blue-collar town in Michigan, offered me a safe space against bullying, connections to the community, and a chance at the career I have today.
Those experiences are why I believe now is the time to create a cabinet-level agency to fill this egregious gap in the structure of our executive branch. Leaders in both parties, from Joe Biden and Kamala Harris on down, should see it as a way to attract next generation businesses associated with new technologies — from gaming to software development to new media.
The arts and culture are often, mistakenly, seen as luxury items. That is why they have been assigned to the children’s table in past U.S. public policy discussions. When culture ministers gather at the G-20 meeting in Rome on May 3, America should be able to participate not just as an equal but as a leader. It would be a great time for the Biden team to unveil a new agenda, a new executive branch resource and the people they intend to represent the United States on these issues at home and abroad.