Secretary of 'Soul'?

The new administration in Washington brings hope for an American minister of culture.


Quincy Jones, bandleader, composer, producer and Grammy-laden powerhouse of the entertainment world, was on CNN on Inauguration Day, getting personal and global at the same time.

The much-traveled Jones had been back to his old stomping ground, Garfield High School in Seattle. There, he chatted up a group of students and discovered, to his dismay, that they didn't recognize the names—much less the legacies—of Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, John Coltrane and Charlie Parker. "It hurts me so much that they're not aware of who their giants are," said Jones, with obvious emotion.

"I just got promoted to Commander du Légion d'Honneur"—France's highest arts award, a signal honor in European culture—"and I almost cried … that we don't have a [French culture minister] Jack Lang to represent the arts in an official Cabinet position."

The fresh wind of a new administration in Washington has brought new attention to an old objective—some might say a dream—of artists and arts administrators: a Cabinet-level secretary of the arts. Jones has long been an informal supporter of the idea; now he’s taken on the marquee role of evangelist for creation of the post. His efforts along with an online petition launched by two New York City musicians are building awareness and support for creation of the post and trying to secure backing of a president with a known affinity for the arts.

Politics and the arts in America have long been engaged in a tortured dance; by turns, pas de deux and danse macabre, depending on the party in power. The National Endowment for the Arts, created in 1965 in the flurry of legislation from President Lyndon Johnson's Great Society program, has been a favored whipping boy for Republicans for the past eight years. The GOP generally opposed the NEA either on fiscal grounds or for cultural reasons connected to issues of obscenity and free speech.

Both Democrats and Republicans flirt with the arts, a truth never more obvious than in the campaign soundtracks from the last election. And young administrations are always eager for the style points that come from brushes with artistic celebrity. The Kennedy inaugural party in 1961, perhaps the event that first cemented the Camelot myth in the mind of the public, was attended by arts and entertainment royalty, which brought an elegance to the political world.

But efforts for a Cabinet-level officer of the arts have never gained serious traction in Congress. Peter Weitzner and Jaime Austria would have it otherwise.

Weitzner, curator of the chamber music series at the Central Branch of the Brooklyn Public Library, heard Jones discussing the idea on WNYC's "Soundcheck" show in November. He called his friend, Austria, a bassist for the New York City Opera and American Ballet Theater Orchestras, who hit on the idea of expanding public support by circulating an online petition.

"We were hoping to gather as many signatures as possible and then present them to President Obama and the new administration close to the inauguration,” Weitzner told me. "As the petition gained considerable momentum throughout the days leading up to the inauguration, we decided to let it run as long as possible."

"Our goal was never to endorse a particular candidate for the Cabinet position, but to bring awareness to how important the arts are to the psychological and financial health of the country, and how integrating them back into the national educational curricula would be a great investment in the future of our nation," Weitzner said.