So who’s for a U.S. Ministry of Culture?

French Ministry of Culture

(Photo credit: French Ministry of Culture building, Palais Royal, Paris, courtesy Pedro Ribeiro Simões, Flickr Creative Commons)

I’ve been talking a lot in this blog about the role of museums, memorials and monuments, and the agencies and organizations that operate them, in the hope of helping me to understand how we remember our common past. But these elements are only part of a broader arena of cultural production and a bigger picture of government support—or lack thereof—of such cultural production. This gets us into areas such as the arts, television, and theater—at least where they’ve been supported by the federal government. Inevitably, there’s a lot of overlap between these areas. It might even make sense to look beyond the domestic scene and check out the role of organizations that have attempted to spread the word about American culture overseas. I’ll have to think about how far I want to take this.

In the United States there are many government-related institutions (at both federal and state levels) that sponsor and support cultural production, including the preservation of national memory and American history. These include the National Park Service of course, but also the National Trust for Historic Preservation and the National Register of Historic Places. And in a post yesterday I added another agency, one that’s directly connected to the U.S. Navy: the Naval History and Heritage Command. Broadening our definition a little, we could include the National Endowment for the Humanities (the NEH), the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA), and even the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (public radio and television). All of these operate within our common public sphere and promote an understanding of the country’s culture in a non-commercial way. (There are of course any number of commercial, for-profit and private, non-profit groups as well, from movie studios to private foundations that support public broadcasting; but I’m going to put those to one side for the time being.) We could even add institutions formed to promote U.S. culture overseas, particularly the Voice of America, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, the Fulbright Commission, the State Department’s Office of Public Diplomacy (what used to be known as the U.S. Information Agency), and so on.

So there are plenty of taxpayer-funded agencies, both domestic- and foreign-oriented, that are involved in some way in cultural production. But here’s a question: Why is it that the United States does not have a formal, centralized ministry of culture, as the French do, to oversee and coordinate all of this stuff? Such departments are common in other major industrialized countries. France, for example, generously supports its Ministry of Culture, while Spain has its Ministry of Culture, Education and Sports. In Britain, the Department of Culture, Media and Sport, which includes the former Department of National Heritage, is a cabinet-level agency. (There was also an Arts Council of Great Britain until 1994, when it was divided in 1994 to form the Arts Council of England—now Arts Council England—the Scottish Arts Council, and the Arts Council of Wales.) Other English-speaking and Commonwealth nation-states often have their own government-supported government entities. Canada has its Department of Canadian Heritage, Australia has its Department of Culture and the Arts, India has its Ministry of Culture, and so on.

Internationally, strong ministries of culture, in their late 20th and early 21st century forms, tended to emerge first and foremost from European countries with traditions of powerful, centralizing, absolute monarchies—even where such monarchies were subsequently overthrown, as in France. Today, generally speaking, countries that are more authoritarian tend to have more powerful ministries of culture. Countries that were more strongly influenced by the Protestant Reformation, constitutional monarchy, and Calvinist austerity were less likely to try to centralize or naturalize culture; their departments of culture are more recent in vintage and have tended to be less powerful and influential. This accounts for much of the English-speaking world. And in Germany, in contrast to much of southern Europe, cultural agencies and facilities are the responsibility of the Laender, or individual states, rather than the central government (Kammen, 1997).

And then there is the United States. Of course the USA, with its deep-seated aversion to overcentralization of political power in any form, was always unlikely to follow the French model. As a result, argues one scholar, “it is obviously the case that state support for cultural endeavors has been much weaker in the United States than in Europe” (Kammen, 1997, p. 94).

Throughout most of its modern history, the U.S. government rejected or downplayed any notion of a formal national cultural policy. Even Teddy Roosevelt tried and failed to create something as straightforward as a national commission to oversee the arts (Beam, 2007). However, around the edges the federal government did start to play around with bits and pieces of cultural policy at the federal level. The National Park Service, formed in 1916, is a pretty clear early example of this. In the 1930s, an effort to create a coordinated national arts policy emerged alongside the proliferation of New Deal cultural programs. That effort failed, though in the same period the National Park Service received both increased funding and new responsibilities—with the takeover of the military parks and creation of new national parks in the East, such as Shenandoah and Great Smoky Mountains. And the creation of these parks was helped immensely by the participation of the federally funded Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC), which helped construct many of the roads, bridges and buildings that tied these new parks together.

There were other, perhaps more surprising, arenas for federal government backing of cultural activities, even those of an explicitly commercial nature. For example, there was the extensive federal support of Hollywood’s overseas expansion, begun in the 1920s and renewed in the 1940s. Then there was the support given to Disney, both to develop Latin American audiences and to commission WWII propaganda films (Dorfman & Mattelart, 1975; deGrazia, 1989).

Following the Second World War, there was a period, in the late 1950s and early 1960s, when the United States seemed to be moving more strongly in the direction of a national cultural policy. This period coincided with a time of growing pride in American history and the country’s more recent successes across multiple fields, including its cultural achievements. As the United States more explicitly contrasted itself in positive and progressive ways with the perceived evils of the Communist world, the country saw a renaissance in cultural awareness that reached its peak probably around the time of the Kennedy administration, before Vietnam began to muddy the waters (Kammen, 1997). The national capital was a major beneficiary of this trend, with, for example, a major expansion of the Smithsonian (originally established in 1846) and the creation of the National Portrait Gallery (founded 1962, opened 1968). At the same time the U.S. Information Agency was using public funds to promote American culture overseas, for example with multiple USIA-sponsored tours by jazz legends such as Dizzy Gillespie, Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington (Kaplan, 2008).

This cultural awakening took place, oddly enough, against the backdrop of the perceived problem of the dumbing-down and commercial debasement of television, rapidly becoming America’s most influential mass medium. The response, in 1967, was the Public Broadcasting Act, creating a pot of public financing for public radio and television.

In other ways U.S. developments in cultural promotion were truly progressive. During the post-war period the United States often led in key areas of cultural policy, particularly the preservation of the national heritage—including, most obviously, the creation and expansion of the national parks (Rothman, 1989; Runte, 1979). The NPS also saw a substantial infusion of public funds with Mission 66, a 10-year program designed to dramatically expand park facilities and increase public access to the national parks in time for the agency’s 50th anniversary in 1966. The federal government also led the way in other regards, for example in the area of progressive tax policy. The system of tax deductions for cultural gifts to nonprofit cultural institutions and museums and was really pioneered in the U.S. (Kammen, 1997). And state governments began to get involved in a big way to support the arts.

But all of these efforts never coalesced into anything resembling a national cultural policy or a formal ministry of culture. Ironically perhaps, the WW II and Cold War efforts that brought the country together in opposition to global totalitarianism also heightened concerns that a formal U.S. cultural ministry might smack too heavily of the same type of totalitarian control. Then the Vietnam War undermined America’s image abroad, which in turn undermined formal U.S. efforts to project a coordinated positive image of the country overseas. That same conflict, combined with the (very necessary yet divisive) Civil Rights movement, also led to the fraying of the country’s cultural fabric and began a trend toward political and cultural fragmentation—a trend later exacerbated by new media technologies and the so-called “culture wars.”

There were more ominous signs for U.S. cultural policy in the 1980s and 1990s. Though the United States “won” the Cold War, the end of that struggle further undermined the dynamic of broad-based national support for cultural policy. A backlash against many federal cultural agencies coincided with with the increasing partisan polarization of Washington politics in the 1990s. Direct domestic attacks on the NEH, the NEA, and CPB took place in 1995, when Newt Gingrich and the Republican Congress hoped to eliminate their funding entirely. These efforts failed, though the funding of these organizations was scaled back and their very legitimacy was called into question. At about the same time, following the end of the Cold War, funding for U.S. overseas public diplomacy was being cut as well, and the U.S. Information Agency was folded into the State Department in 1999, as part of a cost-cutting operation. More attacks on federal cultural operations have taken place in the late 2000s. The National Park Service and NTHP have managed to avoid direct ideological attacks, but their funding has been stymied by the chronic budget impasse in Washington, DC in recent years.

So there clearly are many reasons for the lack of a coordinated U.S. culture ministry. The eternal fear of excessive government control, plus the more recent general loss of public confidence in government, have a lot to do with it. But the simple fact is that, today as for more than a century, most American cultural production is privately funded and produced in order to make a profit. And without a strong external threat to bring the country together, desire for a strong public expression of American culture outside the marketplace continues to drain away. Thus the government has been left not with a centralizing or coordinating role, but rather with a fragmented, piecemeal, and shrinking approach to plug the gaps where a market-based solution is not viable. That’s the only reason taxpayer money still flows, in very limited quantities, to the fine arts, the humanities, public broadcasting, and historic preservation. But in the current economic and political climate, public funding is ever more grudging and limited in scope—even when, as with the National Park Service, there is strong public support for such funding.


Christopher Beam (2007), What do ministers of culture do? Slate, June 29. Available at

deGrazia, V. (1989), Mass Culture and Sovereignty: The American Challenge to European Cinema, 1920-1960, Journal of Modern History 61, 59 (March).

Dorfman & Mattelart (1975), How to Read Donald Duck: Imperialist Ideology in the Disney Comic.

Fred Kaplan (2008). When Ambassadors Had Rhythm. New York Times, June 29. Available at

Michael Kammen (1997). Culture and the State in America. In In the Past Lane: Historical Perspectives on American Culture.

H. Rothman (1989). Preserving Different Pasts: The American National Monuments. Urbana, Ill.

A. Runte (1979). National Parks: The American experience. Lincoln, Nebr.


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