What Do Ministers of Culture Do?

Give away money, win Grammy awards, etc.

André Malraux

Commandos raided the Iraqi culture minister’s house Tuesday to arrest him for a 2005 assassination attempt on a fellow politician. But he’s not the only minister of culture grabbing headlines: Britain’s culture secretary, Tessa Jowell, was replaced Thursday. What does a minister of culture do?

They oversee grants for the arts, fund public broadcasting, support museums, and generally seek to preserve and promote national identity. But beyond that, their responsibilities vary widely. In Britain, the Department for Culture, Media, and Sport also handles tourism and the 2012 Olympic Games, and has even spoken out against U.S. laws cracking down on Internet gambling. The responsibilities of Canada’s culture minister—better known as the “heritage minister“—are largely ceremonial: attending awards functions, cocktail hours, etc. In Japan, the ministry devoted to culture also covers education, sports, science, and technology, plus maintenance of religious sites and promotion of the Japanese language. Culture ministries often play a regulatory role, too: In 2006, France’s culture minister defended a law that would ban iTunes unless Apple made its format compatible with other music players; in Kazakhstan, the Ministry of Culture and Information can decide what films are appropriate for public consumption.

The modern office of culture minister traces back to French writer André Malraux, who served under Charles de Gaulle starting in 1959 and pushed for what he called the “democratization of culture”—making the arts available to everyone, not just the elite. Since then, many countries have drawn culture ministers from the artistic community. Brazil’s current minister, Gilberto Gil, has been a prominent singer/songwriter since the late ‘60s, when he was exiled for political activities. (He’s also one of the few government officials to win a Grammy.) Even after retiring, some culture ministers stay on as cultural ambassadors. France’s former culture minister Jack Lang, for example, recently helped organize the Louvre Atlanta, a collaboration between the venerable Paris institution and Atlanta’s High Museum of Art.

So, why doesn’t the United States have a ministry of culture? For one thing, arts in the United States are largely privately funded, and the art world is less dependent on state support. A bunch of federal agencies perform the functions given to ministries of culture in other countries. That’s not to say the idea for a ministry of culture—or something like it—hasn’t been proposed. In 1859, President James Buchanan appointed a National Arts Commission, but it disbanded after two years. Teddy Roosevelt made a similar attempt 50 years later, and in 1937, during a fit of New Deal-fueled government expansion, a New York congressman introduced legislation to create a Department of Science, Art, and Literature, but the proposal never got beyond committee. Subsequent efforts to create a centralized cultural agency were hampered at least in part by negative associations with Nazi propaganda and “cultural planning” in the USSR.

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Explainer thanks Guy Lepage of the Ontario Ministry of Culture, Peter C. Pfeiffer of Georgetown University, Agnes Vondermuhll of the French Embassy, and Margaret Wyszomirski of Ohio State University.