President Biden has issued an executive order reinstating the President’s Committee on the Arts and Humanities (PCAH), an advisory group that dissolved under the Trump administration. The announcement was made last Friday, September 30.
The committee, which was first established in 1982 by President Ronald Reagan, works in concert with the White House and three primary federal cultural agencies — the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA), the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH), and the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS). But in 2017, when former President Donald Trump drew moral equivocations about the perpetrators of the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, all 16 remaining non-ex officio members — including artist Chuck Close, writer Jhumpa Lahiri, and architect Thom Mayne — resigned in protest. “Supremacy, discrimination, and vitriol are not American values,” they wrote in a letter sent to the White House. In response, the Trump administration stated that it had already decided to disband the committee because it was simply “not a responsible way to spend American tax dollars.”
The Trump administration years were marked by an executive assault on federal funding for the arts — even as Congress mobilized in response to protect critical arts and cultural organizations. In 2017, Trump proposed to gut the NEA, and every budget he proposed during his tenure would have eliminated funding for the agency. His 2021 budget proposal called the NEA and NEH “wasteful and unnecessary funding.”
The Biden administration’s executive order marks an effort to signal a return to normalcy. “The arts, the humanities, and museum and library services are essential to the well-being, health, vitality, and democracy of our Nation,” the order begins. “They are the soul of America, reflecting our multicultural and democratic experience.” Biden’s 2021 proposal would have raised the NEA’s allocation by 20% and the NEH’s by 6% after he took office.
The PCAH will be composed of the heads of the NEA, NEH, and IMLS, in addition to up to 25 non-federal appointees. The committee’s main responsibilities will be to shape policy goals, stimulate arts philanthropy, and advocate for the expansion of federal backing of the cultural sector. It will collaborate with artists, scholars, and experts to promote initiatives that bolster the arts and “demonstrate their relevance to the country’s health, economy, equity, and civic life.” Finally, the committee will help foster cooperation between the nation’s three most prominent cultural agencies.
“This national recognition offers a moment to reflect on the value that arts and culture bring to our lives and communities,” NEA Chair Maria Rosario Jackson said in a statement. “This is an extraordinary moment for the arts and humanities with this whole of government approach that will be integral to advancing the health, economy, equity, and democracy of the nation.”