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‘Department of Culture,’ again

Blame it on the political season, they say. With less than a year to the next elections, it is time once again for political additions. For old guards about to bow out of politics, it is graduation time. And with graduation comes a retirement plan, which is what some of our culturati must be thinking with the resurrected proposal for the creation of a Department of Culture.

For sure, there have been numerous attempts to pass a law creating a Department of Culture. One such attempt lumped it with the Department of Tourism. Heaven forbid, or our national identity might just be reduced into contrived festivals. Tourism is hardly the right “governance platform” for overseeing the development of Filipino arts and culture.

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In 2006, then Rep. Roseller L. Barinaga of the second district of Zamboanga del Norte, proposed the creation of a “Department of Culture, Arts and National Heritage.” In fairness, Barinaga had rightly lamented over certain realities limiting the scope of our national cultural agencies. He bewailed, for instance, the failure of the National Commission for Culture and the Arts (NCCA) to address critical cultural issues, such as the construction of the Chico Dam, that “have displaced thousands of indigenous peoples.” Barinaga had also cited the National Museum’s “lack of police powers to challenge illegal excavations in historical and cultural sites.” Truly, these needed decisive government interventions by a body that has both teeth and machinery.

All that can be water under the bridge if we choose to, without necessarily adding another layer to the already multi-tiered, heavily politicized government bureaucracy.

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Who would want to touch a “heavily politicized” government cultural machinery with a 10-foot pole? Especially after 1986, the framers of the law creating the NCCA were aware of what was then a popular post-Edsa assessment of the state of our culture and arts. The clamor then was for a “people-oriented cultural institution” impervious to political manipulation. It was seen that we needed not only a new direction but a government body that cannot be a Malacañang marionette.

The 20 years that have passed since 1992, the year Republic Act 7356 creating the NCCA was signed into law, should already give us a clear idea of what else needs to be done.

Take note that fear of government manipulation of culture and the arts is universal. We have seen the counterproductive paradigms. By suppressing Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, Soviet Russia could only watch helplessly as he was nominated for the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1970. Cultural titan France is one country that has a Ministry of Culture. But the person to  head the Ministère de la Culture et de la Communication must be, as required by French law, a person of letters to ensure prestige and respect for the office. On the other hand, the United States has never had a Department of Culture. Past attempts to create one were always  foiled by fears about government meddling.

It is the same with the Philippines. The NCCA, for instance, was designed like no other government agency. It is a semi-private institution that includes, as an essential component in its structure, 19 committees manned by private sector representatives from the various fields of artistic and cultural endeavors. The composition of its board requires it to have three from the private sector. Its chair, who is our country’s de facto secretary of culture, is elected from among the members of the board.

The most crucial question is: If we now create a Department of Culture, what will happen to private sector participation and volunteerism in the NCCA? In addition, the secretary and undersecretaries will all be appointed by Malacañang. In a Congress belligerent to a sitting president, those appointments will be subjected to partisan bickering. Artists and cultural workers will then begin aspiring for career executive positions through the Ceso (Career Executive Service Officer) system. The Ceso will then become god, to the detriment of those who are qualified and able but cannot be appointed because they have no Ceso credentials. It will only give rise to an absurdity in our arts and culture.

Still, critical questions must be asked. Despite private sector representation in the NCCA, why was it that Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo named the NCCA executive director then, her protégé, for the National Artist Award? Supervised by the

NCCA, the rigorous process of vetting candidates for the award was not followed, thus causing an ethical conflict of interest. And why was it that in the past, Malacañang could still influence the

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NCCA board in its choice of its chair?

Of paramount importance then is to strengthen the unique scope and structure of the NCCA. With a Department of Culture, regional offices will have to be created. The gargantuan budget for that can instead be rechanneled to increase the government subsidy known as the National Endowment Fund for Culture and the Arts, which all and sundry in the art and culture sector turn to for assistance. With RA 10066, the National Cultural Heritage Law which the NCCA, as the country’s policymaking body for arts and culture, implements, what is needed is to give more teeth to its affiliated cultural agencies, namely the National Museum, National Library, National Archives, National Historical Commission, Komisyon ng Wikang Pambansa, and the Cultural Center of the Philippines. It may also consider including the National Commission for Indigenous Peoples among its affiliated agencies.

It will only take an executive order from the President to give the NCCA chair a Cabinet portfolio.

There is no need to burn the house down to kill a rat.

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TAGS: 2013 midterm elections, Department of Culture, Government, politics
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