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Home / Articles / News / Opinion /  Zane's World
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The New Mexico History Museum is the latest embodiment of our legacy of protecting and promoting culture.

Zane's World

Culture Vultures

June 9, 2010, 12:00 am
Two things are certain in New Mexico politics regardless of what happens in the Nov. 2 election: The Land of Enchantment will have a woman as governor for the first time, and some large, powerful state-level departments are going to be merged as cost-cutting measures.

The first certainty we can be proud of, if only from a gender equity perspective, since a Susana Martinez Republican governorship would be only slightly less embarrassing than a Sarah Palin governorship for Santa Fe liberals. (No offense to the great state of Alaska.)

The second certainty is an altogether less prideful specter and has embarrassing implications no matter who is in charge. But extreme cost-cutting measures are a necessity. That is, there’s no way to avoid them when the wealthiest among us decide they are not wealthy enough and choose to accelerate the decimation of the middle class by stealing trillions of dollars in a well-engineered economic “collapse.”

Crumbling state budgets are simply acceptable collateral damage—complete with enterprise opportunities for privatization—when you’re in the international banking cabal business.

Both Democratic gubernatorial nominee Lt. Gov. Diane Denish and Martinez have pledged to go after exempt employees and vacant positions to shore up the budget. Denish has pushed a plan to collapse the departments of cultural affairs, economic development and tourism into a single super department to be called “commerce.” The General Services Department and State Personnel Office would be folded into the Department of Finance and Administration under Denish.

Martinez, too, would look to consolidate our bloated government under her conviction that waste and “corruption is rooted in everything in New Mexico.” We don’t know what the new shape of state government will be, but we know that cabinet-level positions will be chopped and independent departments will be merged.

With that in mind, allow me to set out a few thoughts in defense of New Mexico’s Department of Cultural Affairs.

It may be common for other nations to have cabinet-level departments and secretaries for cultural affairs (never mind that “minister of culture” too often translates to “head of secret police”), but it’s more rare than a white buffalo for states in the US to seat culture at the grown-ups’ table. For a culture department to have an entire system of state-funded museums and monuments under its purview is a distinction that belongs to New Mexico alone.

Some might argue that our difference in this matter is evidence that we don’t need such an emphasis on culture, but I would argue that our odd-man-out standing creates a competitive edge as the crippled world economy rebuilds in new directions.

Let’s start with the basics: What are cultural affairs? First, there’s the maintenance and support of the aforementioned museums and monuments distributed all over the state. Second, there’s state support of artists and arts organizations. Third, there’s the New Mexico State Library and its bookmobiles that serve rural communities. The tacit functions of cultural affairs quickly become too many to list numerically: the Museum of New Mexico Press, the state Music Commission, the Historic Preservation Division and the Office of Archaeological Studies, the Center for Cultural Technology, and on and on. But it’s the ephemeral function of investing culture with official standing that is most important.

New Mexico’s varied forms of cultural expression and heritage are alive and valued today because of the state’s early involvement in supporting and protecting culture. New Mexico is a global travel destination now precisely because of those actions. New Mexico’s ability to attract visitors and support its artists, artisans and manifold heritages has only grown more potent with the state’s promotion of its long-standing cultural affairs commitment to the cabinet level.

Likewise, we know that every dollar invested in arts and culture in New Mexico translates to at least a $3 return. That’s a diabolically good ROI. It may not be the cash cow that the oil and gas industry is, but it’s non-extractive; improves quality of life; contributes to education, diversity, tolerance and history; and will last long after the last straw of natural gas is huffed up some corporate nose.

Given culture’s ties to our destination status and its significant contribution to our economy, Denish isn’t wrong to see a relationship between tourism and economic development.

The problem is that tourism and economic development are generic practices. Certainly, they are open to innovation, creative thinking and might sometimes be practiced under uncommon circumstances, but they are practices with short, definite goals.

The Tourism Department’s mission is to bring people here to spend money. The mission of economic development is to create an environment so people here can make money (and then spend it). But the Department of Cultural Affairs’ mission is a less precise, more important, vaguer and more soulful task. I don’t care what the official mission might be and I don’t care about budget line items—the result is protecting and nurturing the things we hold dear even if we’re not sure why.

In New Mexico, we’re lucky that lots of money is made as a by-product of arts and culture. But to embed such a thing under the rubric of “commerce” is not efficient government—it’s a failure to understand the ways in which government has the capacity to truly serve the people.

Follow Zane’s World on Twitter: @Zanes_World

 

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