Category: Museums

The Broad Boondoggle

Artist's conception of The Broad courtesy of Diller Scofidio+Renfro.

Artist's conception of The Broad courtesy of Diller Scofidio+Renfro.

On January 6, 2011, Los Angeles billionaire Eli Broad unveiled the architectural plans for his new downtown L.A. art museum - which will of course be named, “The Broad.”

The $130 million, three-story, 114,000-square-foot museum will be located on L.A.’s historic Bunker Hill, across the street from the Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA), and the Walt Disney Concert Hall.

On its list of the 400 richest Americans Forbes magazine places Eli Broad at number 44, calculating his net worth for 2010 at $5.8 billion. The Broad museum is being constructed to house Mr. Broad’s private collection of postmodern art by the likes of Jeff Koons, Damien Hirst, and Joseph Beuys. According to Forbes, Broad’s collection is valued at more than $1 billion.

Eli Broad is on the Board of Regents at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, a trustee of the Museum of Modern Art in New York, and a lifetime trustee for both the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) and L.A.’s Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA). In December of 2008 he bailed out a financially insolvent MOCA to the tune of $30 million. That same year the “Broad Contemporary Art Museum” (BCAM) opened on the LACMA campus, a building Broad had financed with a $56 million donation; however, the tycoon shocked LACMA by announcing he would not donate his vaunted collection to LACMA, but instead would loan it out to museums around the world through his “Broad Art Foundation.” Broad’s entire collection will now be housed at the forthcoming Broad in downtown L.A. It should not be forgotten that Broad helped arrange the $25 million donation that British Petroleum (BP) made to LACMA, which resulted in that museum constructing its odious “BP Grand Entrance.”

Artinfo reported on the unveiling of the Broad museum architectural plans with the headline, Is L.A.’s Broad Museum Already Losing Its Edge? The mildly critical article bluntly stated that the museum’s design by architecture firm Diller Scofidio + Renfro “has been edited by the museum’s billionaire founder,” while also asking whether the architectural plans for the upcoming museum are “in the process of being lobotomized.” Kevin Ferguson of Southern California Public Radio (89.3 KPCC), made a tongue in cheek critique of the building’s “cutting edge” architecture when he wrote, “I can’t stop thinking of cow innards when I see it.” Indeed, the edifice Mr. Broad intends to build to himself does bear a striking resemblance to a gigantic mound of tripe, and it is amusing to contemplate what The Broad will look like after vast flocks of pigeons take up residence in the museum’s porous honeycomb outer walls. But these are trifling concerns when stacked up against the economic realities behind the new museum.

In August 2010, writer Tim Cavanaugh wrote a piece for Reason Magazine titled, Why Is Eli Broad Renting a Full Block of Downtown L.A. for $6,481.48 a Month? Cavanaugh opened his article with the following bombshell:

“Eli Broad’s new agreement to build a downtown Los Angeles art museum gives the capricious billionaire and medieval patron of the arts what may be the sweetest rental deal of the century: a 99-year lease of a large parcel in downtown L.A. for a mere $7.7 million.

If that figure is accurate, this means one of the 100 richest people on the planet is leasing a full block on Grand Avenue for $6,481.48 a month. The owner of the land (in this case, L.A.’s Community Redevelopment Agency) could have gotten more than that with four rental units.”

Cavanaugh contends that in a conversation with a staffer in the office of L.A. City Councilwoman Jan Perry, he was told that Broad is leasing the entire downtown city block of public land for one dollar a year - the going rate for cultural institutions. Apparently $7.7 million is not the lease price for the property, but what Broad agreed to pay the city for donations towards affordable housing under a 2004 Disposition and Development Agreement. Cavanaugh was able to reach William T. Fujioka, the Chief Executive Officer (CEO) of the County of Los Angeles, who confirmed these details, though Cavanaugh alleges Mr. Fujioka stated the agreed upon $7.7 million price was the result of tough negotiations with the city. Nonetheless, it is difficult to justify a multi-billionaire paying only $7.7 million for an entire city block of downtown L.A. property when individual condo units in that area sell for as high as $4 million. But then, being a venerated member of the ruling class does have its privileges.

The lease price controversy deepened when the Los Angeles Times published Mike Boehm’s article, Some fine print in the Broad museum deal. Boehm’s article details how “The Broad Collection museum eventually would receive millions of public dollars as a kind of rebate on its construction cost.” Boehm’s exposé is the knock-out punch. Contrary to reports that Broad will finance his museum with his own monies, it is L.A.’s tax-payers, already overburdened by the state and national economic crisis, that will end up footing the bill. Well, at least we know where the funds to clean up after all of those reprobate pigeons will come from.

The Met & the Bailout Billionaires

According to figures released by the Bureau of Labor Statistics on Dec. 3, 2010, the national unemployment rate in the U.S. is officially up to 9.8%. “Frugal” seems to be the most used word to describe the current Christmas season. Together with rising home foreclosures, increasing poverty, lack of healthcare, and some 14% of Americans relying on food stamps to meet basic needs, millions of Americans are becoming increasingly desperate. That is why the holiday party mounted at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art on December 9, 2010 was such an affront.

The Blackstone Group rented the entire museum for the evening, but it did not invite anyone from the media to attend their 25th annual holiday celebration. However, freelance journalist Kevin Roose managed to get into the event, and his report titled Let Us Eat Cake: Undercover at the Blackstone Holiday Party was published in New York Magazine on Dec. 10, 2010, causing quite a commotion. Roose’s unflattering coverage of the Blackstone soirée told the tale of two Americas, but it also inadvertently brought into question the function and responsibilities of museums; what is their mission, who controls them, and to what end? The Met advertises on its web site that “entertaining at the Metropolitan Museum is a privilege reserved for its Corporate Patrons and eligible non-profit organizations.” That elitist statement is clear enough, but a closer  look at the Blackstone Group and why the Met affords them privileges is instructive.

The Blackstone Group is one of Wall Street’s most formidable private equity companies, with $98.2 billion in assets under its management as of December 2009. Stephen Schwarzman, the Co-founder, CEO, and Chairman of the Blackstone Group, has a net worth of around $8 billion. He arranged the bash at the Met as a celebration of his company having been founded 25 years ago. Schwarzman naturally attended the party, as did Blackstone co-founder Pete Peterson and Blackstone president Hamilton E. James (more on him later). As one of the largest private equity companies in the U.S., Blackstone has played a major role in the current economic crisis.

To prevent the collapse of the capitalist economy the U.S. government under President George W. Bush created TARP, the “Troubled Asset Relief Program,” which began the rescue of mega-corporations that were teetering on financial breakdown. President Obama continued and expanded TARP, which distributed well over $700 billion worth of taxpayer-funded bailouts to banks like Citigroup, Wells Fargo, Bank of America, and many others large and small. TARP money also went to automakers like General Motors and Chrysler. Large insurance companies and “specialty lenders” like American Express, Discover Financial Services, and Citigroup also received massive bailouts from Obama.

The largest insurer to be given TARP money was the American International Group, Inc. (AIG), just one of the corporations Obama deemed “too big to fail.” AIG received a taxpayer-funded bailout of $182.3 billion. When the government announced plans to bailout Wall Street and the banks, Blackstone became one of the financial companies to administer the procedure; in Sept. 2010 Blackstone won the role of financial advisor to AIG, an assignment that has “earned” Blackstone hundreds of millions of dollars in fees. When AIG began selling off tens of billions of its assets in order to raise funds to repay the government, Blackstone took fees for “advising” AIG. In a March 2010 article, Reuters reported that auctions of AIG’s assets have generated “more than half a billion dollars in fees since its near-collapse in Sept. 2008, with every major Wall Street bank getting a piece of the action.”

Here it must be noted that after receiving tens of billions of dollars in the first phase of government bailouts under Bush, AIG continued to dole out major contributions to politicians - including then presidential candidate Barack Obama. Even as the company was imploding during the 2008 presidential campaign, AIG gave candidates more than $630,000, making its second largest contribution to Obama ($130,000). This prompted ABC News to write an article on March 18, 2009, titled, Will Obama, McCain, Dodd Return Contributions from AIG Employees?

The Blackstone Group also benefited from the near failure of Hilton Worldwide. The international chain of luxury hotels recieved a $180 million bailout from the Obama administration, arranged with taxpayer-funded money. Interestingly enough, Hilton Worldwide is owned outright by Blackstone. In Oct. 2010, thousands of hotel workers in three U.S. cities staged a week-long strike against Hilton to protest the company’s increase in work loads and cuts in worker’s benefits, at the very moment Blackstone was walking away with $180 million in federal bailout money. There are other examples of the Blackstone Group profiting from the economic collapse, but they are too numerous to list here.

Aside from it current role in bailing out Wall Street and the banks, Blackstone has been involved in a number of other operations. In 2010 it spent $4,635,875 on lobbying. It maintains close ties with Kissinger Associates, Inc., the “international consulting firm” owned and managed by Henry Kissinger. During the outrageous 2001 Enron corruption scandal, Blackstone was the financial advisor to the corporate giant (at the time worth over $100 billion), helping Enron to “restructure.” In June 2010, Business Insider reported that BP hired the Blackstone Group to help defer a hostile takeover by rival oil companies in the wake of BP’s Gulf of Mexico oil disaster.

As if all of the above was not enough to forever sully the reputation of the Blackstone Group, Schwarzman, CEO of the corporation, referred to President Obama’s plans to raise taxes on the private equity industry in the following manner: “It’s war. It’s like when Hitler invaded Poland in 1939.” Mr. Schwarzman did not explain how the genocide of 3 million Polish Jews was comparable to large companies having to pay higher taxes. Mr. Schwarzman’s enmity towards Obama should come as no surprise. While Blackstone as a company put its money on candidate Obama - as an individual Schwarzman raised $100,000 for George W. Bush in the 2004 presidential campaign.

I have no idea what Stephen Schwarzman and the Blackstone Group paid for the privilege of holding their bacchanalia at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, but you can assume it cost plenty. Considering Blackstone’s track record, the Met should not have accepted a single dime from them, but the controversy does not stop with the Met hosting a party for the billionaire boys club.

On Sept. 14, 2010, it was announced that Hamilton E. James, the president of the Blackstone Group, had been elected to the Board of Trustees of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.


"London Calling." Poster designed by an anonymous artist announcing the December 9, 2010, national day of student action against education cuts in the U.K. Image courtesy of

"London Calling." Poster designed by an anonymous artist announcing the December 9, 2010, national day of student action against education cuts in the U.K. Image courtesy of

The May 2010 elections in the United Kingdom brought to power the Conservative-Liberal Democratic coalition government of prime minister David Cameron (former head of the Conservative Party), and deputy prime minister Nick Clegg (Liberal Democrat leader). Theirs is the first coalition government in the U.K. since the Second World War, and by all appearances it is an unmitigated disaster for the British people.

The “Con-Dem” coalition, as it has been justly labeled by critics, is implementing savage cuts to social services that will result in cuts totaling $130 billion by 2015.

The Con-Dem budget cuts are broadly attacking the public sector, from council housing, aid for the elderly, fire and police services, etc., to deep cuts in education and national arts programs.

Public resistance to the cuts is growing, but a militant refusal to accept the government’s austerity measures has so far been best expressed by U.K. students, who have been organizing teach-ins, walk-outs, marches, and other forms of protest. Con-Dem cuts to education have been especially vicious, with up to 80% of the teaching budget to be slashed and student tuition tripled to 9,000 pounds a year (during the election campaign Liberal Democrat Nick Clegg promised his party would vote against any tuition hike). Students are also opposed to the Con-Dem move to eliminate the Education Maintenance Allowance (EMA), a subsidy of £30 a week to low-income students that helps with the purchase of books, transportation, computer supplies, and other necessities in higher education.

On Nov. 10th over 52,000 students marched through central London - a protest against education cuts that culminated in the forceful occupation of Tory party headquarters. Days later, on November 24th, around 100,000 students participated in the “Carnival of Resistance” national demonstrations. Afterwards student activists announced “London Calling,” another day of national demonstrations to take place on Thursday, December 9, 2010. This time the students vow to march on the Parliament in London, where the Con-Dem coalition government will be voting on education cuts. Clare Solomon, president of the Student Union at the University of London, hopes the march will be the biggest student protest in history, saying “This is the fight of our lives and we don’t intend to lose it.”

Photograph of the Tate Modern occupied by demonstrators on Dec. 6, 2010, in opposition to cuts in arts funding. Photo courtesy of

Photograph of the Tate Modern occupied by demonstrators on Dec. 6, 2010, in opposition to cuts in arts funding. Photo courtesy of

The poster announcing the London Calling student protest knowingly refers to London Calling, the apocalyptic song and title for the 1979 double album by the U.K. punk band, The Clash. Designed by the band’s official “war artist” Ray Lowry (1944-2008), the album cover featured a photo of Clash bass player Paul Simonon violently smashing his electric guitar onstage during the band’s 1979 New York performance. Lowry’s graphic design was a combative inversion of the album design for Elvis Presley’s 1956 debut album, which used a black and white photo of the crooning Presley strumming an acoustic guitar.

The song London Calling was released as a single in 1979, and its politically charged lyrics became anthemic to the international punk movement. Apparently those confrontational lyrics have become eternal; a stanza from The Clash song is quoted on the London Calling student poster - “London calling to the faraway towns, now that war is declared and battle come down.” By alluding to the contentious spirit of The Clash, U.K. students are upping the ante in their row with the Con-Dem government… but they are not alone.

Devastating cuts are being made to U.K. arts funding, with the Con-Dem coalition proposing that nearly 30 percent be slashed from the national arts budget, a move sure to ravage galleries, museums, community arts organizations, orchestras, and theaters. The Royal Shakespeare Company’s artistic director, Michael Boyd, has called the cuts “a big blow to theatres.” Actor Sir Patrick Stewart condemned the cuts, saying they will be “challenging if not life-threatening in some areas of live theatre.” Grants to museums are slated to be cut by 15 percent, and money to the Arts Council of England, which distributes funds to hundreds of arts venues - will be slashed by some 30 percent. Arts education in U.K. schools is also targeted for reduction or elimination. Creativity, Culture and Education (CCE), which has provided arts education plans to schools, has had its budget cut in half to £19 million. The aforementioned only begins  to describe the ruinous cuts - but how are U.K. artists resisting the conservative onslaught?

A number of artists have organized the “Arts Against Cuts” (AAC) web log, which is described as “an umbrella space for students, artists and cultural workers to display and align their ideas and actions against the cuts.” AAC has reported that students at Goldsmiths College and Camberwell College of Arts have both seized and occupied buildings in protest against arts cuts. AAC was also involved in a protest at the December 6, 2010 Turner prize awards at the Tate Britain.

The 2010 Turner prize winner was “sound artist” Susan Philipsz, who won for her “aural sculpture” titled Lowlands, a tape recording of Philipsz singing the 16th century Scottish lament “Lowlands Away” while standing beneath three different bridges over the Clyde river in Glasgow, Scotland. The prestigious Turner is Britain’s top arts award, and 1st place winner Philipsz received 25,000 pounds ($39,000). The Turner competition is heavily weighted in favor of postmodern conceptual works, with painters effectively barred as competitors. As usual, the “anti-anti art” Stuckist group held a protest in front of the Tate, goading Turner prize party goers with signs that read; “Abandon Art All Ye Who Enter Here.” Stuckist spokeswoman Jasmine Maddock commented to the press, “It’s not art, it’s music. They don’t give the Mercury Music Prize to a painter, they shouldn’t give the Turner Prize to a singer.”

  Flyer designed by an anonymous artist from "Arts Against Cuts," celebrating the Dec. 6 protest at the Tate Modern and announcing the Dec. 9, 2010, national day of student action against education cuts in the U.K. Image courtesy of

Flyer designed by an anonymous artist from "Arts Against Cuts," celebrating the Dec. 6 protest at the Tate Modern and announcing the Dec. 9, 2010, national day of student action against education cuts in the U.K. Image courtesy of

But this year the Stuckists were not the lone rabble-rousers at the gala art world affair. The Dec. 6 event was disrupted by up to 400 students and art teachers from London art colleges, who invaded the Tate gallery to protest the arts cuts. The protestors inside the Tate held an hour long teach-in against the cuts and how to resist them, then attempted to enter the Turner prize room with the intention of interrupting the televised proceedings. Tate security personnel prevented the protesters from entering the hall where the award ceremony took place, but the demonstrator’s chants of “Education should be free for all - not a product for purchase,” reverberated throughout the museum and could plainly be heard in the TV broadcast. The chanting nearly made the announcement of the Turner prize winner inaudible. To her credit, when Susan Philipsz accepted her prize she said, “I support Artists Against the Cuts.”

The protestors refused to leave the museum, and instead continued to hold a mass teach-in and life drawing class near the Tate’s entrance. A series of speakers addressed the crowd regarding the arts cuts, and others handed out flyers about the Con-Dem plan to cut arts funding. In the aftermath of the Tate debacle, Artists Against Cuts released a flyer with a headline that read, “We Shut Down the Turner Prize; Now Let’s Shut Down London.” The flyer exhorted readers to participate in the London Calling mass student demonstration, stating;

“this is the most important national day of action before parliament vote on legislation which will treble university fees. we must fight back against this DESTRUCTIVE ATTACK on the arts, humanities, and social services. come and join the arts bloc as we march to protect the intellectual health of our nation. we are not just fighting fees; we are fighting philistinism!”

The British public’s rejection of the Con-Dem cuts, and in particular their disdain for the double-crossing Nick Clegg of the Liberal Democrats, should be instructive for citizens of the United States. The Tory leader David Cameron ran his election campaign on a platform of “voting for hope, voting for optimism, voting for change.” Liberal Democrat Nick Clegg ran his campaign on promises of a “new politics.” It all has a familiar ring to it. Once in power as a ruling coalition, the “change” promised by the Con-Dem partnership became the most draconian cuts in social services since the 1920s. Now that President Obama has extended the Bush tax cuts to the wealthiest 2 percent of Americans, a betrayal of his campaign promises and a total capitulation to the billionaire class, the nature of his administration stands fully exposed.

Look to the rising masses of the U.K. for an answer, and remember the lyrics to that Clash song - “London Calling to the underworld, come out of the cupboards, you boys and girls.”


In a forgone conclusion the Parliament voted on Dec. 9th to pass the tuition hikes, despite massive protests across the U.K. The 323-302 vote will raise tuition fees for university students from around $5,200 to $14,200. Students and their supporters are planning further creative protest actions against the Con-Dem austerity regime. On Dec. 10th reported that “students across the country are meeting to form a National Student Assembly and to plan the next steps in escalating the campaign.”

Protestors occupy the National Gallery in London, Dec. 9, 2010. Some 200 protestors listen to a speaker as he makes a point about Manet's painting, "The Execution of Maximilian." Photo: Slade Occupation.

Protestors occupy the National Gallery in London, Dec. 9, 2010. Some 200 protestors listen to a speaker as he makes a point about Manet's painting, "The Execution of Maximilian." Photo: Slade Occupation.

During the Dec. 9 protests the students behind the occupation of the Slade School of Fine Art (Slade Occupation), Arts Against Cuts, and other art activist groups and their supporters, occupied the National Gallery in London. Approximately 200 students and artists took over room 43 of the National Gallery in order to hold a teach-in regarding the Con-Dem austerity plans. The activists seized that particular room because, as John Jordan of the Laboratory of Insurrectionary Imagination (one of the groups that participated in the occupation) put it; “We chose room 43 because Manet’s Execution of Maximilian is displayed there and there is a work by Courbet down the corridor. It shows two ways of artists responding to rebellion. Manet’s painting is about political betrayal and Courbet gave up painting and applied his creativity to the Paris Commune.”

Arts Against Cuts released a flyer at the event that read; “We are here because: All our country’s art schools are under immediate threat from this education bill. We must preserve our cultural future as much as our cultural past. We are not just fighting fees and cuts - we are fighting philistinism, culture is invaluable. We act in solidarity with public sector workers and employees of the National Gallery.” Gallery staff did not interfere with the occupation, even after the National Gallery had closed. Participants in the non-violent action wrote a collective manifesto they titled The Nomadic Hive Manifesto before finally ending their protest at around 8 p.m. Slade Occupation has posted photos of the occupation teach-in, and Arts Against Cuts have also posted photos.

Sternchen Productions have uploaded a beautiful video of U.K. citizens engaged in an anti-austerity protest action that took place on Dec. 8.

I Am Not The Enemy

Hundreds of people gathered on the grounds of the Japanese American National Museum on Sept. 9, 2010, for a candlelight vigil in support of the constitutional rights of Muslim Americans. The banner reads, "In Remembrance… Embrace Life. Justice Not Revenge - Oppose Hate Crimes." Photo by Mark Vallen ©.

Hundreds of people gathered on the grounds of the Japanese American National Museum on Sept. 9, 2010, for a candlelight vigil in support of the constitutional rights of Muslim Americans. The banner reads, "In Remembrance… Embrace Life. Justice Not Revenge - Oppose Hate Crimes." Photo by Mark Vallen ©.

I will never forget waking up on September 11, 2001 to the spectacle of the Twin Towers being hit by missile-like planes. That day I turned on morning television only to see those slow motion videos of doom and destruction; I watched with eyes full of tears and heart full of dread.

Nearly 3,000 people perished in the terror attack, but I felt there was something much worse yet to come.

In the immediate aftermath of the horrendous crimes committed on Sept. 11, thousands of racially motivated attacks took place in the U.S. that targeted anyone who “looked Arab.” Mosques were vandalized and firebombed. Arab-Americans, Muslims, and South Asians were harassed, beaten, and killed. As the attacks intensified, I responded by creating an artwork titled, I Am Not The Enemy, which was nothing more than a plea for sanity and religious tolerance. The political atmosphere at the time reminded me of another era, the days after the Japanese Empire attacked the U.S. naval base at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii in 1941, and “patriotic” Americans unleashed their fury upon innocent Japanese-American citizens. President Roosevelt would issue Executive Order 9066, sending 120,000 Japanese Americans living on the West Coast to what the president himself called “concentration camps.”

Participants in the vigil at the Japanese American National Museum plaza hold copies of my poster, "I Am Not The Enemy." Photo by Mark Vallen ©.

Participants in the vigil at the Japanese American National Museum plaza hold copies of my poster, "I Am Not The Enemy." Photo and artworks by Mark Vallen ©.

Nine years after 9/11, 5,697 U.S. soldiers have been killed in Iraq and Afghanistan to this date, and President Obama has escalated the Afghan war. Untold numbers of Iraqi and Afghan civilians have perished, and Islamophobia in the U.S. has increased. A proposed Islamic cultural center in lower Manhattan has turned into a frenzied national campaign of hate against all things Islamic - and I fear a terrible violence will follow.

Photo by Mark Vallen ©.

Photo and artwork by Mark Vallen ©.

Accordingly, when I was informed that a candlelight vigil against hate crimes would be held at the Japanese American National Museum in downtown Los Angeles, I was eager to attend.

Nikkei for Civil Rights & Redress (NCRR) and the Japanese American Citizens League (JACL), worked in cooperation with the Japanese American National Museum to organize the silent candlelight vigil; the objective was to express support for Muslim Americans and their constitutional rights, as well as to condemn religious intolerance.

The vigil took place during the evening of September 9, 2010, and nearly 200 people, mostly Japanese Americans, gathered on the plaza in front of the museum. I distributed a few dozen copies of my I Am Not The Enemy poster to those assembled, and the prints were warmly received.

The public relations director of the Japanese American National Museum, Chris Komai, addressed the crowd, which was incredibly significant in and of itself. Most museums are aloof when it comes to real world issues and community affairs, and one does not ordinarily think of museum personnel taking part - officially or otherwise - in political protests of any kind.

Around 200 people filled the Japanese American National Museum plaza for the silent, candlelight vigil. Photo by Mark Vallen ©.

Around 200 people filled the Japanese American National Museum plaza for the silent, candlelight vigil. Photo and artwork by Mark Vallen ©.

I was unfortunately unable to hear Komai’s oration as I was busy taking the pictures you see in this article, however, I would like to point out that the Japanese American National Museum has the following in their mission statement; “We share the story of Japanese Americans because we honor our nation’s diversity. We believe in the importance of remembering our history to better guard against the prejudice that threatens liberty and equality in a democratic society.” By providing space on their grounds for the vigil, the museum more than lived up to their mission statement, and their example should be followed by other museums and arts institutions.

It was heartening to see that a good portion of the vigil was composed of young people. Photo by Mark Vallen ©.

It was heartening to see that a good portion of the vigil was composed of young people. Photo by Mark Vallen ©.

Also addressing the vigil was the Reverend Mark Nakagawa, who talked about his work with the Nikkei Interfaith Council, a grouping of Christian Churches and Buddhist Temples in the Little Tokyo area. He spoke of how the council was engaged in outreach programs with the Islamic community of Los Angeles in these times of crisis, and urged one and all to defend the democratic rights of Muslim Americans.

Rev. Nakagawa outlined his work with the Christian-Muslim Consultative Group of Southern California, which was founded in 2006 for the express purpose of bringing Christians and Muslims together “to enhance mutual understanding, respect, appreciation, and support of the Sacred in each other.”

The Rev. Nakagawa’s impassioned call for religious freedom was followed by a short address from Noriaki Ito of the Higashi Honganji Buddhist Temple. An outstanding member of the Japanese American community in Los Angeles, Ito currently sits on the Board of Directors of the Japanese American Cultural and Community Center, and served as the Past Chair of the Little Tokyo Community Council. He is actively involved in the preservation of L.A.’s Little Tokyo district. Mr. Ito came to the vigil wearing a formal black and white “wagesa” (Buddhist robe), and he spoke with the wisdom of a Buddhist Kyoshi (teaching priest), calling for unity between all people of faith, and the defeat of religious intolerance.

Ms. Aiko Herzig-Yoshinaga, who was forced into the Manzanar "internment" camp at age 17, addresses the vigillers. Photo by Mark Vallen ©.

Ms. Aiko Herzig-Yoshinaga, who was forced into the Manzanar "internment" camp at age 17, addresses the vigillers. Photo by Mark Vallen ©.

Ms. Aiko Herzig-Yoshinaga gave the most powerful of testimonies during the vigil. A California-born U.S. citizen, Aiko and her family were swept up in the relocation of “enemy aliens” after President Roosevelt issued Executive Order 9066 in 1942. As a 17-year-old she and her family were sent to the Manzanar War Relocation Center, a barracks-like camp in California where she gave birth to her daughter under crude living conditions. Aiko and family were transferred to the bleak Jerome internment camp in Arkansas, where they remained imprisoned until 1944.

As Aiko described her life in the Manzanar and Jerome internment camps, from the same spot where thousands of Japanese Americans had been shipped off to those unwelcoming camps all those years ago, tears came to my eyes.

The same demons of racism, ignorance, and fear that sent Aiko to those wretched camps are once again plaguing U.S. society (did they ever go away), only this time they are pursuing Muslim Americans. The 86-year-old Aiko Herzig-Yoshinaga, speaking passionately and with great authority, exhorted vigillers from a megaphone to defend the civil liberties of Muslim Americans as they would defend their own.

California State Assemblymember Warren Furutani, also addressed the vigil, and in his eloquent way urged people to stand united with their “Muslim brothers and sisters” in opposing all forms of racism, discrimination, and religious intolerance. Mr. Furutani waxed poetic as he railed against certain sectors of U.S. society, “where hate can be purchased wholesale,” an obvious reference to the right-wing “talk” radio hosts who daily spew out vile and unbearable lies about Islam and Muslim Americans.

Photo by Mark Vallen ©.

Photo and artworks by Mark Vallen ©.

Jan Tokumaru of Nikkei for Civil Rights & Redress, read a statement at the vigil that had been published by the NCRR for the occasion. It read in part;

“Nine years ago - just days after Sept. 11 - Nikkei for Civil Rights and Redress (NCRR), along with other organizations including the Japanese American Citizens League, the Japanese American Cultural and Community Center, the Japanese American National Museum and the Little Tokyo Service Center, sponsored a candlelight vigil in Little Tokyo to remember the victims of 9/11 and to speak in defense of Arab Americans, Muslim Americans, and South Asians who were being maligned as ‘terrorists,’ physically attacked, and even murdered in places such as Arizona. Since 9/11, attempts to marginalize and target Muslim Americans as a ’suspect’ community sympathetic to terrorist incidents throughout the world continue.

(….) Japanese Americans remember all too well how it feels to be a community singled out with suspicion, marginalized and viciously attacked by the media. Despite many efforts to show their loyalty to this country, Japanese were not trusted as reflected in General DeWitt’s statements: ‘A Jap is a Jap,’ and ‘I have no confidence in their loyalty whatsoever.’ The constant barrage of lies in the media became accepted as truth by the American public.

(….) Although the situation is not as dire for Muslim Americans now as it was for Japanese Americans during World War II, NCRR is concerned that the climate of intolerance and fear being created could, under certain circumstances, lead to the stripping of civil liberties and religious freedom for Muslim Americans. Even worse is the violence resulting from such ignorance, such as the stabbing in New York last month of a 44-year-old taxi driver after his passenger asked if he was a Muslim.

(….) NCRR encourages Japanese Americans and all Americans to speak out against anti-Muslim lies and attacks. At a speech given several years ago, Dr. Maher Hathout, a Muslim American leader, said ‘as long as there is one candle lit, there is no darkness.’ Speaking symbolically, he was referring to the struggle of the Palestinian people against occupation - that as long as there was even one person willing to struggle against injustice, there could not be total darkness or oppression. In a similar spirit, NCRR hopes that many candles can be lit on Sept. 9, to show the American people’s commitment to the truth - not lies and distortions - and for justice, peace, religious freedom, and equality - precious values that we hold dear.”

At the end of the vigil, organizers asked participants to form a giant peace sign by grouping themselves together around an outline drawn on the museum’s plaza. A handful of photographers, myself included, were given access to the museum’s rooftop to take photos of the event. The aim was to present a gift - an image of solidarity and peace - to the beleaguered Muslim citizens of the United States.

As of this writing, save for one solitary article published by the Rafu Shimpo Japanese daily newspaper of Los Angeles, not a single news media source in the U.S. (aside from this web log), has reported on the silent vigil that took place at the Japanese American National Museum.

At the end of the vigil, participants formed a giant peace sign in the museum's plaza. This photograph was taken from the museum's rooftop. Photo by Mark Vallen ©.

At the end of the vigil, participants formed a giant peace sign in the museum's plaza. This photograph was taken from the museum's rooftop. Photo by Mark Vallen ©.

[A full listing of the speakers at the vigil includes - Reverend Mark Nakagawa of the Centenary Methodist Church; Noriaki Ito, Rinban (head minister) of the Higashi Honganji Buddhist Temple; Aiko Herzig-Yoshinaga, a WWII internee; Dana Fujiko Heatherton, 2009 Nisei Week Queen and a J-Town Voice activist concerned with the preservation of L.A.'s Little Tokyo, California State Assemblymember Warren Furutani, Jan Tokumaru of the Asian Pacific American Labor Alliance, Aziza Hasan from the Muslim Public Affairs Council, and Ilham Elkoustaf from the Council on American Islamic Relations.]

L.A. Municipal Art Gallery Crisis

Founded in the early 1950s, the Los Angeles Municipal Art Gallery (LAMAG) has long played an important role in the cultural life of L.A. Located in the historic Barnsdall Art Park at the intersection of Hollywood and Vermont, the world class gallery has showcased internationally renowned artists, and provided exhibition space for beginning and mid-career artists. I remember the thrill of exhibiting at LAMAG as an art student in the early 1970s. The gallery annually hosts exhibitions of works created by the those who have been awarded grants from the city’s Department of Cultural Affairs. Over the decades I have been enthralled by LAMAG exhibits, and I was moved to write about their Edward Biberman Revisited show of 2009. The gallery’s history, arts programs, and community vision is exemplary - you can read about this for yourself.

It is a scandal that LAMAG has been marked for “partnering out all of its facilities” by L.A.’s city government because of L.A.’s budget crisis. “Partnering out” is simply a euphemism for the cutting of government funding and pushing the privatization of the arts institution. It is rumored that L.A.’s Museum of Contemporary Art (MoCA), which received a $30-million “bailout” from billionaire real estate magnate Eli Broad in Dec. 2008, is set to absorb LAMAG.

I received the following call to action from the President of LAMAG, and I am reprinting it here in its entirety:

September 1, 2010

City to Partner Out the Los Angeles Municipal Art Gallery

Dear Arts Community,

The Los Angeles Department of Cultural Affairs has been directed to issue Requests for Proposals (RFP’s) as the first step in partnering out all of its facilities. This is being done as a cost savings measure in response to the City’s budget deficit. What has been unclear until recently was that these RFP’s will include the Los Angeles Municipal Art Gallery (LAMAG).

Rumors have been circulating for some time that the Museum of Contemporary Art (MoCA) is among the institutions considering taking over the fifty-six year old institution. The art community has been uncharacteristically silent about this impending change in the LAMAG’s status. Much like the proverbial deer in the headlights, there is a prevailing air of shock and disbelief among those familiar with its history, and tacit resignation to whatever fate might befall the institution, by those who are not. The lack of any concerted effort to promote the Gallery’s exhibition and educational programs has contributed greatly to making it vulnerable and ripe for the picking.

Since its founding in 1954 the LAMAG’s mission has been to exhibit the work of emerging, mid career and established artists from the region, as well as work relevant to the diverse communities that make up the City of Los Angeles. Prior to the building of LACMA in the 60s, it was the largest space exhibiting contemporary art in Los Angeles. It has operated with equity and impartiality, embracing both the traditional and contemporary aesthetic, while always mindful of its responsibility to the public and its goal of enhancing the quality of life. It occupies a unique niche in the city’s cultural landscape, being neither a museum, nor a commercial gallery, allowing it broad curatorial latitude not enjoyed by other institutions.

The LAMAG hosts the annual COLA Fellowship for Individual Artists and the Lorser Feitelson and Helen Lundeberg Feitelson Emerging Artist Fellowship exhibitions, showcasing the work of some of the City’s most creative minds. Biannually the Municipal Art Gallery presents the All City Juried Exhibition and in intervening years, the All City Open Exhibition in which anyone in the city can exhibit their work. LAMAG also serves as a space that hosts important exhibitions from our sister cities, something I dare say other institutions would probably be unable or unwilling to do.

We should be questioning the wisdom of, or the lack there of, any idea ceding total governance of such an important asset to any institution or individual who’s agenda is not in keeping with the public character of the LAMAG. Such a move has the effect of a greater stratification of the visual arts in a city where the disparity between so called “new school” or “high art” and more populist artistic genres is growing ever wider. Other cities are expanding their municipal exhibition spaces and establishing new ones. Many of these cities are facing the same budget challenges as are we, and see public safety as their number one priority. However they have never lost sight of the fact the that part of their responsibility in providing public safety includes promoting the general well being of its citizenry.

What can you do? Write to the Mayor and your City Councilperson expressing your concern for the future of the Gallery. (Please see the attached template letter and link to City Council.) As for the Los Angeles Municipal Art Gallery Associates, we are advocating that language be incorporated in the Request for Proposals requiring prospective operators to maintain the public nature of the Los Angeles Municipal Art Gallery, and that a substantial portion of the Gallery’s mission be preserved. Furthermore, we would ask that the name “Los Angeles Municipal Art Gallery” be retained and that the Los Angeles Municipal Art Gallery Associates have a vital role in supporting the mission of the Gallery.

The Municipal Art Gallery is not only a historic attraction in a city that touts itself as an international arts destination; it is an irreplaceable source of pride for Angelenos and the creative community.

Please act now.

On behalf of the entire board of LAMAG,
Maria Luisa de Herrera,

Los Angeles Municipal Art Gallery
Web: Phone: 323.644.6269. Fax: 323-644-6271. E-mail:

The emergency faced by the Los Angeles Municipal Art Gallery must not be viewed as an isolated incident, but as part of a systemic catastrophe faced by the arts community across the United States; the crisis shows little sign of decreasing. The American Folk Art Museum in New York City, which holds an important collection of Americana, is in danger of closing its doors; the institution is currently struggling to pay off a crushing debt that has been exacerbated by the capitalist financial downturn. The museum has cut its budget by over $1 million, implemented layoffs of staff, and ceased printing its publication, Folk Art Magazine. In a further effort to cut costs the museum now publishes some of its exhibition catalogs only online.

The Wall Street Journal reported that New York’s Chelsea Art Museum temporarily closed its doors to the public for the month of August as it battles to avoid foreclosure. The paper reported that the museum, in a desperate attempt to raise money, “pledged its entire permanent collection of artwork as collateral to pay its mortgage.” That move apparently only worsened the museum’s problems, as it was a violation of state laws supervising museum charters.

Many people in the arts community voted for President Obama because they believed his administration would be supportive of the arts, that he would live up to his promises contained in his acclaimed Platform in Support Of The Arts (.pdf here), and that he would drastically increase funding for the arts. So far, the only substantive response from Mr. Obama came on February 1, 2010, when he announced he would be cutting support for the arts in his proposed budget for fiscal year 2011. It is imperative that the arts community demand President Obama act on establishing a new WPA-style arts program that will revive and expand the nation’s museums, cultural venues, and galleries, in tandem with creating a massive jobs program to put the country’s artists to work.

American Stories: Paintings of Everyday Life

Last year, celebrated American paintings were presented at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, from October, 2009 to January, 2010. Titled American Stories: Paintings of Everyday Life, 1765-1915, the exhibit was comprised of 103 paintings that recorded the American experience from the colonial period to the Gilded Age of the late 19th century. On display were iconic canvases by the likes of John Singleton Copley, Winslow Homer, Thomas Eakins, Mary Cassatt, John Singer Sargent, John Sloan, and George Bellows, along with artists whose names are unfamiliar to most, but whose works have left an impact on the American consciousness.

"The Gulf Stream" – Winslow Homer (Detail). Oil on canvas. 1899. "The Gulf Stream could be construed as an allegorical painting regarding the status of Blacks in America in 1899 - 38 years after the close of the Civil War."

"The Gulf Stream" – Winslow Homer (Detail). Oil on canvas. 1899. "The Gulf Stream could be construed as an allegorical painting regarding the status of Blacks in America in 1899, 38 years after the close of the Civil War."

Organized by the Metropolitan, the museum maintains a website about the exhibit, an archive that should be viewed by all. In addition, the Met’s publishing house released an exhibit catalog that features many works not included in the show. People on the West coast of the U.S. can see the Met’s survey of American art at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA), where the show opened on February 28, 2010 for a four-month run.

The exhibit is divided into four categories presenting a timeline of the nation’s development; Inventing American Stories: 1765-1830, Stories for the Public: 1830-1860, Stories of War and Reconciliation: 1860-1877, and Cosmopolitan and Candid Stories: 1877-1915. The Met’s conception of the nation’s history sweeping from the East to the West coast was somewhat meekly “corrected” by LACMA’s adding a fifth category; paintings depicting the Spanish, Mexican, and Chinese influence on the history of California, but sorry to say this section of the exhibit seemed but an afterthought. LACMA reduced the number of paintings the Met originally had on display by around 20, and swapped out paintings from the Met’s collection for works found in LACMA’s collection - for instance, the Met initially included Thomas Eakins’ Swimming (1885), whereas LACMA replaced it with the artist’s Wrestlers (1899).

"Chinese Restaurant" – John Sloan (Detail). Oil on canvas. 1909. 26 x 32 1/4 inches. Sloan’s painting depicted a Chinese eatery in New York with its working class clientele.

"Chinese Restaurant" – John Sloan (Detail). Oil on canvas. 1909. 26 x 32 1/4 inches. Sloan’s painting depicted a Chinese eatery in New York with its working class clientele.

The exhibit is important for a number of reasons, not all of them related to the progress of American art. The show gives an overview of the nation’s growth, presenting a wide look at the people and forces that shaped the country. Artists in the exhibit frequently brought up questions of class, race, and gender – unconsciously or not – and to see America’s changing political landscape chronicled by artists is just one of the fascinating aspects of the show.

Today’s Americans will hardly be able to recognize the country and people depicted in American Stories; the transformation of American society from 1765 to the present having been truly astonishing in scope. Existing U.S. culture with its digital communications and amusements, “reality” television shows, and celebrity worship, bears little if any resemblance to the country as it was from 1765 to 1915; yet, some things never change. Thoughtful viewers will be compelled to ask the questions, “What does it mean to be an American?” and “Where are Americans going as a people?”

I attended the LACMA exhibit on March 1, 2010, and recommend it to others. There are simply too many fabulous artists and paintings in the show to write about, so I proffer the following opinions regarding just a few of the works found in the show.

The first painting to greet the viewer is Paul Revere by John Singleton Copley (1738-1815). His iconic 1768 portrait of the Boston silversmith, who would come to play a major role in the American Revolution, is a remarkable work of art, partly because the artist was self-taught at a time when there was not a single art school or museum in the colonies. The jolt of standing in front of Copley’s flawlessly realistic painting of the American revolutionary is repeated when seeing that the room in which it is hung also holds other marvelous canvasses; The Cup of Tea by Mary Cassatt, Chinese Restaurant by John Sloan, The Breakfast by William McGregor Paxton, The Gulf Stream by Winslow Homer, Watson and the Shark by John Singleton Copley, and Eel Spearing at Setauket by William Sidney Mount. That African Americans are central characters in three of these paintings is but an introduction to the complicated racial dynamics in the U.S. that serves as a subtext for much of the exhibit.

In Copley’s Watson and the Shark (1778), it is a black man that holds a rope lifeline to the imperiled Watson, who is being attacked by a shark in open water. The artist put the black sailor at the apex of a triangular composition in order to draw the eye directly towards him; he is also portrayed as an equal to all the others – a remarkable narrative for a canvas painted when America held African people in bondage. Painted 16 years before the American Civil War, Mount’s Eel Spearing (1845) has as its focus a black slave woman at the bow of a small boat teaching a young white boy how to catch eels. While the woman is obviously in control, she is also a slave. Homer’s The Gulf Stream could be construed as an allegorical painting regarding the status of blacks in America in 1899 – 38 years after the close of the Civil War. The canvas depicts a black man in a small wrecked sailboat cast adrift on a stormy sea filled with sharks. I could write lengthy essays about each of these extraordinary paintings, but for the sake of brevity I shall restrict my remarks to John Singleton Copley’s Revere.

"Paul Revere" – John Singleton Copley. Oil on canvas. 1768. 35 1/8 x 28 ½ inches. Copley (1738-1815). From the collection of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Photograph © 2009 Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

"Paul Revere" – John Singleton Copley. Oil on canvas. 1768. 35 1/8 x 28 ½ inches. Copley (1738-1815). From the collection of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Photograph © 2009 Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

Born in Boston, Massachusetts, Copley had no formal training in art, but his stepfather was an engraver and portrait painter who undoubtedly tutored the precocious teenager for the three years they lived together. By the time Copley was fifteen he was known for producing impressive oil portraits of notables in his community, and that reputation, not to mention his technical skill as a painter, grew considerably. He was thirty when he painted Paul Revere (1735-1818).

When Revere sat for Copley he had not yet carried out the acts that would make him famous, like his illustrious April 18, 1775 Midnight Ride from Boston to Lexington to warn patriots of British troop movements.

He was nevertheless deeply involved in the Sons of Liberty, that underground organization of patriots whose  “no taxation without representation” slogan came to epitomize the anti-colonial struggle. Only five years after Copley painted Revere, the Sons of Liberty initiated the legendary Boston Tea Party of December 16, 1773, when patriots, including Revere, seized three ships in Boston Harbor in order to dump the cargo of British tea overboard in an act of protest against British taxation. That fact is not insignificant when considering the portrait of Revere, since Copley’s father-in-law was the merchant that had his British-consigned tea tossed overboard during the Tea Party! The issue of British taxation went back to 1767, a year before Copley painted Revere, when the British Parliament imposed heavy new taxes on tea in the colonies. Given that evidence, Copley’s painting takes on new meaning.

"Paul Revere" – John Singleton Copley (Detail). Photograph © 2009 Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

"Paul Revere" – John Singleton Copley (Detail). Photograph © 2009 Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

Revere had Copley paint him as a master craftsman in the silversmith trade, he was after all one of the most famous silversmiths in colonial America. On the mahogany table at which Revere sat, you can see his silversmith tools set out before him, and he had himself pictured holding a silver teapot. It has generally been accepted that Copley’s painting of Revere is simply a portrait of a successful artisan, but I think there is ample evidence to suggest otherwise.

One must take into account that at the time of the painting’s creation, people living in the thirteen colonies were entering a period of intense political conflict that would ultimately lead to revolutionary war. Viewed in that context, it is incorrect to see the portrait merely as an expression of Revere being proud of his profession, rather, it appears he meant his portrait as a political statement. An outspoken radical, Revere was no doubt infuriated by the 1767 British tax on tea, and so it was probable that by having himself painted holding a teapot, he was challenging viewers over British rule. Revere stares directly at the viewer as if to ask, “Which side are you on?”

It was also unusual for a gentleman to have himself painted wearing anything other than his finest frock coat, yet Revere had himself depicted wearing an open sleeveless waistcoat (the undergarment worn beneath a fine coat) and a linen shirt, which at the time was a form of “undress” appropriate only for hard work or relaxing at home in private. The British controlled the economy of the colonies through the importation of goods and by imposing taxes. As the anti-colonial movement gained strength, patriots found multiple ways of resisting British hegemony, such as boycotting imported goods. When the colonists began producing linen as an act of resistance, those using imported British linen were isolated as Tories, conservative supporters of British rule. By having himself portrayed wearing a billowing shirt of American-spun linen, Revere was making a statement in favor of independence; the shirt was not so much a symbol of being a craftsman as it was an affirmation of revolutionary politics.

"Paul Revere" – John Singleton Copley (Detail). Photograph © 2009 Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

"Paul Revere" – John Singleton Copley (Detail). Photograph © 2009 Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

While Revere’s linen shirt and teapot were more than likely politically charged props, Copley had no interest in political matters, besides, his family members were Loyalists devoted to the British Crown. In a 1770 letter Copley wrote to Benjamin West (an American-born artist who moved to England and became a painter to the court of King George III in 1772), he flatly stated that he was “desirous of avoiding every imputation of party spirit. Political contests being neither pleasing to an artist or advantageous to the art itself.”

Though he helped establish American painting and created portraits of prominent American patriots, Copley did not have a passion for independence. His relationship to Revere, as well as his attitude towards the anti-colonial movement, is indicative of the complicated human drama that occurred during the revolution. Copley left the colonies for London in 1773, a year after the Boston Tea Party – never to return to America.

Another notable artist from the Revolutionary War period whose works are included in the exhibit is Charles Willson Peale (1741-1827). A fiery radical and member of the Sons of Liberty, Peale created portraits of many leaders involved in the War of Independence – John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, George Washington, John Hancock, and Alexander Hamilton to name but a few. In 1765 Peale met the artist John Singleton Copley, and studied in his Boston studio for a time before traveling to London in 1770 for two years of formal training under the tutelage of Benjamin West. Upon return to the colonies, Peale settled in Philadelphia, and in 1776 he joined the Continental Army to wage war against the British Empire.

After the successful War of Independence, Peale refocused his energies on the arts and sciences. In 1782 he opened the very first art gallery in the United States, and in 1786 he established the nation’s very first museum, the Peale Museum, which was given to the exposition of paintings and natural history. There are two paintings by Peale in the LACMA exhibit, a 1788 double portrait of the merchant Benjamin Laming and his wife Eleanor, and the 1805 Exhumation of the Mastodon, whereupon Peale recounted his having discovered and excavated a prehistoric mastodon skeleton in New York, painting the scene for posterity.

Skipping ahead to mid-point in the exhibit there is a collection of splendid canvasses by Winslow Homer, these are aside from his painting in the exhibit’s opening room. Of the handful of works arranged on their own wall under the Stories of War and Reconciliation section of the show, two took my breath away, The Veteran in a New Field and The Cotton Pickers.

"The Cotton Pickers" – Winslow Homer. Oil on canvas. 1876. 24 1/16 x 38 1/8 inches. LACMA permanent collection.

"The Cotton Pickers" – Winslow Homer. Oil on canvas. 1876. 24 1/16 x 38 1/8 inches. LACMA permanent collection.

Created in the aftermath of the U.S. Civil War (1861-1865) and the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln (April 14, 1865), The Veteran in a New Field (1865), depicts a former soldier hard at work harvesting wheat, his Union army jacket cast off and laying in the field at the picture’s lower-right corner.

The ex-combatant swings his scythe into the tall wheat as if he were the grim reaper, the fallen wheat symbolizing the massive numbers of deaths from the war – including the nation’s chief executive. Some 620,000 soldiers from the Confederate and Union armies perished in the conflagration, along with an undetermined number of civilians. By contrast, around 416,000 U.S. soldiers were killed in WWII. It is not hard to imagine the impact this painting had on Americans in 1865, but while the painting’s imagery is a metaphor for a people’s sacrifice and loss, so too is it a symbol of recuperation and redemption.

"The Cotton Pickers" – Winslow Homer (Detail). Oil on canvas. LACMA permanent collection.

"The Cotton Pickers" – Winslow Homer (Detail). Oil on canvas. LACMA permanent collection.

The Cotton Pickers was not included in the original Met exhibit, but since it is part of LACMA’s permanent collection, the L.A. museum wisely placed it in their showing of American Stories; luckily for the public I might add, it is one of Homer’s finest works. Painted just 11 years after the end of the Civil War, the canvas depicts two emancipated black slaves, except they are working at the same backbreaking labor they performed prior to their liberation, and likely for the same property owner. The slave’s lament of working from before sunrise until after sunset had not changed; Homer painted the two African American women standing in a cotton field at the crack of dawn, their bags heavy with cotton picked from before daylight. The artist’s handling of the dim light of morn is awe-inspiring, but it is the expressions on the faces of the women that I found extraordinary. Far from being broken, they appear dignified and ready to step beyond dreadful circumstances. The woman in red looks positively defiant, exemplifying the spirit that would carry blacks through some very unhappy days.

The exhibit’s final category of paintings, Cosmopolitan and Candid Stories: 1877-1915, might have the most resonance for present-day viewers, since we continue to grapple with the same questions portrayed in the canvases; the evolving status of women, global expansionism, waves of immigration, industrialization and urbanization, and the predicament of the working class.

I found The Ironworkers – Noontime by Thomas Anshutz (1851-1912) to be of specific interest. Anshutz was an influential painter whose genre paintings were in great demand. Trained by Thomas Eakins (1844-1916) and William Bouguereau (1825-1905), he might at first glance seem an Academic painter, but a closer examination reveals an artist breaking with convention. His portraits of women appear to be celebrations of American Victorianism, though paintings like A Rose (1907) and The Challenge (1908) depict women who were a far cry from the timid and demure model of the Victorian Lady. Anshutz was a respected teacher of painting who instructed at the Pennsylvania Academy. His students included John Sloan, Everett Shinn, and William Glackens; painters who would initiate America’s first art movement, the Social Realist Ashcan school, it is their works that comprise the final group of paintings on display in American Stories.

"The Ironworkers - Noontime" – Thomas Anshutz. Oil on canvas. 1880. 17 x 23 7/8 inches. From the collection of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco.

"The Ironworkers - Noontime" – Thomas Anshutz. Oil on canvas. 1880. 17 x 23 7/8 inches. From the collection of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco.

Painted in 1880, The Ironworkers – Noontime is about as bleak a picture of America’s industrial landscape as one is likely to find. Anshutz painted men and boys who worked at a nail factory in West Virginia taking a break from their dreary work. At the time there was no such thing as an eight-hour work day.

Most American and immigrant workers labored seventy hours or more per week for extremely low wages and absolutely no benefits whatsoever. Factory work was hazardous and often injurious or fatal as safety standards were non-existent. Child labor was rampant. The burgeoning union movement was just beginning to make the eight-hour day one of its central demands.

"The Ironworkers - Noontime" – Thomas Anshutz (Detail) Oil on canvas.

"The Ironworkers - Noontime." Thomas Anshutz (Detail) Oil on canvas.

Anshutz based his painting on sketches he made at an actual factory, and if the poses of the men seem founded on an Academic approach, overall the artwork contains important differences with Academic painting.

To begin with, the artist recorded a scene from real life, a dismal factory where laborers worked to the point of exhaustion. It was a tableau painted without romanticizing or sentimentalizing its subject; the workers were shown as simply worn-out and poverty-stricken. It was a disagreeable scene that would have sent any Academic painter to flight. The work’s gritty realism ran counter to the saccharine idealism of Academic art. Late in life Anshutz declared his belief in socialism, and while trained by Bouguereau, he had more affinity with Robert Koehler (1850-1917), a German-born painter and fellow socialist that spent most of his career in the U.S. The two were among the first artists to depict industrialism and its impact on working people (Koehler’s work was not included in American Stories).

A prominent painter in Minneapolis, Minnesota, who also served as the director of the Minneapolis School of Fine Arts for twenty-two years, Koehler created a number of paintings that portrayed urban workers. His 1885, The Socialist, is the earliest known portrait of a working-class political agitator. Between the years 1878-1890, Germany banned socialist organizations, publications, and meetings, and as a result many German socialist leaders came to the U.S. where they addressed the growing worker’s movement in cities like New York and Chicago. Koehler’s The Socialist could have portrayed such a meeting or rally anywhere in the U.S. or Germany.

Anshutz’s The Ironworkers – Noontime was created six years before the Haymarket massacre of May 4, 1886, when violence between workers and police in Chicago led to the deaths of eight police officers and an unknown number of workers, who were on strike demanding the eight-hour day. The authorities arrested eight labor leaders and anarchist activists from Chicago’s eight-hour day movement, charging and convicting them for the murder of one of the police officers. The U.S. labor movement was dealt a decisive blow when four of the defendants were executed, even though there was no evidence linking them to the killing of the officer. Koehler’s The Strike was painted that same year, and when his painting was shown at a spring 1886 exhibit at the National Academy of Design in New York City, a review in the April 4, 1886 edition of the New York Times referred to it as the “most significant work of this spring exhibition.” At that very moment activists were organizing for a national strike that would bring 350,000 workers into U.S. streets to demand the eight-hour day – and the Haymarket massacre was only weeks away.

"Cliff Dwellers" - George Bellows. Oil on canvas. 1913. 40 1/4 x 42 1/8 inches. In this canvas, Bellows painted the poor immigrant slums of New York’s Lower East Side. This work is the very embodiment of American Social Realism.

"Cliff Dwellers" - George Bellows. Oil on canvas. 1913. 40 1/4 x 42 1/8 inches. In this canvas, Bellows painted the poor immigrant slums of New York’s Lower East Side. This work is the very embodiment of American Social Realism.

The final room in the exhibit is a showcase for the Ashcan School, with works by George Bellows, John Sloan, Everett Shinn, and William Glackens on display. Stylistically these works seem closest to our own reality; their technique, approach, and content having been influenced by the Modernist revolution. In fact New York’s Armory Show of 1913, where Americans got their first eye-opening exposure to modern art, was in part organized by Sloan; those in the Ashcan circle like George Bellows, William Glackens, Robert Henri, George Luks, and John Sloan exhibited in the groundbreaking Armory Show.

Sloan’s small oil on canvas The Picnic Grounds depicts flirtatious working class youth in a public park in New Jersey, the energetic brushwork epitomizing the best of the artist’s early works. William Glackens was a brilliant colorist who concentrated on the depiction of city life as enjoyed by middle-class layers of society. The Shoppers is one such painting, portraying a group of fashionably dressed women as they wonder through a department store, a new phenomenon in America at the time. Everett Shinn was given to portraying life in the theater, though he created his share of canvasses depicting harsh realities on the street. In The Orchestra Pit, Shinn’s depiction of a popular vaudevillian theater in New York’s Madison Square, the artist places the viewer at the lip of the stage directly behind the orchestra pit. Of the Ashcan paintings displayed, two by George Bellows were my favorites – Cliff Dwellers and Club Night.

"Cliff Dwellers" - George Bellows (Detail). As with the central figures of Bellows' painting, the entire canvas was painted with a limited palette of colors using quick, spontaneous brush strokes.

"Cliff Dwellers" - George Bellows (Detail). As with the central figures of Bellows' painting, the entire canvas was painted with a limited palette of colors using quick, spontaneous brush strokes.

Club Night was from a series of artworks Bellows created from direct observation of public boxing matches, which at the time were illegal in the U.S. To avoid the law but still be able to attract paying customers, fight organizers would hold bouts at private gyms, and boxing fans gained admission by becoming “dues paying members” of the athletic clubs; competitions were held behind closed doors for members only.

Bellows frequented a squalid New York City gym across the street from his studio called Sharkey’s, where such contests were held. Disdainful of those who attended the fights, Bellows pictured them as bloody-minded bourgeois individuals slumming in poor neighborhoods.

The groups of men dressed in tuxedos in the lower right portion of the painting bear a striking resemblance to the demented characters in Francisco Goya’s The Pilgrimage of San Isidro, one of Goya’s so-called “black paintings” depicting fanatical religious zealots.

In the end the limitations of the American Stories exhibit at LACMA are overshadowed by the show’s strengths. Despite curatorial exclusions and a tendency to expound a somewhat rosy view of American history, there is still an immeasurable sense of the real, the human, and the historic in American Stories. Compared to the cynical and socially detached gimmickry of postmodern art, the paintings in American Stories exude idealism, compassion, and a deeply felt humanism. It is regrettable that the timeline for the exhibit stops at 1915, when Modernism in the U.S. was just beginning to percolate. It would have been instructive to have included artists from the 1930s and 1940s, when the “American Scene” and “Regionalist” painters from coast to coast were in their heyday and Social Realism was the dominant aesthetic. It is unlikely that LACMA will hold such an exhibit in the future – but without a doubt I will continue to cover that era in articles yet to come.

The Mona Lisa Curse

Robert Hughes: "The entanglement of big money with art has become a curse on how art is made, controlled, and above all - in the way that it’s experienced." Screen capture of Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa from, The Mona Lisa Curse.

Robert Hughes: "The entanglement of big money with art has become a curse on how art is made, controlled, and above all - in the way that it’s experienced."

UPDATE: Jan. 2, 2015: Every copy of the brilliant 2008 documentary by Robert Hughes, The Mona Lisa Curse, has been deleted from YouTube, apparently at the insistence of the British “public-service” broadcaster Channel 4 TV, which is also the “distributor” of the film.

Inexplicably, Channel 4 has not released a DVD of The Mona Lisa Curse, and the corporation remains silent regarding any future release. Evidently Channel 4 has also suppressed the documentary on every other internet platform, save for one.

On Aug. 16, 2012, I wrote an obituary for Hughes titled, Robert Hughes: the last art critic.

– // — My original Nov. 2009 review of The Mona Lisa Curse follows — // –

In these “postmodern” days it has been said that there is no more passé a vocation than that of the professional art critic. Perceived as the gate keeper for opinions regarding art and culture, the art critic has supposedly been rendered obsolete by an ever expanding pluralism in the art world, where all practices and disciplines are purported to be equal and valid.

Robert Hughes, however, is one art critic who has delivered a message that must not be ignored.

On September 18, 2008, British television’s Channel 4 broadcast The Mona Lisa Curse, a documentary film by Mr. Hughes that offers a devastating critique of contemporary art and its over commercialization.

While a DVD release of The Mona Lisa Curse has not yet been made, a complete version of the film has been published on YouTube, though it is an uncertainty how long the movie will remain posted. The streaming video is presented in twelve parts that are each approximately 6 minutes in duration. In this article I summarize each part and provide a link to it. I encourage one and all to view Hughes’ documentary in its entirety.

In The Mona Lisa Curse, Hughes has described with remarkable clarity the forces seeking to tame art, putting it in the service of plutocrats. The market driven and controlled cultural landscape outlined by Hughes reminds me of what the Italian political theorist and revolutionary Antonio Gramsci once said of society in decline; “The old is dying. The new cannot be born. In the interregnum, a variety of morbid symptoms appear.” The candor and forthrightness of Hughes in identifying the trap art is currently ensnared in should be responded to as a call to arms – especially by artists.

The Curse: Part 1
Hughes opens his film by comparing Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa, with Damien Hirst’s, For the Love of God. Hughes tells us that; “What ties the Mona Lisa to this glittery bobble is their role in a giant shift in the art world, that shift is all about money. It’s a story that I’ve watch unfold during the last 50 years. I’ve seen with growing disgust; the fetishization of art, the vast inflation of prices, and the effect of this on artists and museums. The entanglement of big money with art has become a curse on how art is made, controlled, and above all - in the way that it’s experienced. And this curse has affected the entire art world.”

“Apart from drugs, art is the biggest unregulated market in the world, with contemporary art sales estimated at around $18 billion a year. (….) Boosted by regiments of nouveau riche collectors, and serviced by a growing army of advisors, dealers and auctioneers. As Andy Warhol once observed, ‘Good business is the best art.’”

The Curse: Part 2
In 1962 the Mona Lisa was temporarily loaned to New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art by the Louvre in Paris for the painting’s first exhibit in the United States. Over one million Americans filed past Leonardo da Vinci’s masterpiece – including President Kennedy and First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy. As Hughes noted about the display of the Mona Lisa; “People came not to look at it, but to say that they’d seen it. (….) The painting made the leap from artwork to icon of mass consumption.” The postmodernist period of art as commodity and mass spectacle had begun.

Screen capture of Andy Warhol from The Mona Lisa Curse. Said Hughes: "He was one of the stupidest people I’ve ever met in my life."

Screen capture of Andy Warhol from The Mona Lisa Curse. Said Hughes: "He was one of the stupidest people I’ve ever met in my life."

“(….) If anyone had told Leonardo that 500 years after his death, his portrait would be the most famous painting in the word, he’d have thought the notion mad. In 1963 in New York, the Mona Lisa was now treated like it was a photo in a magazine. To be quickly scanned and then discarded.

When Andy Warhol heard the painting was coming to New York, he quipped: ‘Why don’t they have someone copy it and send the copy, no one would know the difference.’”

The Curse: Part 3
Hughes recalls his early days in the vibrant late 1960s art scene of New York, where he met and befriended the likes of Pop artist Robert Rauschenberg (1925-2008) and James Rosenquist (1933-).

Rent was cheap, art was affordable, and anyone interested in purchasing original artworks could do so for a song - as art was not yet considered a profit making investment. Hughes adds; “In just a few years this would change, art as commodity would begin to take over from art as art.”

The Curse: Part 4
I found this segment particularly interesting, since I wrote about the history it covered in a 2008 web log post titled, The Unveiling of Robert Scull. In this clip Hughes uses historic footage to tell the tale; “On the 18th of October, 1973, the Sculls auctioned off 50 works from their collection through Sotheby Park-Bernet, Inc. This was the first time a collector from that small contemporary art world treated their collection as an investment.”

The Curse: Part 5
This segment is a continuation of the Scull auction saga from part 4. According to Hughes, “American contemporary art as a serious ‘commodity’ was about to be born.” (….) The Scull auction shifted the art world’s emphasis from aesthetics to money. From now on, not just art lovers, but everyone would want a piece of the action. Contemporary art and big money would be ever more closely entwined.”

The Curse: Part 6
Hughes argues that contemporary art is expensive, not because of any intrinsic spiritual or historic worth, but because it makes for good investments that yield high profits. “The consequences of such prices, was that art became admired, not through any critical perspective, but for its price tag. Auction houses were the new arbiters of taste.” (….) The prices, they have a cultural function - their cultural function is to strike you blind, so that you can’t make your own judgments.”

A particularly funny scene in the documentary is when Hughes visits the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York to view a Damien Hirst ’sculpture’ – a dead shark suspended in a tank of formaldehyde titled; The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living. Barely concealing his amusement Hughes calls the pickled shark; “The world’s most overrated marine organism” - adding that Hirst’s work is “a comedy, but a kind of tacky comedy too, that bears a lot upon the way that we think about art and how it is made.”

The Curse: Part 7
In this segment Hughes tells us that; “At the age of 70, I belong to the last generation that could spend time in a museum without ever once thinking about what the art might cost.” Hughes delves into the changing role and function of art museums, interviewing Philippe de Montebello, the director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York from 1978 to 2008.

Screen capture of Robert Hughes and Robert Rauschenberg from The Mona Lisa Curse.

Circa 1960s photo of Robert Hughes and Robert Rauschenberg. Still from The Mona Lisa Curse.

Also interviewed is the affable Thomas Hoving, who served as the director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art from 1967 to 1977. Hoving ushered in profound changes in museum culture, using public relations and advertising for the very first time in history to promote museum exhibits. Hoving was the first to allow corporations to underwrite or sponsor museum exhibitions – paving the way to today’s increased corporate control of art institutions.

On the role of museums, Hughes says; “The way that art is experienced in these spaces has changed beyond recognition. The museum has adopted the strategy of mass media; an emphasis on spectacle, the cult of the celebrity masterpiece, art clocked through the blink of an eye or through the lens of a camera. But what it’s gained through an increase in these numbers, it’s lost in terms of freedom of access and availability to the eye and the mind.”

The Curse: Part 8
This portion of the video deals with the recent transformation of art museums into business franchises. The former director of the Guggenheim Museum, Thomas Krens, states in an interview; “The Tate is a brand, the Louvre is a brand - is the Guggenheim a brand, I guess it is.” Hughes comments that “Krens is renowned for putting on shows of Giorgio Armani, in return for massive underwriting from - guess who? - and for franchising the Guggenheim around the world. He pioneered the museum’s global brand, building Guggenheims in Bilbao, Berlin, and Venice, with varying degrees of success and failure.”

In his interview, Krens also said; “If you look at this in global terms, it’s probably in some sense related to the power and importance of brands that represent quality. Quality automobiles, quality wristwatches, or quality cultural objects.” That Mr. Krens can equate the world’s cultural heritage to “quality wristwatches” is telling. Hughes observed that; “Krens’ agenda to popularize the museum is a euphemistic and more palatable way of saying how the art market transforms the museum into a commercial model.”

The Curse: Part 9
Hughes speaks of the commodification of art, saying that in order “To give everyone their Mona Lisa, you must escalate the production process.” The artist’s studio literally becomes an industrial unit churning out “product”, as with Warhol’s “factory.” On the subject of Warhol, Hughes said the following; “I admired some of his work in the 60s and early 70’s, but he turned into a dull celebrity business man branded to the hairline. It was as good as printing dollar bills. The dominance of the art market has produced multiple Andys - global brands like Jeff Koons and Damien Hirst.”

Hughes examines the role of “art advisors” who peddle misleading information to clueless wealthy clients regarding art as investment; “CEO’s and art speculators have created a feeding frenzy, and they’re serviced by a swarm of art advisors buzzing and crawling around the jam jar.”

The Curse: Part 10
Hughes converses with New York art dealer Richard Feigen, who says; “A menu of certain favored artists has gotten expensive because they have been promoted - this is my opinion - and it has very little to do with how important they are (….) If you have an artist that has a huge supply, it permits promotion of the artist. You can have exhibitions everywhere; it’s worth people’s while to promote it. But some of the stuff that’s consequential doesn’t get shown because it isn’t trendy. Why isn’t it trendy - I’ve just explained, basically it’s not worth anyone’s while to make it trendy.”

A single Warhol silkscreen print on sale at Sotheby’s for a mere $6 million. Screen capture from The Mona Lisa Curse.

A single Warhol print on sale at Sotheby’s for a mere $6 million. Screen capture from The Mona Lisa Curse.

Hughes also focuses on mega-collector and art dealer, Alberto Mugrabi. The men of the Mugrabi family – father Jose and his two sons, Alberto and David, have some 800 works by Warhol in their collection of more than 3,000 works; a private collection thought to be the largest and most expensive in the world.

Mugrabi is shown at Sotheby’s Auction House bidding with his father on a painting by “appropriation” artist Richard Prince – a painting that sold for $7.4 million. Mugrabi professed; “We support these artists by promoting them, by buying them at auction, by buying them privately - you could say it’s a way of controlling it.”

The Curse: Part 11
This is my favorite portion of the documentary. It shows Hughes visiting the Lever House skyscraper in New York City for an interview with collector Alberto Mugrabi. The bottom floor of the building is where the Lever House Art Collection is located; a project conceived by real estate tycoon Aby Rosen and Alberto Mugrabi in 2003 as a way to inject corporate art into the public sphere. At the ground floor courtyard at Lever House, Hughes is confronted by The Virgin Mother, Damien Hirst’s 35ft-tall statue of a young pregnant woman that shows half of the woman’s skin and tissue removed to reveal the fetus.

Damien Hirst’s 35ft-tall statue of a young pregnant woman. Screen capture from The Mona Lisa Curse.

Damien Hirst’s "The Virgin Mother", a 35ft-tall statue of a young pregnant woman. Screen capture from The Mona Lisa Curse.

Hughes surveys the sculpture and says; “Isn’t it a miracle what so much money and so little ability can produce? Just extraordinary. You know, when I look at a thing like this I realize that, so much of art - not all of it thank god, but a lot of it - has just become a kind of cruddy game for the self-aggrandizement of the rich and the ignorant, it is a kind of bad but useful business.”

The Hughes interview with Alberto Mugrabi is priceless; a confrontation between two philosophies, one that extols art as spiritual and necessary to the human heart, the other that sees art strictly in business terms. Hughes is sagacious, looking all the world like some great wise owl as he controls the discussion from his perch. Mugrabi attempts to hold his own but he is clearly outgunned. It is remarkable to see Mugrabi, a man who shapes, manipulates, and controls a fair share of the elite art world, reduced to babbling in the presence of an opinionated art critic who speaks his mind. A typical exchange in the conversation follows:

Hughes: “You take Richard Prince to be an artist of significance, do you?”
Mugrabi: “Absolutely”
Hughes: “What is significant about his work?”
Mugrabi: “He’s a guy that has his own ideas… he’s a person that has done a lot of different types of work…”
Hughes (interrupting): “But Richard Prince’s works seems to consist of basically two types. One is those rather weak jokes, and the other one is the transcription of photographs in paint.”
Mugrabi: “He’s such a deep person that maybe you don’t see it in his paintings – but he definitely is.”
Hughes: “If he is why does one not see it in his paintings?”
Mugrabi: (momentarily struck silent) “Cuz… I, I see it… I think, I think…”

The Curse: Part 12
Hughes wraps up his documentary with some final words;

“Some think that so much of today’s art mirrors and thus criticizes decadence, not so – it’s just decadent, full stop. It has no critical function, it is part of the problem. The art world beautifully copies our money driven, celebrity obsessed, entertainment culture; same fixation on fame, same obedience to mass media that jostles for our attention with its noise and wow and flutter.”

“For me, the cultural artifact of the last 50 years has been the domination of the art market. Far more striking than any individual painting or sculpture. It has changed art’s relationship to the world and is drowning its sense of purpose.”

“If art can’t tell us about the world we live in, then I don’t believe there’s much point in having it. And that is something we are going to have to face more and more as the years go on; that nasty question which never used to be asked because the assumption was always that it was answered long ago - ‘What good is art?, What use is art, what does it do? Is what it does actually worth doing? - and an art which is completely monetized in the way that it’s getting these days, is going to have to answer these questions or it is going to die.”

McDonald’s At The Louvre

NON!McDonald’s Corporation, the world’s largest corporate chain of fast food hamburger restaurants and unfortunately an icon of American “culture”, will celebrate its 30th anniversary in France by opening a McDonald’s restaurant and McCafé in the Louvre museum this coming November, 2009.

The U.K. Daily Telegraph confirmed the story in an October 4th article, reporting that McDonald’s “faces a groundswell of discontent among museum staff.” The article quoted an art historian who works at the Louvre, who spoke only under the condition of anonymity: “This is the last straw. This is the pinnacle of exhausting consumerism, deficient gastronomy and very unpleasant odors in the context of a museum.” No doubt there will be an outpouring of displeasure from the French people as well, since many have regarded McDonald’s as the spear point of U.S. cultural imperialism.

The Daily Telegraph article mentioned the activist group Louvre Pour Tous (Louvre For All), an arts advocacy organization I have written about in the past. A spokesperson for the group said the following about the Louvre McDonald’s: “Henri Loyrette, president of the Louvre museum, just had to say one word to stop the whiff of French fries from wafting past the Mona Lisa’s nose. He chose otherwise.”

It should be remembered that French farmer José Bové became a national hero in France when in 1999 he used a tractor to bulldoze a McDonald’s restaurant under construction in the town of Millau. Bové acted in unison with thousands of other farmers who were angrily opposing - not just American junk food (”malbouffe” - “foul food”), but the juggernaut of corporate globalization and its crushing of national culture.

While the French people have become more accommodating towards the U.S. corporate giant since Bové’s protest, it is difficult to imagine their accepting the spectacle of Ronald McDonald in the palatial halls of France’s greatest museum. I have no doubt French citizens will view the Louvre McDonald’s as an affront to their palace of fine art and to their world renown cuisine – it is an unbearable insult that I too find wholly unacceptable.

Remember the “Obama Arts Policy”?

Recalling the days running up to the 2008 presidential elections, many in the U.S. arts community were giddy with expectation that an Obama Whitehouse would bring about expanded funding and enlightened policies regarding art and culture in the U.S. The fact that the Obama campaign even had an arts policy (.pdf) caused many arts professionals to swoon. Once candidate Obama became President Obama, it was greatly anticipated that he would create a White House Office of the Arts and substantially increase funding for the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) and the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH). But now that President Obama has sailed past four months in office, what has he actually accomplished vis-à-vis the arts?

National Endowment for the Arts logoOn May 7, 2009, President Obama’s proposed budget for 2010 was made public, and it contains only slight increases in monies allocated for the nation’s arts and humanities. Appropriations for the NEA have been enlarged by only 3.9 percent, taking the institution’s annual budget from its current $155 million to Obama’s $161.3 million - which is around $15 million less than the NEA’s peak budget of $176 million in 1992 under the Republican presidency of George H.W. Bush. Moreover, Obama’s $6 million increase in NEA funding is still far below the NEA budget hikes of $10.5 million and $20 million made by Republican President George W. Bush during his tenure. The Obama administration has also increased annual funding for the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH), from its current budget of $155 million to around $171 million. These are completely inadequate budgets for institutions meant to serve the artistic and cultural needs of an entire nation the size of the United States.

Perhaps the following can place Obama’s proposed funding for the NEA and NEH in context. Obama’s 2010 budget for the federally funded National Science Foundation (NSF) comes to around $7 billion. I have the highest regard for the scientific community, and feel such a budget is completely warranted and advantageous. I wholeheartedly believe the arts and sciences are associated in their pursuit of truth, and it has always been said that the arts and sciences represent the pinnacle of any civilization. Why is it then not conceivable that the National Endowment for the Arts have a budget comparable to that of the National Science Foundation?

President Obama has allocated monies to support the arts across America, but his allotment is simply not enough to even maintain regular operations for a small handful of U.S. art museums. The American arts community is in dire need of work and financial assistance, from legions of artists who live a hand to mouth existence, to long established but currently cash-starved institutions. It goes without saying that due to an imploding economy, a growing number of art galleries, museums, theaters, and concert halls have been forced to curtail programs, slash budgets, fire staff, or close altogether, placing untold numbers of arts professionals in financial jeopardy.

For instance, the 2010 budget for the Getty Museum in Los Angeles, California has been reduced by 22.5 percent, or $64 million. The museum is laying off 205 employees, imposing a hiring freeze, eliminating salary increases for staff, and applying a 6 percent pay cut for senior leadership - and the Getty is America’s most prosperous arts institution! The cut backs and slashing of jobs at the Getty is not an aberration, but a course of action now occurring at cultural venues and institutions all across the country – debilitating and imperiling the cultural life of the nation.

After passing his first 100 days in office, President Obama finally appointed a chairman for the National Endowment for the Arts. On May 13, 2009, the White House tapped celebrated Broadway theatrical producer and businessman Rocco Landesman as head of the NEA. In 1987 Landesman became the president of Jujamcyn Theaters, which owns and operates five theaters on Broadway, and in 2005 he purchased the company outright. As a successful entrepreneur, the well-regarded Landesman has brought a number of big hits to Broadway, including Jersey Boys and Angels in America, but he is not without his controversies.

In 2001 Landesman initiated a hike in theater admission prices, charging $480 per ticket for Broadway performances of The Producers, which he was behind at the time. Even one of the musical’s stars, Nathan Lane, during an appearance on MSNBC’s Today show, referred to the outrageous ticket prices as a “new kind of greediness.” Landesman justified the exorbitant price increase as an attempt at hindering scalpers, but no doubt the move did much to prohibit all but the wealthiest patrons from attending theatrical performances. We will have to wait and see whether or not Landesman will display the same type of elitism as head of the NEA.

President Obama has given powerful executive positions in his Seal of the National Endowment for the Humanitiesadministration to a number of Republicans, and so it should come as no surprise that he would select a former Republican congressman to head The National Endowment for the Humanities. On June 3, 2009, the White House announced that former Republican congressman from Iowa, Jim Leach, would be the next chairman of the NEH. In the words of the president, “I am confident that with Jim as its head, the National Endowment for the Humanities will continue on its vital mission of supporting the humanities and giving the American public access to the rich resources of our culture.”

Mr. Leach, a so-called “moderate” Republican, also belongs to the powerful Council on Foreign Relations (CFR), an elite bipartisan institution founded in 1921 that in its own words, maintains a commitment “to be the first-stop, nonpartisan resource on U.S. foreign policy and America’s role in the world.” The history of the CFR has shown it to be more than just a “resource,” it has been instrumental in actually shaping U.S. foreign policy. Some of its notable members have included Zbigniew Brzezinski, George H.W. Bush, Dick Cheney, Warren Christopher, Dianne Feinstein, Alan Greenspan, Jeane Kirkpatrick, John McCain, and a host of other big wheels. Corporate members of the CFR include ABC News, Boeing, BP, Citigroup, ExxonMobil, General Electric, Halliburton, IBM, MasterCard, Shell Oil, Verizon, and many other corporate giants.

That being said, my reservations concerning the new heads of the NEA and the NEH are sidebar issues when compared to the core of my complaint: the inadequate budgets Obama has saddled these agencies with. Contrast President Obama’s proposed NEA budget of $161.3 million to his request for “emergency” war-funding for military operations in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan through this coming September, an amount now set at $105.9 billion. The U.S. House and Senate will no doubt approve the war-funding in an upcoming vote this week. President Obama’s emergency war-funding is separate from his proposed 2010 Pentagon budget of $534 billion; the largest military budget in history, exceeding George W. Bush’s highest military budget proposal by tens of billions of dollars.  Even if President Obama managed to somehow boost the NEA budget to $600 million, or even $1 billion – this would still pale in comparison to the monies he is allocating to escalate the wars in Afghanistan and Pakistan. 

I would add that the Obama administration has asked Congress for $736 million to build a new “super-embassy” in Islamabad, Pakistan. The building project will outdo the U.S. embassy compound in Iraq’s so-called green zone built under President Bush – which up to this point has been the largest U.S. embassy in the world. President Obama is also seeking additional monies for the expansion of U.S. diplomatic facilities in the Pakistani cities of Lahore and Peshawar, as well as in Kabul, Afghanistan. All together, the building and renovation of these compounds will total $1 billion, far exceeding the cost of the massive embassy built in Baghdad by Bush. Taken in this context, Obama’s arts budget is minuscule indeed.

A visit to the official White House website might give an indication of the importance the arts really have for the Obama administration. Listed on the homepage under “Agenda”, the website presents a roll call of 24 issues of the essence to the President. While important concerns from civil rights to veterans’ affairs appear in the directory, there is no listing for arts policy at all, to find that one must click on the topic of “Additional Issues.” Most agenda items on the White House website are backed by lengthy position papers; the statement on “Homeland Security” comes to 2047 words and the treatise on “Defense” comes to 1244 words. The brief tract on “Arts” however is comprised only of the following 56 words:

“Our nation’s creativity has filled the world’s libraries, museums, recital halls, movie houses, and marketplaces with works of genius. The arts embody the American spirit of self-definition. As the author of two best-selling books — Dreams from My Father and The Audacity of Hope — President Obama uniquely appreciates the role and value of creative expression.”

This seems a rather trifling statement, certainly not one to be construed as a specific White House plan of action regarding national arts policy. It calls to mind a marketing campaign for a book signing tour more than it does the setting down of principles and objectives for a serious governmental approach to arts and culture. It is fine that President Obama and the First Lady have taken to hosting a series of stylish concerts and poetry readings in the East Room of the White House, or that, as The Wall Street Journal reports, “they put the call out to museums, galleries and private collectors that they’d like to borrow modern art by African-American, Asian, Hispanic and female artists for the White House.” These pace-setting events are not insignificant, and while they could be seen as first steps, they should by no means be understood as alternatives to well-funded government arts policy.

Noting the East Room performances and the intention to bring modern art into the White House, the Wall Street Journal wrote that these “choices also, inevitably, have political implications, and could serve as a savvy tool to drive the ongoing message of a more inclusive administration.” It is a rare thing indeed for the corporate press to admit that art has “political implications”, the admission pointing to the timeless method of using art and culture as statecraft. But while the First Family gives a face-lift to the White House art collection and stages trendy concerts in the East Room – I am still waiting for a substantive nationwide arts policy to be implemented.