Category: Obama’s Arts Policy

Obama: “Part of this job is also the theater of it.”

"No Human Being Is Illegal" - Mark Vallen © Offset Poster. 19.5" x 22" inches.

"No Human Being Is Illegal" - Mark Vallen © Offset Poster. Carried in innumerable demonstrations since 1988.

After months of promising supporters that he would take executive action on “immigration reform,” President Obama announced on September 6, 2014 that he would delay any action on immigration until after the November 2014 midterm elections.

This latest debacle from the White House does not fill me with anguish over being deceived, it is just another broken promise from a long list of shattered and unfulfilled pledges.

I was not disillusioned when President Obama, giving a January 2014 speech on job creation, told a working class audience that they “can make a lot more, potentially, with skilled manufacturing or the trades than they might with an art history degree.”

I was not disenchanted when then-Senator Obama campaigned in 2008 to “support increased funding for the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA),” but as president repeatedly cut and slashed the NEA budget.

I feel no disappointment that Obama has not lived up to a single promise he made in his vaunted 2008 Platform In Support Of The Arts.

I was not crestfallen when Obama went back on his promise to close the Guantanamo Bay Detention Center, nor was I let down by him when his Attorney General said in 2013 that Obama has the authority to kill U.S. citizens on American soil with unmanned drone strikes - all without oversight from the judiciary or Congress.

I was not disheartened with Obama when he signed the 2014 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), which allows the president to detain U.S. citizens indefinitely without charges or trial. I was not disenthralled with Obama when it was discovered that he was running a massive police state surveillance program that had the National Security Agency spying on ordinary Americans.

I was not dispirited by President Obama when he sent 30,000 combat soldiers to Afghanistan in December of 2009, or when he launched an illegal war against Libya without Congressional consent. I suffered no discouragement in Obama’s leadership when he worked to arm the Syrian Islamic fanatics that are fighting to bring down the dictatorship of President Bashar al-Assad. I was not disconsolate with Obama for redeploying U.S. troops to Iraq in 2014 to fight the extremists of ISIS, even though these are practically the same medievalists that have been beheading Syrians for years.

There have been many other actions taken by Obama that have not given me a sense of disquietude regarding his presidency - too many to list here; reneging on his disarmament pledges by investing billions to upgrade the U.S. nuclear bomb arsenal; his backing of the military coup that overthrew the democratically elected government of Honduras; creating his deceitfully named “Affordable Health Care Act” as an appendage of the gargantuan Pharmaceutical and Insurance industries, and his militarization of Africa with the expansion of the Europe-based U.S. Africa Command (AFRICOM).

I was not even phased by Obama’s hapless decision to cheerfully play golf after delivering a speech regarding the monstrous ISIS beheading of U.S. journalist James Foley. In a rare moment of honesty, Obama told NBC’s “Meet the Press” that it was a mistake for him to have played golf after his Foley speech, saying that “I should’ve anticipated the optics.” (!) In that same NBC interview Obama made the most revealing comment to date regarding his statecraft, he said that “part of this job is also the theater of it.” Indeed.

It is impossible for me to feel “betrayed” or “disillusioned” by President Obama because I never had any illusions about his presidency to begin with. Obama has acted exactly as I expected he would, as a loyal, chief representative of the U.S. ruling class - or what I referred to as “the creeping meatball” as a teenager in the 1960s.

I was never one of those starry-eyed “progressive” artists who produced hero-worshiping posters of Mr. Hope and Change. Such artists have much to own up to, but they have been awfully silent of late. Remarkably, a few of these types still insist upon inflicting their political naiveté upon the rest of society, passing off their social-democratic, neo-liberal tripe as “activist art”. Regrettably they have not yet been wholly rebuffed as discredited opportunists.

My poster Ningun Ser Humano Es Ilegal/No Human Being is Illegal was originally published and freely distributed in 1988 during the Reagan years. It was a protest against the U.S. government’s inhuman immigration policies that blocked entry to Central Americans desperately seeking refuge in the U.S. from the death squads, wars, and genocidal dictatorships that plagued the region during that period. The poster’s title eventually became a popular slogan for today’s contemporary immigrant rights movement. As such, my poster, in no small part due to Obama, is probably more relevant now than ever before.

In full panic over their possible loss of the Senate to Republicans in the upcoming 2014 elections, Democrats fear that if immigration legislation passes, their defeat will be guaranteed. In other words, Obama and the Democrats have thrown overboard some of their most loyal supporters, the Latino population of the U.S. Where is the morality in that? Excuse the pop culture reference, but that type of political expediency is akin to what viewers saw in Kevin Spacey’s House of Cards series. Latinos know Obama as the “Deporter in Chief” for having deported more immigrants than any other president in U.S. history.

But this is not the first instance of the president turning his back on Latinos. It should be remembered that Obama previously dropped plans for immigration reform during the 2010 Congressional elections, fearing the issue would lose votes for the Democrats. Writing for the Associated Press at the time, reporter Suzanne Gamboa noted “the president calculated that an immigration bill would not prove as costly to his party two years from now, when he seeks re-election.” Low and behold, come the 2012 re-election campaign, Obama once again put immigration reform on the “backburner” as he focused on winning his second term in office. Does anyone remember the baseball phrase, “Three strikes and you’re out”? But what is “out,” the policies of the Deporter in Chief or the people’s capacity to struggle for their rights?

The response from Latinos to Obama’s most recent delay on immigration reform has been critical, but not harsh enough. The president of the United Farm Workers, Arturo Rodriguez, said this about Obama: “Justice delayed is justice denied. He broke his promise to the millions of immigrants and Latinos who are looking for him to lead on this issue.” Cristina Jimenez, the managing director for United We Dream, said that Latinos “will not soon forget the President and Democrats’ latest failure and their attempts to fool the Latino community.” Eddie Carmona of the PICO National Network, one of the largest faith-based activist organizations in the U.S., said “The odds of us being let down by President Obama were high. The president and the Senate Democrats have made it very clear that undocumented immigrants and Latinos are simply viewed as political pawns.”

There are many political pawns in the American political landscape, and it is time they disabuse themselves of the notion that Obama, the Democrats, or the Republicans for that matter, have their best interests at heart. To put it simply, there is only the 1% and the 99%. As for the “Dreamers” out there who are still waiting for Obama to keep his promises, an old truism comes to mind… “A dream is something you wake up from.”

Condolezza Rice Portrait Unveiled

An oil painting portrait of Condolezza Rice was sort of unveiled at the U.S. State Department on June 18, 2014. Actually it was rather a non-event for the media. Of the meager handful of news outlets that bothered to report the story, most did not even bother to show the large oil on canvas, let alone trouble themselves by mentioning Steven Polson, the artist who created the painting. But even Polson’s own online portfolio at the time of the unveiling did not have a reproduction of the artist’s rendition - can I use that word? - of the former Secretary of State under George W. Bush.

Politico covered the event, the first line from their report read; “One word - ‘Iraq’ - was never mentioned at the unveiling.” One word was never mentioned in the Politico report - ‘artist.” Nor was the name Steven Polson brought up. The same could be said of the accounts offered by Raw Story, CBS News, The Washington Post, and ABC News. Those stories focused on the remarks of Ms. Rice and the current U.S. Secretary of State, John Kerry, before a bipartisan crowd.

The U.S. State Department put aside $52,450 in taxpayer dollars for the Rice commission, just before Obama’s fiscal 2014 omnibus spending bill was implemented. That bill forbids, for a one year period, the tradition of spending money on oil portraits of former government officials. A group of U.S. senators are also sponsoring bipartisan legislation that will cap spending on such portraits in the future, limiting the top price tag of a painting to $20,000. Congress has yet to impose caps on skyrocketing CEO compensation, now well over 300 times the pay of the average worker in America. This puts a new spin on “Celebrating the Past, Creating the Future,” the State Department’s description of their illustrious art collection. For 150 years the Department has commissioned or collected an uninterrupted series of oil portraits depicting each Secretary of State, from Thomas Jefferson (the 1st Secretary, 1790-1793) to Colin L. Powell (2001-2005).

According to the Washington Post, the job of painting the Rice portrait was contracted to Portraits, Inc. Claiming to be “the world’s oldest and largest portrait company” with a roster of 150 professional portrait painters, Portraits, Inc. acts as a broker that matches clients with artists. Perhaps because Steven Polson had already created large portraits of former Secretaries Madeleine Albright and Colin Powell (both in the State Department collection), he was given the commission to paint Ms. Rice.

Polson depicted a slightly larger than life-size Rice in a respectable red Republican dress. She gazes directly at the viewer with a genial smile, a single strand of pearls around her neck. It is a flattering but perfunctory portrait, done in a conservative and restrained style.

At the time of the unveiling the Polson website listed the Rice commission as a work in progress, along with upcoming portraits of other luminaries like Michael Hayden (former Director of the CIA under Bush and former head of the National Security Agency under Bush and Obama), and Christopher Cox (former Chairman of the U.S. House Committee on Homeland Security under Bush). Polson’s long list of finished portraits includes other upright citizens like President Bush’s Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, and George Tenet, the Director of Central Intelligence for both the Clinton and George W. Bush administrations. Combined with Polson’s portraits of bipartisan leading lights from government and the so-called private sector, his portfolio is a veritable “whose who” of today’s U.S. ruling class.

Recall that Condolezza Rice played a major role in building the case for invading and occupying Iraq. In 2002 Rice told CNN that Saddam Hussein was “actively pursuing” nuclear weapons, and that “the problem here is that there will always be some uncertainty about how quickly he can acquire nuclear weapons. But we don’t want the smoking gun to be a mushroom cloud.” On March 19, 2003 George W. Bush launched the war that Rice advocated. No weapons of mass destruction were ever found in Iraq. As of this writing 4,489 U.S. soldiers died in Iraq and 32,021 were wounded. Estimates of Iraqi civilian fatalities range from over a hundred thousand to half a million. The U.S. has spent over $2 trillion on the war in Iraq… so far.

On June 19, 2014 President Obama announced he was prepared to launch “targeted airstrikes” against Sunni militants from the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) to stop them from toppling the U.S. backed regime of Shiite president Nouri al-Maliki. The president also announced he was sending 300 military advisers to “retrain Iraqi security forces” in the fight against ISIS. Moreover, he made it known that he would not seek congressional authority for his military invention. In true Orwellian fashion, Mr. Obama said that the U.S. soldiers entering the blood-spattered sectarian battlefield that is Iraq, would “not be returning to combat.”

It is easy to imagine the president’s “targeted and precise military action” spilling over into neighboring Syria, where ISIS terrorists and other Islamic militias are also fighting to overthrow the regime of Bashar al-Assad, an insurgency that Obama supports and arms. But if he wants to stop the insurrection in Iraq, it is going to take more than 300 soldiers and a few airstrikes. When ISIS seized the city of Mosul in northern Iraq, they looted $425 million from Mosul’s central bank and took control of a vast arsenal left behind by the U.S. - Humvees, helicopters, trucks, tanks, artillery pieces, and huge amounts of automatic rifles and ammunition.

The current failing of the imperial project in Iraq comes to mind when thinking of Condolezza Rice, who helped to set off Iraq’s conflagration in 2003. And while Steven Polson’s name is not a household word, he is undeniably doing well for himself, proof positive that talented but uncritical artists are rewarded for their subservience to power. Woe to the obstinate nation; recent Secretaries of State cannot hold a candle to Thomas Jefferson, and our contemporary artists have no discernment when it comes to the powers of reasoning.

A Champion For The Arts?

“A lot of young people no longer see the trades and skilled manufacturing as a viable career, but I promise you… folks can make a lot more potentially with skilled manufacturing or the trades than they might with an art history degree. Now, there’s nothing wrong with an art history degree; I love art history, so I don’t want to get a bunch of e-mails from everybody.”

President Obama made the above remark during a January 30, 2014 visit to a General Electric gas engine facility in Wisconsin; his dismissive words were captured on video. The president’s visit to the G.E. plant, and the public remarks he made there, were meant to highlight his alleged interest in “reforming” federal job training programs. Instead, the president seems only to have dismayed holders of art-history degrees in particular, and shocked arts professionals in general.

Obama’s despicable remarks so disconcerted Americans for the Arts, the nation’s largest non-profit arts advocacy organization, that the group immediately started an online petition campaign to criticize the president for his rebuke.

The Americans for the Arts petition applauds Obama for being “the first president in history to begin issuing official White House proclamations observing the month of October as National Arts & Humanities Month.” But proclamations are a far cry from the type of assistance and support the arts community is in dire need of, witness the entirely preventable closure last year of the 70-year-old New York City Opera.

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What has President Obama done for the arts? In 1935 President Franklin Roosevelt launched the depression era Federal Art Project (FAP), which put over 5,000 unemployed artists to work. FAP artists produced 4,500 public murals, 19,000 sculptures, 450,000 easel paintings, and some 35,000 posters and prints in the eight years of its existence. The poster shown above was designed and produced by anonymous artists working for the Iowa Art Program sponsored by FAP, circa 1936. The poster announced "National Art Week," a nationwide series of government organized exhibits where FAP artworks were offered for sale at affordable prices to the public during the Christmas shopping season. The mission of the Federal Art Project was to enhance the cultural experience of all Americans, and it worked to bring the arts into American life on a mass level. Image: Library of Congress Work Projects Administration Poster Collection.

Americans for the Arts could not congratulate Obama for other accomplishments in concretely supporting the arts because the president has no such achievements to his credit. Yes, the president started the “In Performance at the White House” series, where musicians, movie stars, writers, and other creative types gather at the White House to entertain the President and First Lady, but this is hardly direct assistance to the nation’s artists and cultural institutions, both of which are starved for support in this anemic economy. The Americans for the Arts petition closed with the following appeal, “We urge you to meet with arts policy experts to incorporate the arts and culture into your economic strategies and policies to move America forward.”

As a working artist, and one not involved in single issue politics, all I can say is that I am not the least bit interested in President Obama incorporating arts and culture into his economic strategies. Listening to him talk about skilled manufacturing jobs as a “viable career” for American workers is laughable, considering that he reneged on his 2008 campaign pledge to renegotiate the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). In January of 2014, Public Citizen, the consumer rights advocacy group founded by Ralph Nader in 1971, released a report titled NAFTA at 20. Marking the twentieth anniversary of the trade pact, the report concluded that as a result of NAFTA, one million U.S. jobs have been exported, wages for workers in the U.S. have declined, and income inequality in the U.S. has reached “new extremes.”

But Obama is also currently pushing the so-called “Trans-Pacific Partnership” trade deal with eleven nations in Latin America and Asia, a pact that workers and trade experts both here and abroad have described as “NAFTA on Steroids.” The Trans-Pacific Partnership or TPP, will siphon away even more jobs from the U.S. while further enriching corporations and impoverishing foreign workers. The TPP would even ban “Buy American” preferences when dealing with nations that are signatories to the pact. In the face of all this, Mr. Obama telling Americans about their future in “skilled manufacturing or the trades” is simply contemptible. And the president managed to insult the intelligence of U.S. workers while simultaneously maligning those who hold art history degrees!

I would like to remind those who have been shocked by President Obama’s philistine remarks regarding a career in art history, that in 2008 many in the U.S. arts community voted for him based upon how he promoted himself as a “Champion for arts and culture.” Obama’s broadly celebrated nine-point Platform In Support Of The Arts was widely hailed as unprecedented. Reading that document now, especially in light of Obama’s dreadful statement, it is but another catalog of broken promises.

Though the U.S. arts community is aghast over President Obama’s comment, there was more to his statement. Immediately after pronouncing that he did not wish to receive e-mails about his remark, he said: “I’m just saying you can make a really good living and have a great career without getting a four year college education, as long as you get the skills and the training that you need.” This single sentence reveals much about the current direction of U.S. society. During his Jan 27, 1998 State of the Union Address, President Clinton said the following:

“I have something to say to every family listening to us tonight: Your children can go on to college. If you know a child from a poor family, tell her not to give up. She can go on to college. If you know a young couple struggling with bills, worried they won’t be able to send their children to college, tell them not to give up. Their children can go on to college. If you know somebody who’s caught in a dead-end job and afraid he can’t afford the classes necessary to get better jobs for the rest of his life, tell him not to give up. He can go on to college.”

In just 16 years Americans have gone from being told by one Democratic president “not to give up,” that everyone “can go on to college,” to being told by another Democratic president that they do not need “a four year college education,” and that job training programs are enough to enjoy “a really good living.” The contradiction of course is that, as the proles go to trade school to learn some pragmatic work-a-day-world skill… the president quietly exports U.S. jobs to other countries.

In a February 2, 2014 televised interview conducted by Fox News Channel pundit Bill O’Reilly, President Obama said the following: “In a lot of ways, Richard Nixon was more liberal than I was.” That is one comment from the president that I will accept as the truth.

In 1974, the last year of Nixon’s presidency before he resigned to avoid impeachment over the Watergate debacle, the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) budget was $64,025,000. Adjusted for inflation, the buying power of that figure today would be approximately $302,537,000. President Obama’s 2013 budget for the NEA was $138,383,218.

One might refer to President Obama as a champion of predator drones and the NSA’s massive surveillance programs… but a champion of the arts? Never!

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For more information on the FAP, see the Library of Congress Federal Art Project collection.

Killing the Detroit Institute of Arts

In June of 2009 I wrote The Death of Motor City, an essay on the decline of the U.S. economy and its devastating impact on Detroit, Michigan, an American city once at the very center of the nation’s industrial power but now in a state of near total collapse. My article had much to say about the Detroit Institute of Arts (DIA), and Detroit Industry, the astounding 27 panel fresco mural that Diego Rivera contributed to the museum’s courtyard.

Much has happened since writing that piece in 2009. As the so-called national “economic recovery” continues to remain a pipedream, social conditions only worsen in Detroit; the city teeters at the brink of bankruptcy. Of the hundreds of millions of dollars worth of government cuts made or proposed, to me the most shocking is the city’s decision to take almost half of the municipality’s street lights out of service. Roughly speaking that is nearly 40,000 street lights being turned off - permanently. Turning off the street lights in economically depressed neighborhoods endangers the public safety and is an act of criminality. Welcome to America’s “Third World” future.

"Still Life, Three Skulls" - Paul Cézanne. Oil on canvas. 1900. In the collection of the Detroit Institute of Arts.

"Still Life, Three Skulls" - Paul Cézanne. Oil on canvas. 1900. In the collection of the Detroit Institute of Arts.

In March of this year Michigan’s Governor Rick Snyder appointed an “emergency financial manager” to help oversee and implement an austerity budget for the state.

That unelected manager, Mr. Kevyn Orr, has been given sweeping powers to reshape the city of Detroit in order to eliminate its $15 billion debt. In mid-May, Orr’s representatives told the Detroit Institute of Arts Director Graham Beal that the museum’s collection might be deemed a “city asset”, and sold off in order to pay creditors if the city goes bankrupt.

Founded in 1885, the Detroit Institute of Arts is one of America’s leading art museums. It houses over 100 galleries and has in its collection over 65,000 works of art. In its holdings are European masterworks by: Jan van Eyck, Peter Paul Rubens, Albrecht Dürer, Rembrandt, Giovanni Bellini, Claude Monet, and Edgar Degas. The DIA also has an impressive collection of American artists: George Bellows, Alexander Calder, Mary Cassatt, John Singleton Copley, Thomas Eakins, Childe Hassam, Robert Henri, Winslow Homer, Georgia O’Keeffe, Frederic Remington, John Singer Sargent, John French Sloan, Andrew Wyeth, and of course, there are the Rivera murals. Wings in the museum hold comprehensive exhibits of Greek, Roman, Mesopotamian, Egyptian, Islamic, Asian, and African art. I cannot overstate the importance of the Detroit Institute of Arts and its vast collection, both to the people of Detroit and to the people of the United States.

"Detroit Industry" - Diego Rivera. Fresco mural. 1932-1933. In the collection of the Detroit Institute of Arts. Photo, Detroit Institute of Arts © 2013.

"Detroit Industry" - Diego Rivera. Fresco mural. 1932-1933. In the collection of the Detroit Institute of Arts. Photo, DIA © 2013.

In its excellent article of May 23, DIA’s art collection could face sell-off to satisfy Detroit’s creditors, the Detroit Free Press described the enormity of the situation. “The possible forced sale of some of the DIA’s greatest treasures” the paper wrote, “is sending shock waves through the museum world”.

The paper went on to quote the president of the Washington DC based American Alliance of Museums, Ford Bell, who said that if there is a forced sale, “There would be hue and cry the likes of which you’ve never heard. The museum should be a rallying point for the rebirth of Detroit and not a source of funds.” I concur with Mr. Bell’s statement - though I think the time for loud public clamor is right now.

The Detroit Free Press asked art dealers in New York and Detroit to estimate the market value of just 38 of the masterworks in the museum’s holdings; the value was put at around $2.5 billion. Considering the number of celebrated artworks the museum could be forced to sell, that is no doubt a low estimate. Think of Rivera’s Detroit Industry fresco, regarded by the artist as his finest work, and like all of his murals, intentionally created as a public work. What is the “market value” of Rivera’s masterwork? How dare anyone even suggest that Rivera’s mural is not held in “public trust”, but instead is nothing more than an “asset” to be placed in private hands. A great number of artworks in the DIA collection were private donations meant as a gift to the public. What really is at issue here is the danger of the nation’s cultural heritage being privatized. What happens to the Detroit Institute of Arts will soon happen to other museums across the U.S.

The crisis faced by the City of Detroit and the Detroit Institute of Arts should be put in a wider social context. President Obama’s defense budget for Fiscal Year 2014 is $526.6 billion, but as Slate published in its article, Line Item Warfare “(….) this leaves out an estimated $88 billion for overseas military operations (mainly in Afghanistan), $17 billion for nuclear-weapons programs in the Department of Energy, and $7 billion for defense-related programs in other federal agencies—for an actual total of about $638 billion.” God forbid that money be allocated to bail out American cities like Detroit.

"Self Portrait" - Vincent van Gogh. Oil on board, mounted to wood panel. 1887. In the collection of the Detroit Institute of Arts. Photo, Detroit Institute of Arts © 2013.

"Self Portrait" - Vincent van Gogh. Oil on board, mounted to wood panel. 1887. In the collection of the Detroit Institute of Arts. Photo, Detroit Institute of Arts © 2013.

Then there is the April 2013 report that for more than a decade the CIA delivered tens of millions of dollars carried in “suitcases, backpacks, and plastic shopping bags” to the office of Afghanistan President Hamid Karzai. Referred to as “ghost money”, the piles of cash were delivered to Karzai “every month or so”.

The total sum of money gifted to Karzai so far is a secret, but the funds were ostensibly meant to “buy influence” from one of the most corrupt leaders in the world today. Reuters and the New York Times reported that the bags of cash “fuelled corruption and empowered warlords”. No doubt vast amounts of that money fell into the hands of the Taliban, went to the heroin trade, and feathered the nests and foreign bank accounts of Karzai’s crooked relatives and venal cronies.

On May 6, 2013, CNN reported that Karzai held a press conference in Kabul, Afghanistan, where he thanked the CIA for the deliveries of cash, and stated that the CIA “promised that they will continue”. Karzai also noted that “This is the choice of the American government”. To state the obvious for those who missed it, while the surreptitious deliveries of U.S. dollars began during the Bush years, President Obama has clearly approved of and extended them. In point of fact, for over four years now Obama has been shoveling “ghost money” at Karzai. In other words, the U.S. government can see to it that tax dollars fill the pockets of a sock puppet like the loathsome Karzai, but it cannot - or will not - help prevent the Detroit Institute of Arts from having to sell off its collection of masterpieces so that the city of Detroit can pay its creditors.

Conversely, on March 11, 2013, the Secretary of the Interior and the Director of the National Park Service declared The Epic of American Civilization mural series painted by famed Mexican artist José Clemente Orozco in the Baker Library at Dartmouth College in Hanover, New Hampshire - to be a “national historic landmark“. Painted between 1932 and 1934, the murals depict the march of humanity in the Americas from a primitive past to an uncertain future offered by industrialization, science, and technology. Dartmouth College commissioned a film that would tell the story of Orozco’s mural. The resulting 22 minute film made by Robert Canton in 1961 reveals just some of the intensity of the masterwork.

Orozco intoned that his mural was significant because it was “an American idea developed into American forms, American feeling, and as a consequence into an American style.” That is an apt philosophical description of the artist’s fresco painting, but it also provides a fitting descriptive account of the Detroit Institute of Arts and the role it plays in U.S. society. My expressing praise over Orozco’s The Epic of American Civilization mural being given national historic landmark status, is tempered, no - frustrated, by the callous indifference shown the DIA collection under threat of seizure and privatization. What President Obama offers as a national arts policy is nothing short of a disgrace.

Obama and the Budget of Sparta

On April 8, 2011, President Obama largely capitulated to his Republican opponents on a “compromise” budget deal that will cut an additional $38.5 billion from his 2011 austerity budget. Details regarding which government programs will be cut have finally emerged; on April 12 the U.S. House of Representatives posted a highlighted list of program cuts (.pdf format). Overall the cuts will be devastating and long-term, and will undoubtedly impact the quality of life for tens of millions of poor and working class Americans. Among the spending reductions: $600 million cut from Community Health Care Centers, $390 million in cuts to heating subsidies, $272 million in cuts to pandemic flu prevention programs, $997 million cut from safe and clean drinking water programs. Nearly $3 billion for funding high-speed rail transportation was cut, as well as approximately $3 billion for the construction of highways. The list of cuts is long and sobering.

Funding for the National Endowment for the Arts has been slashed by another $13 million, the same amount of funding has been cut from the National Endowment for the Humanities. The National Gallery of Art had its funding cut by $8 million, and $7 million was slashed from the budget of National Capital Arts and Cultural Affairs. The Institute of Museum and Library Services lost $44 million, while the National Archives had $14 million cut from their budget and $6 million slashed from their grant-making capabilities. The Corporation for Public Broadcasting also lost $80 million in funding cuts. Even State Department Cultural Exchange Programs were cut by $35 million.

On April 5, 2011, artists, arts advocates and activists, artistic directors, and celebrities, descended upon Washington D.C. to pressure congressional representatives not to make further cuts in government funding to the arts. “National Arts Advocacy Day” was organized by the mainstream, non-partisan arts advocacy group Americans for the Arts, which had arranged to have a number of speakers testify before a congressional hearing on the importance of continued and expanded funding for the arts.

Those scheduled to talk before the hearings included actors Kevin Spacey and Alec Baldwin, the president of Americans for the Arts, Robert L. Lynch, actor and author Hill Harper, and a few members of Congress. However, the arts advocates were sidelined when Congress canceled the congressional hearings at the last minute, supposedly in favor of decisive budget negotiations to prevent the shutdown of the U.S. federal government. The assumption that the majority of congressional representatives regard the arts as nonessential and superfluous is the only conclusion one can derive from the cancellation.

Unbowed by the rebuff, the group organized by Americans for the Arts did not simply disband but instead presented their testimonies in a House caucus room full of hundreds of supporters and members of the media. While all of the speakers eloquently defended government funding for the arts, Kevin Spacey seems to have captured the attention of the press, becoming the arts advocate most often quoted in news reports. Artistic Director of The Old Vic, one of London’s great repertory theatres founded in 1818, Spacey was also the featured speaker at the Annual Nancy Hanks Lecture on Arts and Public Policy organized by Americans for the Arts and held at the Kennedy Center. In comments made to the press after his address, Spacey said, “I think that it’s really vital and important for us to realize the importance of arts and culture in our lives and not to sort of dismiss them as luxury items. It’s what we all share, every day.”

While the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and Variety, all covered the events organized by Americans for the Arts, none of the aforementioned publications could bring themselves to mention that it was actually President Obama who slashed government funding for the arts in his 2011 austerity budget; the president cut funding for the National Endowment for the Arts from $167.5 million to a measly $146 million, a trifling budget somehow meant to serve the cultural needs of the entire United States. While entirely failing to point out Mr. Obama’s atrocious cuts to the arts, the L.A. Times and Variety managed instead to bring up the boogie monster of Sarah Palin as a stalwart opponent of government arts funding!

In his fiscal year 2011 budget, President Obama had already slashed some $40 billion from essential social programs. His April 8th deal with Republican opponents to cut a further $38.5 billion from his budget makes for a total of $78.5 billion slashed from government spending. This comes on the heels of Obama having frozen all non-military related government spending for the next five years, a pay freeze for all non-military federal employees for the next two years, and extending the Bush tax cuts for the wealthiest 2 percent of Americans.

The National Arts Advocacy Day organized by the Americans for the Arts in Washington, D.C. had two main demands, that “the president and Congress support a budget of $167.5 million for the National Endowment for the Arts”, and that “the president and Congress retain the arts in the definition of core academic subjects and to strengthen equitable access to arts learning within the Elementary and Secondary Education Art.” In essence these exceedingly modest demands are little more than a holding action, a plea that Mr. Obama restore a woefully inadequate national arts budget.

Gloating over the April 8th deal made with the Republicans, President Obama announced triumphantly, “This is an agreement to invest in our country’s future while making the largest annual spending cut in our history. Like any compromise, this required everyone to give ground on issues that were important to them. I certainly did. Some of the cuts we agreed to will be painful - programs people rely on will be cut back; needed infrastructure projects will be delayed.” Then the president made the most incredibly callous remark, “But beginning to live within our means is the only way to protect those investments that will help America compete for new jobs.” Tell that to the twenty million unemployed Americans unable to find work, or the millions who have lost homes due to bank foreclosures.

Meanwhile, President Obama spent $698 billion on military expenditures in 2010, that is an 81 percent increase over 2001 U.S. military budget figures. World military spending in 2010 came to $1.6 trillion, with U.S. military expenditures comprising an unbelievable 42.8 per cent of that figure. By comparison, China’s military expenditures comprised 7.3 per cent of world military spending. Currently the Obama administration’s military budget is more than the military budgets of China, Britain, France, and Russia combined. Not bad for a Nobel Peace Prize winner, but he still cannot find enough money to properly fund the National Endowment for the Arts.

On March 19, 2011, President Obama launched his “Operation Odyssey Dawn” against Colonel Muammar Gaddafi’s Libya, the third major war the Commander in Chief is presently directing. The National Journal reported that the first 24 hours of the U.S. military assault on Libya carried “a price tag that was well over $100 million for the U.S. in missiles alone.” That is to say, in just 24 hours the Pentagon spent almost as much as the NEA would spend during an entire year of funding museum exhibits, theater festivals, and other important cultural activities across the United States. On April 11, the Pentagon confirmed that just the first 17 days of Obama’s military action against Libya cost the U.S. Defense Department $608 million - and the cost continues to climb. The Pentagon estimates the Libyan war is now costing around $58 million per week.

The Pentagon will undoubtedly request a replacement for the F-15E Strike Eagle fighter jet that crashed in Libya due to “mechanical failure”; the cost of the combat jet is around $79.24 million each. It is much more likely that the Pentagon will want the F-15E replaced with the newer F-35 Lighting II, an advanced combat aircraft equipped with stealth technology. The cost of an F-35? Approximately $90 million each, and the Obama administration intends to purchase more than 2,400 of the advanced fighter jets.

More cuts to government spending are on the way, as President Obama and Republicans in the House of Representatives continue negotiations over slashing non-military government spending. The next major dispute will come in May, when the U.S. national debt is expected to surpass $14.3 trillion. Mr. Obama wants to raise the nation’s debt ceiling, while Republicans vow to block the increase unless it is accompanied by even more draconian cuts in government social spending. And of course there is the upcoming battle over the President’s 2012 budget. I am sure the Republicans and their Tea Party allies will continue to hammer Mr. Obama - and I expect he will undoubtedly go on folding, compromising, and capitulating.

During the National Arts Advocacy Day in Washington, D.C. on April 5, Kevin Spacey told CNN at the Capitol Rotunda, “Countries may go to war, but it’s culture that unites us and teaches and makes us better citizens.”

Is there anyone listening?

Obama Cuts Arts Funding - Again

As of February 14, 2011, another abysmal Hollywood comic-based movie, The Green Hornet, became a “big box office hit” in the US, so far bringing in $175 million in ticket sales. Also on Feb. 14, President Obama announced his proposed budget for fiscal year 2012, which will once again slash the budget of the National Endowment for the Arts, this time reducing the NEA’s already meager funding of $167.5 million to a laughable $146 million. “A Great Nation Deserves Great Art”? Apparently not.

Obama has not just taken the axe to the NEA, he has proposed drastic reductions for almost all cultural funding. His appropriations to the National Endowment for the Humanities have been cut from $167.5 to $146 million, and funds for the National Gallery of Art have been reduced from $167 million to $138 million. Here it must be remembered that under the Republican presidency of George H.W. Bush, the NEA’s budget was $176 million.

On May 13, 2009, President Obama appointed Broadway theatrical producer and businessman Rocco Landesman as the head of the National Endowment for the Arts. In late Jan. 2011, Landesman addressed a national conference held in Washington, D.C. on the future of American theater. Appearing to prepare the way for Obama slashing the national arts budget, Landesman told more than 100 theater directors, writers, and artistic managers, that “We’re overbuilt, there are too many theaters.” It is outrageous that the chairman of the NEA, who should be advocating and working towards the expansion of arts programs in the U.S., is instead in favor of their curtailment.

Landesman has been considering meting out larger NEA grants to a much smaller number of institutions, in effect, defunding numerous arts groups, and under Obama’s arts funding reductions that will become a reality. On Feb. 15, the L.A. Times reported that Obama’s budget severely impedes the ability of the NEA, the NEH, and the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS) to make grants, since it “calls for preserving staff salaries and taking all the cuts out of line items for ‘promotion of the arts’ (NEA), ‘promotion of the humanities’ (NEH) and ‘assistance to museums/assistance to libraries’ (IMLS). The proposed line items represent a 24.6% loss for the NEA, 17.8% for the NEH, 33% for IMLS museum grants and 13% for its library grants.”

To put Obama’s pathetic budgetary appropriations to the NEA in context, on November 19, 2010, he deployed a company of sixteen M1A1 Abrams Battle Tanks to Afghanistan. Since that deployment four months ago, running those sixteen tanks 8 hours a day has cost the U.S. taxpayer approximately $230,400,000.

A Great Nation Deserves Great Tanks

"Light wages - heavy tanks." Silkscreen street poster produced by an anonymous artist from the Atelier Populaire collective during the Paris student/worker revolt of May 1968.

"Light wages - heavy tanks." Silkscreen street poster produced by an anonymous artist from the Atelier Populaire collective during the Paris student/worker revolt of May 1968.

Few artworks from the 20th century make the connection between war production and the impoverishment of society as clearly as the French poster from May 1968, “Light wages - heavy tanks.”

Created by an anonymous artist from the Atelier Populaire collective that was active in Paris during the student/worker revolt of May ‘68, the poster came to mind when I read the news that the Obama administration was further escalating the war in Afghanistan. On Nov. 19, 2010, U.S. defense officials confirmed that a company of M1A1 Abrams Battle Tanks - 16 in all - are being deployed to Afghanistan; it will be the first time the U.S. has used tanks in the nine-year long Afghan war.

Manufactured by General Dynamics Land Systems (formerly “Chrysler Defense,” a division of the Chrysler Group), each M1A1 Abrams Battle Tank costs $6.21 million. Weighing 68-tons, the M1A1 is equipped with two 7.62 M240 machine guns, a .50 caliber M2 machine gun, and a 120mm cannon that can pinpoint and destroy a building from a mile away. The tank has a crew of 4, carries 40 standard armor piercing or depleted uranium cannon rounds, and is also equipped with a full array of computerized targeting and control systems. The heavily armored tank is the most advanced combat vehicle in existence.

On Nov. 19, 2010, the Pentagon correspondent for CNN, Barbara Starr, reported that the M1A1 Abrams Battle Tank uses “300 gallons of fuel in 8 hours.” In my Dec. 1, 2009 article, “Hey, Hey, LBJ…” President Lyndon Baines Johnson in Poster Art: 1962-1968, I wrote that Pentagon officials “stated that it costs an average of $400 to put a single gallon of fuel into a combat vehicle in Afghanistan.” Surely that price has gone up since I published my article, but when considering Obama’s deployment of M1A1 tanks to Afghanistan, let us examine the cost in dollars.

Based on the Pentagon’s 2009 cost estimate for fuel, that would mean running a single M1A1 tank for 8 hours a day would cost approximately $120,000. Running 16 tanks for 8 hours a day would cost roughly $1,920,000. To run 16 tanks 8 hours a day for 1 month would cost $57,600,000. Running 16 tanks 8 hours a day for a one year period would cost $691,200,000. Fueling those 16 tanks for 4 years of war - the minimal amount of time spent at war that Obama and NATO have agreed will be necessary before the “beginning” of U.S. troop withdrawals - that cost will be $2,764,800,000. Yes, that is correct - the cost would approach 3 billion dollars.

The costs above are for fuel only, and do not include tank maintenance, ammunition, compensating the crews and associated costs, i.e., medical, veterans benefits, etc. The above calculation also does not include inflationary costs, or the likely expansion of the one company tank force of 16 to include dozens more of the heavily armored combat vehicles. In its Nov. 19 report on Obama’s tank deployment, The Washington Post quoted an unnamed U.S. officer saying that “The tanks bring, awe, shock and firepower - it’s pretty significant.” The paper also quoted that same officer as saying the number of tanks deployed could expand “depending on needs.”

Here I must note that President Obama’s budget for fiscal year 2011 includes the meager sum of $161.3 million for the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA); an amount that will cover the cultural and artistic needs of the entire U.S. for one year. This of course means that Mr. Obama will be spending more than four times the annual NEA budget in order to fuel 16 battle tanks in Afghanistan for a period of just one year - that is, $691,200,000. There are many vital social services in the U.S. that could use such a cash infusion, but since my web log is devoted to an examination of art and its intersection with politics, I am restricting my commentary to the nation’s arts budget.

The NEA’s slogan is “A great nation deserves great art,” but it seems there are those who believe that it is not great art that we need, but great tanks.

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.

Obama Reduces Arts Funding

On February 1, 2010, President Obama released his proposed budget for fiscal year 2011, which includes funding cuts to both the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) and the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH). The funding to each institution will be cut by more than $6 million, dropping their current budgets of $167.5 million to $161.3 million. The President’s proposed budgets for the NEA and the NEH are at the same levels he requested last year, $161.3 million, but far less than the current budgets approved by the U.S. Congress. No matter how one looks at the President’s proposed arts budget – it represents a major reduction in arts funding. The National Gallery of Art also had its budget of $167 million trimmed to $162.8, a reduction of $4.2 million. Here I must reiterate what I wrote back in February of 2009 – that the average budget for a Hollywood blockbuster movie is $200 million.

The National Capital Arts and Cultural Affairs (NCACA) program was slammed particularly hard by the Obama administration. NCACA provides grants to non-profit cultural organizations that provide Washington with art exhibitions and performing arts – and more than half of its budget was slashed. The NCACA budget was cut from $9.5 million to $4.5 million. The National Symphony Orchestra is just one of the many past recipients of NCACA grant monies.

President Obama also wants the U.S. Department of Education to fully absorb the federally sponsored Arts in Education (AIE) program, consolidating it within the Department of Education under the obscure category of “Effective Teaching and Learning for Well-Rounded Education.” The AIE program provides support for arts education in public schools, and it partners with arts organizations to help students achieve arts literacy. To “consolidate,” or fold the AIE into the Department of Education is to considerably weaken the arts program. The president of Americans for the Arts, Robert L. Lynch, issued the following statement on the matter:

“This consolidation of the only identified arts-specific education program at the Department of Education seems to be in contradiction to the Administration’s previous strong vocal support of the arts. While the total available AIE grant funds are unknown at this time, it is an unbeneficial move at a time when arts education cuts are happening across the country.”

President Obama is cutting arts funding at a time when the nation’s arts community is suffering from the worst economic slump since the Great Depression. The signs exist in all areas of cultural life in the U.S., from slow or non-existent sales at small art galleries to the strangulation of major symphony orchestras because of plummeting ticket sales and dwindling endowments. The Honolulu Symphony recently declared bankruptcy and closed, and it appears the same fate awaits the Philadelphia Symphony. Museums across the U.S. continue to cut staff and programs, some have closed as the economy remains stagnant and endowments shrink. States across the U.S. are making extreme cuts to arts funding, for instance, the Democratic Governor of New York State, David Paterson, has submitted a 2010-11 budget that will slash $9.6 million from the arts.

Theater companies from coast to coast have been hard hit by the economic downturn, the legendary Pasadena Playhouse being a good example, its final curtain call came on February 7, 2010 with a closing performance of “Camelot.” Founded in 1917, the historic theater company was declared the State Theater of California in 1937, and it gave world premieres to plays by F. Scott Fitzgerald, Tennessee Williams, Eugene O’ Neill, and other notables. Actors who got their start at the playhouse include Charles Bronson, Raymond Burr, Victor Mature, Sally Struthers, Dustin Hoffman, and dozens of others. With falling ticket sales and endowments in decline, the Playhouse was forced to go out of business – adding 37 more workers to the millions already unemployed.

I could cite other examples of the painful economic realities now confronting the U.S. arts community, but I think the dimensions of the crisis are understood. However, a discussion of government arts funding cannot take place as if it were unrelated to larger issues. It should be emphasized that while President Obama is cutting funding for the arts, he is simultaneously making significant increases in military spending, in fact, the Pentagon’s own statistics show Obama is now spending more on the military than did former President Bush.

President Obama’s budget for fiscal year 2011 includes $548.9 billion for a “baseline” military budget, plus $159.3 billion for “overseas contingency operations” (the ongoing wars in Iraq and Afghanistan). His “surge” of 30,000 combat troops to Afghanistan will cost an additional $33 billion (Germany’s entire military budget for FY 2010 is $44 billion), bringing the Pentagon budget to $741.2 billion. Unofficially, billions more will go towards funding covert operations and employing over 200,000 military “contractors” (mercenaries) in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan.

Also contained in President Obama’s 2011 budget is an additional $5 billion for modernizing U.S. nuclear weapons stockpiles and facilities. As Vice President Joe Biden put it: “This investment is long overdue. It will strengthen our ability to recruit, train and retain the skilled people we need to maintain our nuclear capabilities.” What if $5 billion had instead been allocated to the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities. Why is it so hard to imagine such a thing?

President Obama’s 2011 budget includes an increase of around 8% for the National Science Foundation (NSF), bringing that key agency’s budget to around $7.8 billion. Obama has stated his intention to double the agency’s budget over a ten-year period. I can think of few things more valuable to the advancement of humanity than scientific research, and I have a high regard for the scientific community, so I think the NSF budget is appropriate. However, civilizations are never judged solely on the amount of scientific knowledge they possess, the arts and sciences are linked, they are the twin guiding lights by which we assess the worth of any society. The United States is an enormously powerful country blessed with incredible resources, surely its primary arts agencies – the NEA and the NEH – both conceived to serve the cultural needs of the entire nation, deserve budgets that are much larger than $161.3 million.

His gargantuan military budget aside, Obama announced in his Jan. 27, 2010 State of the Union address that he would initiate a total three-year freeze on all government spending – exempting the Pentagon and entitlement programs – beginning in 2011. Obama’s exact words:

“Starting in 2011, we are prepared to freeze government spending for three years. Spending related to our national security, Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security will not be affected. But all other discretionary government programs will. Like any cash-strapped family, we will work within a budget to invest in what we need and sacrifice what we don’t. And if I have to enforce this discipline by veto, I will. We will continue to go through the budget, line by line, page by page, to eliminate programs that we can’t afford and don’t work.  We’ve already identified $20 billion in savings for next year.”

It should not be forgotten that during the 2008 presidential race, Senator Obama repeatedly disparaged Senator John McCain for proposing a freeze on domestic spending. At the second debate held between the candidates on Oct 7, 2008, Sen. Obama said the following:

“I think it’s important for the president to set a tone that says all of us are going to contribute, all of us are going to make sacrifices, and it means that, yes, we may have to cut some spending, although I disagree with Sen. McCain about an across-the- board freeze. That’s an example of an unfair burden sharing. That’s using a hatchet to cut the federal budget. I want to use a scalpel so that people who need help are getting help and those of us, like myself and Sen. McCain, who don’t need help, aren’t getting it.”

Apparently our Peace Laureate President lost his scalpel, and so he has borrowed Sen. McCain’s hatchet.

Arts professionals in the U.S. thought President Obama would radically expand funding for the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities (some recommending a budget of at least  $319.2 million), and that he would advocate the restoration of direct NEA grants to artists. It was anticipated that Obama would invest significant amounts of money in an arts curriculum for the public school system, and there were those who looked forward to Obama establishing a cabinet-level Secretary for Art and Culture, or at least a senior-level White House arts adviser. None of these expectations have been met, and the President’s three-year freeze on spending also guarantees that much of his highly praised Platform in Support Of The Arts (.pdf format) will never be implemented.

There are few bright spots for the arts in Obama’s 2011 budget. The president is requesting an increase of $38 million for the Smithsonian, a welcome increase that will bring the institution’s budget to $797.6 million. $140.5 million will be allocated to a number of other museums, mostly to repair and revitalize facilities. $20 million will go towards building the National Museum of African American History and Culture (scheduled to open in 2015), but all of those figures combined pale in comparison to what Obama is currently spending on his war in Afghanistan - $3.6 billion each month.

Press responses to President Obama defunding the arts have been notably subdued. Most reports barely mention the economic crisis if at all, none mention the contradictions of simultaneously cutting arts funding while significantly increasing military expenditures. A few press reports actually have an Orwellian flavor to them, as with the coverage from “,” which wrote: “President Obama may be proposing funding cuts for culture in his bleak 2011 budget, but he’s once again signaled an enlightened approach to the arts.”

In fairness Artinfo was referring to Obama appointing painter Chuck Close to sit on the President’s Committee on the Arts and the Humanities (PCAH). The Committee was created in 1982 by President Ronald Reagan, and it works with the NEA and NEH to support key arts programs; to recognize artistic excellence; and to advance private-public partnerships in the field of the arts and humanities. The Committee also established its own programs, like Save America’s Treasures (SAT), one of the most successful preservation programs engaged in saving America’s irreplaceable cultural heritage. Obama has totally eliminated SAT by terminating its funding in his FY 2011 budget. In describing Obama’s “enlightened approach to the arts,” Artinfo neglected to inform its readers that Close may be sitting on the President’s Committee on the Arts and the Humanities, but it is a committee significantly reduced by Obama’s deep cuts.

According to Pat Lally, the congressional affairs director for the National Trust for Historic Preservation, SAT “has helped preserve for future generations: Ellis Island, Mesa Verde National Park, Valley Forge, Thomas Edison’s Invention Factory, and the flag that inspired Francis Scott Key to write the ‘Star Spangled Banner.’” That Obama would axe a program like SAT should serve as a wake-up call – the U.S. is in deep crisis, and circumstances are not improving.

The administration of Franklin D. Roosevelt faced appalling economic conditions in 1932 when first coming to power. The Great Depression was in full swing, tens of millions were out of work and breadlines appeared across the country. American workers demanded that something be done, and Roosevelt responded, not by freezing government spending, but by creating the biggest public works program in U.S. history. Some eight million Americans were put to work with FDR’s Works Progress Administration (WPA). FDR did not cut federal spending on the arts, instead he created an artist’s division of the WPA known as Federal Project Number One. Federal One programs employed well over 5,000 artists who were put to work creating murals, sculptures, posters, paintings, photographs, literature, and theatrical productions. Their works have become an enduring part of American art history.

April 8, 2010 will mark the 75th anniversary of the Works Progress Administration’s founding by an act of Congress. Commemorative events and exhibitions are planned across the country, including a march in Washington, D.C. on Saturday, April 10, 2010 to demand that President Obama enact a new public works jobs program…. but that is another blog post.