Category: Obama’s Arts Policy

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.

No Hope For Healthcare?

During his run for the presidency, Barack Obama published a document titled, A Platform In Support Of The Arts, a multi-point public statement detailing the candidate’s position regarding the arts in America that garnered a great deal of attention and praise from creative professionals. One of the items on Mr. Obama’s agenda specifically addressed the issue of health care for artists. The following is a verbatim reprint from Obama’s original document:

Provide Health Care to Artists: Finding affordable health coverage has often been one of the most vexing obstacles for artists and those in the creative community. Since many artists work independently or have non-traditional employment relationships, employer-based coverage is unavailable and individual policies are financially out of reach. Barack Obama’s plan will provide all Americans with quality, affordable health care. His plan includes the creation of a new public program that will allow individuals and small businesses to buy affordable health care similar to that available to federal employees.

His plan also creates a National Health Insurance Exchange to reform the private insurance market and allow Americans to enroll in participating private plans, which would have to provide comprehensive benefits, issue every applicant a policy, and charge fair and stable premiums. For those who still cannot afford coverage, the government will provide a subsidy. His health plan will lower costs for the typical American family by up to $2,500 per year.”

While it is commendable that a politician would recognize the unique needs of the self-employed creative community when it comes to health care, I always found the words “affordable health coverage” to be problematic. Affordable to whom? What is reasonably priced to someone making more than $100,000 a year is prohibitive to someone making less than $20,000. The great majority of artists simply cannot afford a health plan, and in these tough economic times many artists are now faced with the challenge of either purchasing the supplies necessary to carry on with their work, or buying the basic necessities of life. In such a context, there is no such thing as “affordable.”

Mr. Obama told the arts community that his reform plan would allow arts professionals to either purchase health insurance from a low cost government-run “public option” insurance program, or from private insurance companies. He maintained that reasonably priced government insurance coverage would “force the insurance companies to compete and keep them honest” - while inducing those companies to drop their rates. The public option concept was promoted as a cornerstone of Obama’s health care reform message, marketed not only to creative professionals, but to the wider U.S. public on a continual basis.

Obama-care has been an amorphous and ever-changing scheme; nevertheless loyal supporters of Obama and the Democratic Party attempted to rally the citizenry behind the public option banner. Then came crushing news from the Associated Press on August 16 – White House appears ready to drop public option;

“Bowing to Republican pressure and an uneasy public, President Barack Obama’s administration signaled Sunday it is ready to abandon the idea of giving Americans the option of government-run insurance as part of a new health care system.”

Of the several health care bills currently being crafted in Washington, it is the one being worked out by the bipartisan Senate Finance Committee that seems to have curried favor with President Obama. The proposal from Republican and conservative “Blue Dog” Democratic Senators contains no public option; instead putting forward “medical co-ops” as an alternative. But if co-ops could actually act as an effective counterbalance to the dominance of multi-billion dollar insurance companies, then free-market conservatives and the health industry would oppose them.

On August 6, 2009, BusinessWeek published a penetrating article titled, The Health Insurers Have Already Won, detailing how “UnitedHealth and rival carriers, maneuvering behind the scenes in Washington, shaped health-care reform for their own benefit.” As the article pointed out, on June 4, 2009 the chief executive of insurance giant UnitedHealth, gave a visit to Senator Kent Conrad (Democratic member of the Senate Finance Committee), and thereafter the good Senator:

“led an effort to create nonprofit medical cooperatives that would operate much like utility co-ops as a substitute for a federally run plan. With less heft than a proposed national plan, the state medical cooperatives would pose a far weaker competitive threat to private insurers. (….) The industry has already accomplished its main goal of at least curbing, and maybe blocking altogether, any new publicly administered insurance program that could grab market share from the corporations that dominate the business.”

On August 5, 2009, the New York Times ran an explosive article titled, White House Affirms Deal on Drug Cost, reporting on a secret deal made by President Obama with the pharmaceutical industry.  The deal placed a ceiling on the amount of money the U.S. government can save when using its enormous purchasing power to negotiate for lower drug prices with pharmaceutical companies like Merck, Pfizer, and Abbot Laboratories. The opening paragraph of the New York Times piece was damning enough:

“Pressed by industry lobbyists, White House officials on Wednesday assured drug makers that the administration stood by a behind-the-scenes deal to block any Congressional effort to extract cost savings from them beyond an agreed-upon $80 billion.”

The disclosure that lobbyists for multi-billion dollar pharmaceutical companies swayed President Obama, who had promised his administration would be impervious to the machinations of special interest lobbyists – was a political bombshell to some. According to the Associated Press, the pharmaceutical giants are sealing their agreement by providing the White House with up to $200 million in advertising to “help” President Obama push through his health care plan. The AP reported that the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America (PhRMA), launched a public relations campaign supporting Obama’s health plan that “includes television advertising under PhRMA’s own name and commercials aired in conjunction with the liberal group, Families USA.” The AP story also noted that PhRMA has so far already spent more than $6 million in nationwide advertising in support of Obama-care.

It is interesting to note that in his remarks delivered at the August 11, 2009 New Hampshire Town Hall Meeting on health-care, President Obama mentioned the $80 billion in supposed drug cost “savings” but failed to mention the deal he made with the pharmaceutical giants to help boost their profits.

In a July 6, 2009 article titled, Familiar Players in Health Bill Lobbying, The Washington Post reported that “the nation’s largest insurers, hospitals and medical groups have hired more than 350 former government staff members and retired members of Congress in hopes of influencing their old bosses and colleagues.” The article observed that the lobbyists “are part of a record-breaking influence campaign by the health-care industry, which is spending more than $1.4 million a day on lobbying in the current fight.” The Washington Post went on to note that PhRMA “doubled its spending to nearly $7 million in the first quarter of 2009, followed by Pfizer, with more than $6 million”, and that overall “health-care companies and their representatives spent more than $126 million on lobbying in the first quarter.”

Under President Obama’s plan, with or without the so-called “public option”, tens of millions of American citizens will be legally obliged to purchase health insurance, which presents nothing less than a colossal financial boon for the private insurance industry and the pharmaceutical giants. The total compensation for insurance company CEO’s in 2008 was $67,859,239. Robert A. Williams, CEO of Aetna, made $24,300,112, H. Edward Hanway of Cigna brought in $12,236,740. What do these ridiculously extravagant salaries have to do with delivering quality healthcare to the nation’s citizenry? Real reform is impossible if private insurance companies are to play a role in the nation’s health care system.

The only logical remedy to the U.S. health care crisis is the implementation of publicly funded and privately delivered health care for everyone – Medicare for All - a “Single-Payer Health Care” system based upon need and not the ability to pay. Under such a plan every American would receive comprehensive services for all medical needs. Health care providers would be paid through a single non-profit fund that is run in the public interest, and billing, deductibles, and co-payments would be eliminated. Insurance companies would have no role in delivering health care. A proposal for such a health care system has been introduced in the U.S. Congress (H.R. 676), and it is backed by some ninety legislators. Physicians For A National Health Program (PNHP) have launched a campaign to pressure the Obama administration to adopt single-payer health reform, which Obama initially supported long ago as a Senator, but now consistently opposes.

At his August 11th Town Hall Meeting in New Hampshire, the only reason President Obama could give for not supporting single-payer health care was that, in his words: “we historically have had a employer-based system in this country, with private insurers, and for us to transition to a system like that, I believe, would be too disruptive.” In other words, President Obama can bail out Wall Street to the tune of some $23.7 trillion, or spend hundreds of billions on fighting a war in Afghanistan, but providing universal health care to the American people is “too disruptive.”

Meanwhile, here in my home city of Los Angeles, thousands of people have lined up at the L.A. Forum indoor arena to receive free healthcare from the volunteer doctors of the charity organization, Remote Area Medical (RAM). Initially created to bring free medical care to Third World countries,  RAM now provides essential health care to the working poor living in isolated rural areas of the U.S. like Appalachia. The L.A. Forum clinic was the first time RAM had operated in a major American city. Surely this is not what was meant by the slogan, “Change We Can Believe In.”

“I want to cover everybody. Now, the truth is unless you have what’s called a single-payer system in which everyone’s automatically covered, you’re probably not going to reach every single individual.” - President Barack Obama, prime time news conference. July 22, 2009.

California Crack-up

Erudite observers of the California lifestyle have often proclaimed, “As goes California, so goes the nation.” Undeniably there have been many trends - cultural, economic, and political - that have come out of my home state to spread across the nation. While I could boast about some of the trends that have originated or taken root here, the current vogue amongst politicians in California to make the poor shoulder the burden created by the wealthy political class – is not a craze I am in favor of.

Commando – Movie poster for Director Mark Lester’s 1985 action film, Commando, starring Arnold Schwarzenegger. Life mimics art? "Somewhere, somehow, someone’s going to pay."

Commando – Movie poster for Director Mark Lester’s 1985 action film, Commando, starring Arnold Schwarzenegger. Life mimics art? "Somewhere, somehow, someone’s going to pay."

The California state assembly reached a bipartisan agreement to “resolve” the state’s $26 billion budget shortfall by implementing $15 billion in cuts to social services. These cuts represent nothing less than a human catastrophe for the working poor living in California. On July 28, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger signed the bill into law, but used his line-item veto to make $656 million in additional cuts. As he signed the budget, Schwarzenegger warned that the state’s financial problems were far from over, and that further cuts may be forthcoming.

The Los Angeles Times reported that the “new reductions will affect child welfare and children’s healthcare, the elderly, state parks and AIDS treatment and prevention, going beyond the dramatic cuts that were part of the deal Schwarzenegger negotiated with legislative leaders.” In referring to the budget fiasco, the New York Times described California as “broke, embattled,” and “politically crippled.”

The new budget has slashed $8.1 billion from public education programs. President-elect of the California Association of School Business Officials, Renee Hendrick, remarked on the budget cuts; “I think you’re going to see larger class size, reduction in arts and music programs - I don’t think we’ve seen the full magnitude of the cuts yet.”

My line of reasoning has always found art to be inextricably linked to real world events and situations. Art and artists in California are undeniably impacted by the collapsing economy and budget cuts, but arts professionals cannot frame the crisis just in economic terms. While financial concerns are important, there is a much larger matter at stake that transcends whether or not art will be purchased in hard times or if galleries can stay open without altruistic patrons. The issue at hand has to do with art’s role in preserving and developing our collective humanity, especially in bleak days. Which is why stripping away or eliminating art and music programs for children in public schools is such a reprehensible and unpardonable crime - it is a symptom of spiritual rot.

In a video posted to his Twitter account, Gov. Schwarzenegger brandishes an enormous knife while talking about cutting government spending.

In a video posted to his Twitter account, Gov. Schwarzenegger brandishes an enormous knife while talking about cutting government spending.

So far, press coverage of the current budget crisis has mostly neglected to mention the devastating effects the California state government cuts will have on the arts, a subject that has even been given short shrift by those web logs usually devoted to art news. The only solid report I could find on the subject came from a local television news story from the California State Capital of Sacramento, where a children’s theater class has written and performed a musical that protests the elimination of art and music programs in education.

If it were ranked as a country, California would have the sixth largest economy in the world. One might think such an economy would be “too big to fail”, which is how President Obama described Wall Street companies Citibank, Goldman Sachs, and American International Group before bailing them out with hundreds of billions in taxpayer’s money. The Special Inspector General of the Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP) recently told a congressional committee that the Obama administration’s bailout of the banks may reach $23.7 trillion. Those of us in California can expect no such equivalent bailout from Mr. Obama.

In a June 16, 2009 article, White House says no to California budget help, Reuters quoted Obama spokesman Robert Gibbs at a White House press briefing. Answering a question regarding whether the Obama administration would provide an emergency financial bailout for the state, Gibbs said: “It’s obviously not an easy time for the state of California. We’ll continue to monitor the challenges that they have, but this budgetary problem unfortunately is one that they’re going to have to solve.” That same Reuters article made note of another historic rebuff when a U.S. president denied federal money to a financially beset city or state. “In 1975 the New York Daily News ran the headline ‘Ford to city: drop dead,’ when then President Gerald Ford denied assistance to New York City that would have allowed the U.S. financial capital to sidestep filing for bankruptcy.”

The current California budget crisis is just the tip of the iceberg; the status of arts funding across the U.S. can only be categorized as deplorable. For instance, the state of Florida has slashed arts funding from $34 million in 2007 to just $3 million for this year. Mr. Obama’s much talked about $50 million in emergency funding for the National Endowment for the Arts, money that is currently beginning to trickle down to arts organizations across the country, can be equated to a few raindrops falling on a parched and arid region. A drizzle in federal and state arts funding will not revive the arts – what is required is a torrential downpour.

Trickle Down Arts Relief?

Funds from the Obama administration’s stimulus package, the 2009 American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, are beginning to trickle down across the nation to various arts organizations and museums. $50 million for the National Endowment for the Arts was included in the stimulus package, and it is that money that is now being dispersed. Nationwide over 2,400 arts organizations applied for governmental financial assistance, and it is a certainty that many other arts agencies in need did not submit applications. Only 631 arts organizations are to receive government funds – 99 of them are located in California. The Obama arts stimulus plan provides no direct aid to unemployed artists whatsoever.

Artnet News wrote a detailed article about the arts stimulus package funding titled, The NEA’S Totally Random Stimulus Funds. In that story it was stated: “If there is any logic to the distribution of these awards, however, it eludes casual observation.” Artnet News went on to note that: “The museum world, wracked by donor defection and plunging endowments, also gets some emergency support from the NEA, a paltry $2.9 million shared between some 63 different U.S. museums. To put this in perspective, the recent budget cuts at just one museum, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, were designed to slash $10 million.”

Most of the stimulus package grants being awarded to art institutions and museums are being made in the $25,000 to $50,000 range, enough for an institution’s preservation of one full-time staff position for a year. While cash-starved cultural organizations may certainly welcome these monies, the funding does not begin to address the wave of layoffs, firings, and cutbacks now occurring at art institutions and museums from coast to coast – a trend that is likely to escalate in the months to come as the economy continues to disintegrate. A comprehensive WPA-style plan to support the country’s cultural institutions during a period of economic collapse is urgently required. What the Obama administration has delivered so far is an inadequate and under-funded program that drives arts agencies into competition against each other over meager funds.

As millions of jobless Americans anxiously wait for the stimulus package to take effect, President Obama reacted to doubts being raised over the slowness of his economic recovery plan. Obama said in his July 11th weekly radio speech that his stimulus package “was not designed to work in four months – it was designed to work over two years.” In other words, tighten your belts and be prepared for further loses and sacrifices. With the escalating pace of economic collapse, it will be interesting to see just who and what is left standing two years from now. President Obama moved decisively when it came to a trillion dollar bailout for Wall Street financiers and bankers – but those working class Americans who are losing their jobs and homes will just have to be patient.

With dire economic circumstances as a backdrop, discussions about funding the arts may seem superfluous, but it was during the bleakest days of the Great Depression that artists organized to pressure President Roosevelt to put the nation’s artists to work. As a result FDR formed the WPA Federal Arts Project (FAP), employing some 5,000 artists at a cost of approximately $35 million. Adjusted for inflation an equivalent government arts program would today cost around $468 million, which is a far cry from what Mr. Obama has offered so far.

Art and culture are inextricably bound up in broader social concerns, so when artists lobby for expanded government support of the arts, they must also insist upon full employment, universal healthcare, and housing for all. The nation’s workers – and yes, that includes artists – need the immediate creation of a public works program. Artists made that demand in the 1930s, and they will have to make it again in this day and age.

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.

Zombie Banks, Art Museums, & War

The equation is a simple one, in good economic times people feel they can afford to support the arts, in bad economic times - much less so. I do not mean to frame the question of art purely in financial terms, since some of the greatest art we know of has been created in the most impoverished settings and some of the best artists were, and are… paupers. Moreover, no matter how dire things are, art always has the capacity to bring relief and inspiration to those in low spirits. What I mean to express is simply that artists need to pay their rent like every other worker, and at present some one million American workers are losing their jobs each month.

Yesterday Wall Street stocks tumbled to new record lows as financial leviathans demanded billions more in bailout funds. A new term is making the rounds, “Zombie Banks”, an expression that describes insolvent banks kept operating through infusions of government bailout money. An older expression is also making the rounds - Depression.

Americans for the Arts (AFTA) has estimated that this year national arts organizations will layoff some 10% of their work force, or roughly 260,000 people. AFTA has also voiced the expectation that of the nation’s 100,000 arts organizations - some 10% will permanently close down. Clearly, the arts are being deeply affected by the economic collapse and the situation will undoubtedly get worse. The following list of U.S. museums that are closing or enacting deep cutbacks is but a partial account from just this past February. It illustrates the absurdity of thinking President Obama’s inclusion of $50 million for national arts funding in his stimulus package will have any substantial impact upon America’s deteriorating cultural landscape.

The High Museum of Art in Atlanta, Georgia, will cut salaries and eliminate 7 percent of its workforce. Director Michael Shapiro said, “As with many non-profit institutions both in Atlanta and across the country, the High Museum of Art has been affected by the economic downturn, experiencing shortfalls in income we receive through donations and membership as well as losses to our endowment.” Shapiro will take a 7 percent cut in pay and other director-level employees will receive a 6 percent cut. All other workers at the museum will receive a 5 percent cut in pay.

The Walters Art Museum in Baltimore, Maryland, has laid-off seven of its 150 employees, imposed a salary and hiring freeze, and cancelled a major exhibition of works by French painter Jean-Leon Gerome - an exhibit that would have been a collaborative project with the Musee d’Orsay in Paris and the Getty in Los Angeles. The museum’s budget has been reduced from $14.5 million to $12.5 million. The Walters also faces a 36 percent reduction in state funding, which means a loss of $420,000 for the museum next year.

The Baltimore Symphony Orchestra is also facing state funding cuts, which could mean a loss of some $700,000 for the beleaguered orchestra. The Baltimore Opera Company is now seeking bankruptcy protection and the Baltimore Chamber Orchestra has suspended performances for the rest of the season, with the Baltimore Theatre Project announcing it may have to do the same. The Maryland Historical Society, suffering a 31 percent reduction of endowments and a drop in state funding, has laid-off six staff members.

The Philadelphia Museum of Art has laid-off 16 members of its staff. The museum is not only reducing staff, it is postponing exhibits, decreasing programs, and cutting salaries. Senior staff are receiving salary cuts from between five and 10 percent. The museum has suffered a loss of $90 million in endowments, and the donations continue to shrink. Museum chair H.F. Lenfest bluntly stated, “If endowment keeps being reduced in value there are going to be further steps taken. We would anticipate further reductions in personnel and operating.” The museum is also being hit hard by reductions in state funding, which this year dropped from $3 million to $2.4 million - with further cuts expected for next year. The museum wants to increase admission fees, an act that must first be approved by the city.

The Detroit Institute of the Arts will be laying off 63 of its 301 employees, a 20 % reduction in staff, as it attempts to cut its budget by $6 million. The museum is reducing its number of exhibits in a further attempt to save money, and it has already cancelled three exhibitions this year for lack of funds - an exhibit on Baroque art, a showing of works by Rauschenberg, Jasper Johns, and Jim Dine, and an exhibit of prints and drawings related to books. The museum also faces a total elimination of state funding, as Gov. Jennifer Granholm’s proposed budget for the state of Michigan puts an end to state arts funding, which would mean a devastating loss of $950,000 for the hard pressed DIA.

The Las Vegas Art Museum closed its doors on February 28, 2009. It shall retain its name in the hopes of re-opening if and when the economy improves. The museum faced a budget crisis that threatened to lay off workers and reduce salaries. Museum director Libby Lumpkin resigned over the announced cuts, and soon after the museum closed its doors.

New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art has announced a hiring freeze and is restricting staff travel, as well as the use of temporary employees. In addition the museum will close 15 of its gift stores across the nation. The Met’s endowment has suffered a 30% reduction and museum attendance and membership has fallen due to declining tourism. The Met is considering other ways to reduce its budget, with museum president Emily Rafferty saying that “we cannot eliminate the possibility of a head-count reduction.”

The Indianapolis Museum of Art will cut its staff by 10%, eliminating 15 full-time positions and 6 part-time positions. Ten senior staff members will receive salary cuts in a plan that takes 3 percent of their wages as “donations” to the institution. Endowments have fallen $101 million since this fall. The museum receives less than 1 % of its budget from government funding.

The following should put everything in context. The Associated Press reported on February 26, 2009, that President Obama has proposed war spending that nears “$11 billion a month for the next year and a half despite the planned drawdown of U.S. forces in Iraq.” The AP went on to report that Obama plans on spending around $75 billion in emergency war funding for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan through next fall, on top of which his new budget asks for $130 billion to carry out the wars for fiscal year 2010. The same AP story reports that these costs are just “part of the nearly $534 billion Obama wants for regular Pentagon operations next year. Altogether, Obama is asking for $739 billion for the military through the fall of 2010.”

More Art Less War!

On February 17, 2009, President Barack Obama signed his massive $787 billion economic stimulus package into law. After an acrimonious quarrel in both houses of Congress, the somewhat altered and much trimmed down bill that reached the president’s desk managed to preserve funding for the arts - which at first glance appears to be a victory for arts advocates.

Obama’s Recovery and Reinvestment Act includes $50 million in funding for the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA), as well as $25 million for the Smithsonian Institute. A resolution introduced by Republican Senator Tom Coburn of Oklahoma disallowing arts funding (an amendment that passed in the U.S. Senate by a 73 to 24 margin with the approval of many Democrats) was stripped from the final bill signed by the president. Rep. Louise M. Slaughter, a Democrat from New York who also co-chairs the Congressional Arts Caucus, avowed; “If we’re trying to stimulate the economy, and get money into the Treasury, nothing does that better than art.” If that is the case, then why is such a paltry sum from the stimulus package allotted for the arts? - $50 million is only 0.0063 % of the enormous $787 billion stimulus package!

Temporary acting chair of the NEA, Patrice Walker Powell (the president has not as yet appointed a new head for the organization), said the final bill was “a great opportunity for the cultural workforce to be dignified as part of the American workforce.” Robert L. Lynch, president of Americans for the Arts, stated; “It’s a huge victory for the arts in America. It’s a signal that maybe there is after all more understanding of the value of creativity in the 21st-century economy.” These statements are mere hyperbole. The NEA’s current budget is $145 million, an amount set by the Bush administration, which raises the following questions:

Does an increase of $50 million in the NEA budget actually herald a groundbreaking new era in government support for the arts?

Is $195 million in cultural funding a sufficient amount to meet the needs of a nation as expansive and diverse as the United States of America?

From coast to coast artists and arts organizations are reeling from the effects of the economic collapse. In just one shocking example, Michigan’s Democratic Governor Jennifer Granholm has entirely removed arts funding for the state’s proposed 2010 budget. This current fiscal year Michigan disseminated $7.9 million in arts and cultural grants to 290 organizations throughout the state. In an article published in the Michigan Messenger, Mike Latvis, director of public policy for ArtServe Michigan, is quoted saying that the $7.9 million “helped sustain 9,203 jobs, created 2,206 seasonal jobs and added 2,320 new jobs into Michigan’s economy.” Latvis has also noted that “Michigan spends more on prisons in 36 hours than it spends all year on the arts”, a fact rational people will consider a chilling indictment of contemporary U.S. society. Not that my home state of California is doing any better - the California Arts Council (CAC) has a budget of only $5.6 million. The National Assembly of State Arts Agencies (NASAA), placed California last when it comes to funding state arts agencies, noting that the CAC budget comes to a feeble 15 cents per capita - while the national average is $1.35.

Let us for a moment imagine the state of Michigan’s small arts budget as a national average, and that each of the 50 states in the union had an annual arts budget of just $7.9 million. That being the case, countrywide state expenditures on the arts would total $395 million - and we are to celebrate President Obama’s setting national arts funding at $195 million as a victory?

Exactly how much does $200 million purchase these days? Avi Arad, best known as the producer of the Spider-Man movies, has budgeted his upcoming Lost Planet movie at $200 million, which seems the average budget for today’s Hollywood “blockbuster.” Should arts advocates be in a state of high excitement over the fact that a movie based on an Xbox video game has a higher budget than the National Endowment for the Arts?

On the same day President Obama signed the Recovery and Reinvestment Act, he announced plans to immediately send 17,000 U.S. soldiers to the open-ended war in Afghanistan. Some 34,000 U.S. troops are already there, and Obama plans to send an additional 30,000. Since its start in 2001, the war in Afghanistan has cost the U.S. taxpayer $439.8 billion. Thus far, I have no information regarding the monetary costs of Obama’s Afghanistan “surge”, but while 598,000 Americans lost their jobs last month and that rate is not slowing down in the slightest - it is not hard to imagine that an ever-increasing war in Afghanistan is going to be a very costly affair.

While arts advocates are euphoric that the NEA budget is now approaching $200 million, they should stop to consider that President Obama is at this moment moving ahead with a major expansion of the U.S. Embassy in Kabul, Afghanistan. With the war in that country now rapidly escalating, the U.S. State Department is starting to solicit contractors to build “staff apartments, compound walls, and compound access facilities on the existing U.S. Embassy Compound in Kabul” - with a price tag of $200 million.

Spencer Jon Helfen: California Modernist Painting

Spencer Jon Helfen Fine Arts is tucked away on the second floor of a charming old building in Beverly Hills, and though most of those living in the city of Los Angeles have never heard of the gallery - it is one of L.A.’s treasures. The founder and director of the enterprise, Spencer Jon Helfen, has a passion for Modernist art of the 1920s, 1930s and 1940s - and his gallery specializes in the California School of Modernism that flourished in the state prior to World War II. Helfen’s gallery is an oasis of sorts, a setting where one can contemplate the thought-provoking and beautifully crafted figurative realist paintings that were once so highly regarded by the art world. The Helfen is one of the few galleries in the U.S. to consistently mount large-scale exhibits of California modernist paintings on a regular basis.

I attended the public reception for the Helfen’s current exhibition, Gallery Selections of Important California Modernist Paintings & Sculpture, which presents the Helfen’s latest acquisitions of works from the likes of Mabel Alvarez, Victor Arnautoff, Claude Buck, Francis De Erdely, John Mottram, Koichi Nomiyama, Helen Clark Oldfield, Otis Oldfield, Edouard Vysekal, Bernard Zakheim, and many others. Students and aficionados of figurative realist painting would do well to carefully examine the lives and works of each and every artist in the show, in addition to working at cultivating a deeper understanding of the early California Modernist school. I have an especially strong interest in that movement, not because I am a native born Californian, but for the reason that the school was disposed towards social engagement in art.

In this article I will focus upon two of the forgotten giants of the California Modernist movement included in the Helfen exhibit - Victor Arnautoff and Francis De Erdely. Exemplars of figurative realism, craft, and humanist concerns in art, Arnautoff and De Erdely are ripe for rediscovery, especially by those who seek an alternative to the vortex of today’s postmodern art follies.

Oil painting by Victor Arnautoff

[ Woman in Yellow Fur - Victor Arnautoff. Oil on board. 1934. Click here for a larger view of this painting. ]

Arnautoff’s oil paintings at the Spencer Jon Helfen Gallery, are lavish in detail, stunningly rich in color, and filled with texture - they are jewel-like works of social realism created by a technical virtuoso who possessed complete mastery over his materials. Arnautoff had a great talent for capturing, not just the likeness of a person, but something of their essence, and for me two of his portraits in the show form a focal point of the exhibit. His Woman in Yellow Fur is a stunning close-up portrayal of a young woman who, one must assume, is well-to-do, since she is draped in fur and the date of the portrait, 1934, places her right in the middle of the Great Depression. Her fancy attire notwithstanding, there is a sympathetic air about the woman. Arnautoff’s brushstrokes are particularly forceful in this painting, which is unusual for him. He also incised the paint surface using the sharp end of his brush, brilliantly replicating the appearance of fur. His juxtaposition of the warm yellow ochres and burnt siennas of the figure against the backdrop of a cold and pale ultramarine blue, makes for one attention-grabbing portrait.

Similarly, Arnautoff’s The Green Dress, is also a stunning likeness, but in this work there is absolutely no ambiguity as to the class background of the sitter. The haughty imposing blond with a large strand of pearls around her neck is clearly bourgeois, and her confident, piercing gaze informs you that she is familiar with the wielding of power. A slightly raised eyebrow lets you know that you are being carefully evaluated, even across the barriers of space and time. Again, the light ochre background and warm flesh tones of the sitter juxtaposed against the brilliant cadmium green dress makes for a dramatic use of color. It is a marvelous painting, one that I could gaze upon endlessly. How could such a gifted artist be so easily forgotten and sidelined by the passage of time? Truth be told, Arnautoff was written out of history - for aesthetic and political reasons.

Victor Arnautoff (1896-1979) was born in Tsarist Russia and fought as a Cavalry Officer in the Tsarist Imperial Army, which I suppose would categorize him as a “White Russian”, or counter-revolutionary. Fearing persecution he fled the Soviet Union after the triumph of the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution, first going into exile in China where he would meet his future wife, and eventually making his way to Mexico, where he would undergo a remarkable transformation both artistically and politically. In the late 1920’s Arnautoff studied with and became an assistant to Diego Rivera in Mexico City, no doubt absorbing the master’s ideas regarding a resurgent muralist movement. Not since the Italian Renaissance had there been such a vital school of fresco mural painting as was to be found in Mexico during the 1930s. Rivera had studied the technique while traveling throughout Italy in 1920. Basically fresco involves painting on wet lime plaster with pigments mixed in water; once the moisture dries the color is fixed. Well-versed in the theory and practice of muralism, Arnautoff would make his real mark on the world when he came to settle in San Francisco, California, in the early 1930s.

Victor Arnautoff would help Diego Rivera paint two murals when the Mexican muralist first visited San Francisco from 1930-31; Allegory of California at the Pacific Stock Exchange, and Making of a Fresco located at the Art Institute of San Francisco. American artists in the San Francisco Bay area and beyond where electrified by Rivera’s murals and by the Mexican Muralist Movement in general, in which they perceived the possibilities of an equivalent muralist school for the United States. They would get their chance to initiate such a movement with the Coit Tower murals, which coincidentally were painted 75 years ago this month.

In 1933 Coit Tower was constructed atop Telegraph Hill as a city beautification project, immediately becoming a landmark attracting tourists. The Public Works of Art Project (PWAP), the first government program to employ artists as part of the Works Progress Administration (WPA), set out to create a series of monumental fresco paintings on the tower’s interior walls in 1934. The PWAP appointed Victor Arnautoff technical director for the mural project, and twenty-six artists were selected to design various artworks on the theme of “Aspects of California Life.” Ten assistants also facilitated the work, doing everything from mixing pigments to grouting fresh plaster.

The production of the Coit Tower murals converged with two dramatic events that turned the project into a lightning rod for controversy. Diego Rivera’s mural at New York City’s Rockefeller Center, Man at the Crossroads, was destroyed by order of John D. Rockefeller on February 10, 1934, because one small part of the mural included a portrait of communist leader Vladimir Lenin. Many of the artists working on the Coit Tower murals had met Rivera, and were naturally against the destruction of his mural.

Victor Arnautoff and his fellow muralists also supported San Francisco’s longshoremen, seaman, waterfront workers, teamsters, and municipal workers - who went on strike against low wages, long hours and terrible working conditions on May 9, 1934. On July 5, 1934, in an effort to defeat the strike, employers used strike breakers with police escorts to move goods from piers to warehouses - riots ensued, with the police shooting dead two strikers on what came to be called Bloody Thursday. Up to 40,000 people held a funeral march for the slain workers, an event Arnautoff memorialized in a drawing unrelated to the Coit murals. In the aftermath of the lethal police repression, the entire city of San Francisco was shut down in a great General Strike which lasted three days - it was the biggest labor action in U.S. history.

Arnautoff and a number of the other artists working on the Coit Tower murals felt it necessary to comment on these events - and so included certain images in their murals. For instance, in his mural titled Library, artist Bernard Zakheim depicted a group of men gathered in the periodicals room of a library, reading newspapers whose headlines referred to the destruction of Rivera’s mural as well as to the San Francisco maritime strike. Zakheim included a portrait of fellow Coit Tower muralist, John Langley Howard, reaching for a shelved copy of Karl Marx’s Das Kapital. Zakheim also included a self-portrait in his mural, showing himself reading a copy of the Torah in Hebrew, with other sacred books in Hebrew close at hand. No doubt the rampant anti-Semitism of the period contributed as much to attacks on the mural project as did anti-communism.

The press became indignant over the small amount of left-wing imagery found in the murals, the San Francisco Chronicle branding them “red propaganda”. As right-wing outrage over the murals intensified, the PWAP almost give in to conservative pressure, slating Zakheim’s mural, and a number of others, for whitewashing. The opening of Coit Tower for public viewing of the murals was delayed for months, and fortunately the controversy subsided. When the Tower was finally opened to the public only one mural had actually been censored, Steelworker, a portrait of a tough looking laborer by Clifford Wight. The artist had incorporated the slogan “Workers of the World Unite” into the portrait’s background - PWAP had the slogan obliterated.

Detail of fresco mural by Victor Arnautoff

[ City Life - Victor Arnautoff. Detail of fresco mural. 1934. In this detail from the artist’s expansive Coit Tower mural, Arnautoff pictured himself standing next to a newstand, where two radical publications were conspicuously painted; The New Masses - an American Marxist journal that featured writings from the likes of Upton Sinclair, Richard Wright, Langston Hughes and Ernest Hemingway, and The Daily Worker - the newspaper published by the American Communist Party (CPUSA). ]

Victor Arnautoff’s contribution to the Coit Tower mural series is titled, City Life (Click here for a YouTube video of the mural), a vibrant depiction of street life in San Francisco during the 1930s. As with most of the other works in the tower, City Life was a fresco mural painted on wet lime plaster - and it displays all of the qualities of a fine mural painting done in that technique. As much as I venerate Arnautoff’s fresco murals - and he painted a number of them, it is his oil paintings that I am truly passionate about, and those on view at the Helfen gallery are superlative examples of the modernist master’s power.

That the very first WPA project put artists to work creating monumental murals at Coit Tower speaks volumes about where America is today as a nation. Almost no one, not even professionals in the arts community, can imagine a colossal public art project being mounted at the present time - yet in my opinion such a project is more than feasible.

Painting by Francis De Erdely

[ Unjust Punishment - Francis De Erdely. Mixed media on illustration board. 1950. Click here for a larger view. ]

I have to admit knowing next to nothing about Francis De Erdely prior to attending the opening at Spencer Jon Helfen Fine Arts, but what an introduction I received! I am eternally grateful to Mr. Helfen, not only for bringing the commanding works of De Erdely to my attention - but also for placing his works before the general public.

A centerpiece of the show, De Erdely’s Unjust Punishment is a modernist tour de force, a masterwork that alludes to all the world’s suffering - while still being an allegorical statement against McCarthyism, the anti-communist witch-hunts that swept the U.S. during the 1950s. The mixed media painting on illustration board depicts two crucified men, and the work has all the appearance of a stained glass window. While the painting is clearly figurative in nature, it freely incorporates aspects of cubism and abstraction, an approach De Erdely increasingly adopted in the later half of his life. That fact notwithstanding, De Erdely still ended up persona non grata in an art world that was to become wholly given to pure non-objective abstraction. I am left wondering if the broken men on their crosses in part serve as a metaphor for the realist artist abandoned for the sake of the “next big thing” in a fickle art world.

Francis De Erdely (1904-1959) was born in Hungary in 1904, and grew up during the ravages of the first World War. In the aftermath of that conflagration his country moved ever rightward, until a homegrown fascist movement developed that would eventually ally Hungary to Nazi Germany. As a young artist De Erdely was on a collision course with the Hungarian right for having depicted the atrocities of World War I in his paintings and sketches. He was also evidently supportive of the Spanish Republic and its struggle against fascism, creating sketches that revealed his sympathies but further provoked Hungary’s right-wing. Under pressure from Nazi Germany, Hungary joined the Axis powers in 1940, and De Erdely was apparently banished from his homeland during that period. Ultimately he would make his way to the United States, living for a short time in New York before finally making the city of Los Angeles his home in 1944. De Erdely became the dean of the Pasadena Art Institute School from 1944 to 1946, and he taught at the University of Southern California from 1945 until he passed away in 1959.

Oil painting by Francis De Erdely

[ Oil painting by Francis De Erdely. Title unknown - circa late 1930s. While not in the Helfen exhibit, this painting of unemployed workers at a soup kitchen is a good example of the artist’s early social realism. ]

De Erdely’s early paintings were similar to Victor Arnautoff’s in that they were straightforward works of social observation. De Erdely was particularly fascinated with the underclass he discovered in Los Angeles, choosing them as his most consistently painted subject. He came to imbue his works with abstract sensibilities, but never abandoned his predilection for a humanist social realism. Daily Bread, his 1945 painting of a worker at rest, has an almost biblical quality about it, exemplifying the artist’s deep compassion for working people.

The works of Victor Arnautoff and Francis De Erdely make the Helfen show unusually rewarding, but then the entire exhibit is noteworthy. Arnautoff and De Erdely provide us with examples of a humanistic art at once accessible, anti-elitist, and given towards speaking clearly and directly to an audience. In all honesty, what I found so refreshing about the exhibit is that it gives insight into what figurative art was like before being contaminated by postmodernism. The paintings in the Helfen exhibit are devoid of irony, shock value, and vulgarity; they unabashedly pursue beauty and universality, and best of all - you do not need reams of mounted wall text to understand them. I am not at all saying that today’s artists should simply use the California Modernist school as a template to be replicated, but I do believe that a full understanding of and appreciation for California Modernism can serve as an important springboard for artists envisioning how art might advance into the 21st century.

Gallery Selections of Important California Modernist Paintings & Sculpture. Now running at Spencer Jon Helfen Fine Arts until March 28, 2009.

“We Have Real People Out of Work”

“We have real people out of work right now and putting $50 million in the NEA and pretending that’s going to save jobs as opposed to putting $50 million in a road project is disingenuous.” Thus spoke Georgia’s Republican Senator, Jack Kingston on February 5, 2009, on the subject of President Obama’s economic recovery plan, now being debated in the U.S. Senate. Apparently there are many, both in and out of Congress, who do not view artists as “real people.”

The numbers of “real people out of work right now” in the field of the arts is growing exponentially. In an Associated Press article titled, Economic meltdown takes toll on performing arts, AP reporter Gillian Flaccus notes: “From Baltimore to Detroit to Pasadena, venerable performing arts institutions are laying off performers, cutting programming, canceling seasons and doing without new sets and live music. Some are closing down completely. (….) Bob Lynch, president and CEO of the national nonprofit Americans for the Arts, says about 10,000 arts organizations nationwide - about 10 percent of the total - have shut down or stand on the verge of collapse. ‘It’s the worst I’ve seen it,’ Lynch says.”

Representative Jack Kingston does not stand alone, he is but the tip of a spear wielded by political reactionaries who are bent on eliminating all government funding of the arts. On February 6, 2009, as part of its deliberations over the economic recovery plan, the U.S. Senate approved an amendment by Republican Senator Tom Coburn of Oklahoma. Coburn’s amendment reads in part; “None of the amounts appropriated or otherwise made available by this Act may be used for any casino or other gambling establishment, aquarium, zoo, golf course, swimming pool, stadium, community park, museum, theater, art center, and highway beautification project.” If Coburn’s amendment language is incorporated into the final version of the bill, then arts groups will be barred from receiving any funds from the stimulus package.

Coburn’s amendment clearly is an attack upon the arts in America, and it passed a Senate vote by a margin of 73 to 24. But in advance of your cursing Senate Republicans, dear reader, please consider this; the Coburn amendment passed because of the votes it received from prominent Democratic Senators like Dianne Feinstein of California, Chuck Schumer of New York, Barbara Mikulski of Maryland, Bob Casey of Pennsylvania, Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota, Russ Feingold of Wisconsin, and a number of other Democratic Senators.

William Ivey, as head of the arts transition team for the new administration, advised President Obama that “several hundred million dollars” would be needed to provide proper funding for the arts across the United States. I would agree with Ivey on such an amount, but only as a minimum starting figure. Nonetheless, Obama ignored Ivey’s recommendation, proposing instead that $50 million out of the $819 billion stimulus package - or .06 percent of the overall package - be allotted for arts funding, and now even that figure is subject to further reduction.

William Ivey has expressed dismay over insinuations “that an arts worker is not a real worker, and that a carpenter who pounds nails framing a set for an opera company is a less-real carpenter than one who pounds nails framing a house.” I am in full agreement with that sentiment, and challenge the arts community to become active in its own defense. I urge readers to send e-mails to Congress expressing disapproval of the Senate anti-arts Coburn amendment (Americans for the Arts have set up a web page for just this purpose), and encourage one and all to sign the 1% Campaign petition, which calls on the Obama administration to create an Arts Stimulus Plan.

[ UPDATE: The U.S. Senate passed its version of a stimulus bill on Feb. 10, 2009, it includes Sen. Tom Coburn’s anti-arts amendment - which the House version does not contain. The bill now goes to a House-Senate conference committee, which will negotiate a series of compromises. It remains to be seen if Coburn’s amendment will be stripped from the final bill.]