Category: Obama’s Arts Policy

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.