Category: Obama’s Arts Policy

L.A. Municipal Art Gallery Crisis

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

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

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

September 1, 2010
URGENT!

City to Partner Out the Los Angeles Municipal Art Gallery

Dear Arts Community,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Please act now.

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

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

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

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

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

Obama Reduces Arts Funding

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Press responses to President Obama defunding the arts have been notably subdued. Most reports barely mention the economic crisis if at all, none mention the contradictions of simultaneously cutting arts funding while significantly increasing military expenditures. A few press reports actually have an Orwellian flavor to them, as with the coverage from “Artinfo.com,” 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.