Category: Obama’s Arts Policy

Charles White: Let The Light Enter

In April of 1967 the Heritage Gallery of Los Angeles published Images of Dignity, a monograph on the life and work of the great African American artist Charles White (1918-1979). I acquired a copy of the book just a year later when I was fifteen-years-old, the hardback volume providing one of my first insights into the works of White, American social realism, and the very idea of political engagement in modern American art. I have no hesitation in crediting White as a major influence in my life as an artist.

Opening this past January 10, and running until March 7, 2009, New York’s Michael Rosenfeld Gallery presents the important retrospective - Charles White: Let The Light Enter, Major Drawings, 1942-1970. The gallery’s biography on White opens with the following quote from the artist, which makes clear why he was such an influence upon me and why I continue to hold him in such high esteem:

“I am interested in the social, even the propaganda, angle in painting; but I feel that the job of everyone in a creative field is to picture the whole scene. . . I am interested in creating a style that is much more powerful, that will take in the technical end and at the same time will say what I have to say. Paint is the only weapon I have with which to fight what I resent. If I could write, I would write about it. If I could talk, I would talk about it. Since I paint, I must paint about it.”

I will mostly dispense with listing the biographical details and accomplishments of Mr. White since the artist himself wrote eloquently of his life and times in an autobiography that now appears on the Charles White Archive website. Instead I am going to focus on two aspects of White’s career that have considerable relevance to the present: his relationship to the Works Progress Administration in the U.S. during the Depression Era, and his connection to the socially conscious Mexican Muralist Movement of the same period - which has been another source of endless inspiration for me. In light of discussions on the possibility of there being a new federal arts program under the Obama administration, White’s overwhelmingly positive experience with the WPA provides food for thought, as does his having found common cause with the Mexican school of socially engaged art.

Drawing by Charles White

[ Awaken from the Unknowing - Charles White. Ink and Wolff crayon on paper. 1961. In this drawing White implores the viewer to read, knowing that literacy is essential to the people’s advancement. Image courtesy of Michael Rosenfeld Gallery.]

White was a 20-year-old living in Chicago, Illinois, when in 1938 he was employed by the Works Progress Administration and its Federal Art Project (FAP) Easel Painting Division, which was no small matter since until that time the young artist barely managed to survive by doing odd jobs - when he could find them. In a 1965 oral history interview conducted for the Smithsonian Institute’s Archives of American Art, White credited the FAP program with having enabled him to survive as an artist through very hard times. He also recognized the program for having expanded his range of artistic skills and knowledge, commenting that the FAP was “almost a school.” White said the following in his autobiography concerning having worked in the FAP:

“Looking back at my three years on the project, I see it was a tremendous step for me to be able to paint full time, be paid for it, although the pay was the bare minimum of unemployment relief. The most wonderful thing for me was the feeling of cooperation with other artists, of mutual help instead of competitiveness, and of cooperation between the artists and the people. It was in line with what I had always hoped to do as an artist, namely paint things pertaining to the real everyday life of people, and for them to see and enjoy. It was also a thrill for me to see so many accomplished artists at work, and to be able to learn from them.”

White eventually switched from the FAP’s Easel Division to its Mural Department, where he learned the basic skills needed to create monumental mural works. In 1939 FAP gave White the responsibility of creating a large mural for the Chicago Public Library. He chose for his mural the theme of outstanding African American leaders, and so painted Sojourner Truth, Frederick Douglass, George Washington Carver, Marian Anderson, and Booker T. Washington. Today the 5’ x 12’ oil on canvas mural hangs in the Law Library of the Howard University School of Law in Washington, D.C. Creating murals was a lifelong passion for White, and my home city of Los Angeles is blessed with the very last one he painted - a work produced in 1978 and located at the Dr. Mary McLeod Bethune Exposition Park Branch of the L.A. Public Library.

Here it is necessary to mention White’s relationship to the Mexican school - that fusion of muralism, printmaking, and easel painting driven by social concerns. “Los Tres Grandes”, the three greats of Mexican mural painting: José Clemente Orozco, Diego Rivera, and David Alfaro Siqueiros, had all visited the United States by the early 1930’s. In the wake of their U.S. visits they left behind a number of fabulous public murals, but also an enthusiastic network of American artists they had influenced through workshops, lectures, collaborations, and direct mentoring.

In 1941 White met and married Elizabeth Catlett, a remarkable artist in her own right. The two traveled to Mexico City in 1946, where they created prints with El Taller de Gráfica Popular (TGP - Popular Graphic Arts Workshop, founded in 1937), the foremost print collective in the country at the time. It was at the TGP that White learned the art of lithography, which became an enduring passion for him. At the workshop he met and worked with the likes of Diego Rivera, Pablo O’Higgins, and Leopoldo Méndez. In White’s own words, “One of the honors of which I am most proud is that of having been elected an honorary member of the Taller.” Catlett also did several of her most memorable prints while working at the TGP; and some of the collective’s prints, including works by Catlett and Méndez, made their way into Gouge - the Los Angeles Hammer Museum’s stunning exhibit on printmaking in the 20th century (now showing until Feb. 8, 2009).

Drawing by Charles White

[ Dreams Deferred - Charles White. Ink and Wolff crayon on paper. 1969. The title of this drawing refers to the 1951 poem by African American poet, Langston Hughes - What Happens to a Dream Deferred? Image courtesy of Michael Rosenfeld Gallery.]

During their sojourn in Mexico City, White and Catlett were invited to stay at the home of David Alfaro Siqueiros, where they lodged in the top floor of the muralist’s residence. White’s time in Mexico was revelatory, providing him the confirmation that his chosen path in art was the correct one to take. He felt kinship with the radical populism of the Mexican artists, whose fiery works embodied the very idea of social realism in art. White and Catlett would divorce in 1948: she stayed in Mexico for good, while he moved to New York City. There he began to associate with like-minded artists such as Antonio Frasconi, Leonard Baskin, Philip Evergood, William Gropper, Moses and Raphael Soyer, and other giants in American social realism. Eventually Mr. White settled in the city of Los Angeles, where he became an influential drawing teacher at Otis Art Institute.

What I always found so impressive about White was that he never abandoned his artistic vision in order to follow the dictates of what was fashionable. Despite the ascendancy and near total dominance of abstract art in the 1950s, followed by the successions of Pop, Minimalism, and all the vacuities of Postmodernism - White remained true to his style of figurative social realism. Part of his memoirs recount his lonely isolated struggle in the 50s against abstraction, of “going against the tide of what everyone was claiming to be ‘new’ and ‘the future’”, and we are all the richer for White’s perseverance.

But White’s courage went far beyond his flying in the face of what was trendy in the art world. He came to reject careerism in art, regarding celebrity as anathema to the higher ideals of art. The spirit found in the following passage of his memoirs should be held aloft as a banner by those artists and their supporters who ardently believe in art as a tool for social transformation;

“I no longer have my hopes and aspirations tied up with becoming a ’success’ in the market sense. I have had a measure of success in exhibits, some prizes and awards, although not as much as I might have gotten had there not been certain ‘difficulties’ presented by my speaking as part of the Negro people and the working class. Getting a marketplace success or recognition by art connoisseurs is no longer my major concern as an artist. My major concern is to get my work before common, ordinary people; for me to be accepted as a spokesman for my people; for my work to portray them better, and to be rich and meaningful to them. A work of art was meant to belong to people, not to be a single person’s private possession. Art should take its place as one of the necessities of life, like food, clothing and shelter.”

Charles White: Let The Light Enter, Major Drawings, 1942-1970, at the Michael Rosenfeld Gallery. January 10 - March 7, 2009.

Funding the Arts: “The Audacity of Pork”

$50 million in funding for the National Endowment for the Arts was approved by the U.S. House of Representatives on Jan. 29, 2009, as part of its passing President Obama’s $819 billion economic “stimulus bill” - the so-called American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009.

President Obama had met with Republicans in the House prior to the vote, making concessions to them in an attempt to get his stimulus bill passed. One such compromise was the killing of $200 million in appropriations from the bill for improvements to the crumbling 1,000-acre National Mall in Washington, D.C., the home to the Washington Monument and the Jefferson and Lincoln memorials. Newsweek magazine ran a July, 2008 story on the Mall’s scandalous state of disrepair that quoted the National Park Service saying a renovation of the Mall would cost “an estimated $350 to $500 million.”

Despite the concessions, the House vote was 244 to 188 - with not a single Republican casting a yes vote. The bill now moves to the Senate, where Republicans have targeted the NEA funding for termination, as well as the $150 million appropriated for funding the Smithsonian Institution - the nation’s most important cultural network of museums and research centers. ABC News reported that Obama’s response to Republican intransigence regarding his stimulus bill was the following comment; “I hope that we can continue to strengthen this plan before it gets to my desk.” The president’s remark could very well be interpreted as a willingness on his part to see NEA and Smithsonian Institution funding removed from the stimulus bill. We shall see.

In December of last year, I made the following observation of Obama on this web log; “If he were to mount an effort at massive arts spending, I can imagine the organized right blocking his every attempt at implementing the policy for multiple reasons, and with his striving for a bipartisan approach to governance, it seems unlikely he would take a combative stance.” That very scenario now seems to be playing out before us.

Former chairman of the San Francisco Republican Party, Arthur Bruzzone, summed up rightist opposition to stimulus bill funding of the NEA, calling it; “the audacity of pork.” Conservative pundit and Republican strategist Michael Reagan, wrote an article for the GOPUSA website that criticized the stimulus package, referring to the NEA as; “hardly an engine for creating employment for the unemployed. About the only jobs it might create would be for the bureaucrats who would oversee the grant or an artist or two who specialize in exhibiting jars of urine containing a crucifix as their contributions to the nation’s culture.” While the NEA is certainly not beyond being criticized, Reagan’s remark is nothing more than philistinism.

It is disheartening to see the National Mall, the NEA, and the Smithsonian Institution being treated so shabbily. These national treasures should not be considered bargaining chips in someone’s political gamesmanship, and they most certainly should not be viewed as recipients of “wasteful pork barrel spending.” When those who dare call themselves “patriots”, display such mendacious and disparaging attitudes towards the best of American culture - barbarism will be found just around the corner.

Arts Stimulus Plan Petition

A petition calling on the new Obama administration to create a stimulus package for the arts was launched on January 20, 2009, by the Foreign Policy In Focus (FPIF) Washington D.C. think tank in alliance with the Split this Rock Poetry Festival.

The editor of the D.C. think tank, John Feffer, along with Split this Rock member, Melissa Tuckey, expressed the ideas behind the initiative in a collaborative article they wrote titled, From Arms to Art, which appears on the FPIF website. The commentary opens with the following statement: “The United States is the largest exporter of arms in the world. Imagine what would happen if we became the largest exporter of the arts instead.” The call by Feffer and Tuckey goes on to state that the “Congress is debating an $800 billion stimulus package that many have compared to FDR’s Works Progress Administration (WPA)”, and that the FPIF/Split this Rock appeal is “asking that 1% of the stimulus package be used in support of the arts.” In part the article reads:

“To stimulate the economy, we need to rely on some of the most stimulating minds in our country: the artists. With their vision, they can help us envision a different future. But in this global economy, we can’t do it alone. We must think and act across borders. By devoting 1% of the stimulus package to the arts — and incorporating a strong global dimension to the funding — we can revive the U.S. economy and the U.S. global reputation. Ham-fisted propaganda and slick advertising aren’t going to do the trick. We need authentic voices, provocative works that reflect the true diversity of this country, and powerful visions that can build bridges and tear down walls. Join our campaign by signing our petition. Let’s not just stimulate the economy. Let’s stimulate our imagination.”

I critically support the “One Percent for the Arts Campaign” petition drive as launched by Foreign Policy In Focus and Split this Rock Poetry Festival. I have already signed my name to the document and I encourage all arts professionals and their supporters to do the same. The petition is located at:

Free Admission to American Museums!

I am sure many will favorably view French President Nicolas Sarkozy’s recent announcement that all museums in France will soon be free for school teachers and for visitors under 25 - but careful scrutiny of the plan should be made before praising it. This story is especially relevant to the American arts community, which fully expects a sweeping new national arts policy from the incoming Obama White House.

On January 13, 2009, President Sarkozy announced his arts plan in an address made before members of France’s cultural sector. The plan, starting April 4, 2009, not only gives teachers and the young free entry to all museums, it pledges an annual 100 million euros ($161 million) for the operation and maintenance of national museums and heritage sites, and the formation of a new advisory group dedicated to promoting artistic creation. Also included in Sarkozy’s plan is the building of a new national museum - the Museum of French History.

To the casual observer the Sarkozy plan seems enlightened, but the French President may have an ulterior political motive for making his announcement at this particular time. That it took two years into his presidency before he came up with a serious national plan for the arts speaks volumes. On the one hand I see the project as insufficient - why not free admission to French museums for all the French people and not just a select demographic? The entire plan strikes me as a strategy designed to turn around plummeting approval ratings, particularly amongst the young. On the other hand, I wish that American governmental arts policy could be so advanced!

President Sarkozy’s national arts plan is the type of announcement that will no doubt make the arts community in the U.S. speculate as to why such a program could not be enacted under the new administration of Barack Obama. Why not indeed. America’s museums are not just repositories of the nation’s cultural heritage; their holdings give evidence to the greatness of a people, and as such, the people should have complete access to the nation’s treasures - free of charge.

On May 10, 1939, a crowd of 6,000 gathered at New York’s Museum of Modern Art to celebrate the museum’s tenth anniversary and reopening at its new facilities. Franklin D. Roosevelt addressed the multitudes by radio broadcast - saying in part the following:

“Art in America has always belonged to the people and has never been the property of an academy or a class. The great Treasury projects, through which our public buildings are being decorated, are an excellent example of the continuity of this tradition. The Federal Art Project of the Works Progress Administration is a practical relief project which also emphasizes the best tradition of the democratic spirit. The W.P.A. artist, in rendering his own impression of things, speaks also for the spirit of his fellow countrymen everywhere. I think the W.P.A. artist exemplifies with great force the essential place which the arts have in a democratic society such as ours.”

And what would FDR think of MoMA charging $20 for a general admission ticket during today’s hard economic times? What would he say about America’s students, the elderly, and those living on fixed incomes, the underemployed, the unemployed - the employed for goodness sakes! - being unable to visit their local museums because of high ticket prices? Perhaps he would have to rethink his position about American art not being “the property of an academy or a class.” I realize that most U.S. museums now offer free admission at least one day each month, usually underwritten by this or that major corporate sponsor, but that clearly is not enough - especially when compared to developments in France.

As exemplified by reports from The New York Times and ARTINFO, most press accounts of Sarkozy’s announced arts plan have been perfunctory, completely without background information, context, comment or analysis. They read like republished press releases from President Sarkozy’s office. Sarkozy’s announcement is not entirely a surprise to me. In January, 2005, I twice reported on the activities of Louvre Pour Tous (Louvre For All), a grassroots movement in France that seeks the “cultural democratization” of French cultural institutions and has as its major demand, the abolishment of all admission prices to the Louvre.

On Jan. 14, 2009, Louvre Pour Tous posted an article on its website that stated part of Sarkozy’s current plan had in reality already been “decided and made public one year ago”, contending that at a 2008 meeting of France’s Council of Ministers, Sarkozy’s Culture Minister Christine Albanel had announced teachers would be exempt from paying museum entry fees. As a matter of fact, the Reuters news agency reported a year ago that starting Jan. ‘08, “French national museums including the Louvre in Paris will let in many visitors free in the coming months”, and that “some national museums will offer completely free admission to their permanent collections, while others will offer it to those under 26, one evening a week.” Granted this experiment in free admission to France’s museums only lasted for a six-month period, but why did the Sarkozy government halt the program in June ‘08, only to propose a more robust scheme to start this coming April 2009? What assurances exist that Sarkozy will not also terminate this latest program? Only the demands of a mobilized citizenry!

Sarkozy’s proposed advisory group on the arts ostensibly has as its mission the creation of incentives and a supportive social environment for artistic production, interestingly enough, Sarkozy will head the new council himself, along with Culture Minister Christine Albanel and film producer Marin Karmintz. Rather than simply a body set up to help implement government arts policy, the new council has the appearance of being a personal tool of Monsieur Sarkozy. Likewise, his projected Museum of French History appears to be nothing more than a vanity project meant to stamp his legacy on the vistas of Paris. As the French historian Alain Decaux so eloquently put it: “I don’t see the use, quite simply, because Paris is one immense museum of the history of France.”

Presidential candidate Senator Barack Obama and French President Nicolas Sarkozy, meet at a joint press conference in Paris, July 25, 2008. Obama commented “I can’t imagine somebody who better captures the enthusiasm and energy of France than Sarkozy.” Obama went on to say that Sarkozy was the reason Americans decided to call “French fries ‘French fries’ again,” a remark that referred to the decision of the U.S. Congress to rename “French Fries” on the Congressional cafeteria menu to “Freedom Fries”, as an expression of anger over former French President Jacques Chirac’s opposition to the 2003 U.S. invasion and occupation of Iraq. Sarkozy backed the Bush invasion of Iraq.

The political relationship between Sarkozy and Obama is worth examining in light of Sarkozy’s arts proposal and the high expectations the American arts community has for an Obama arts plan. What seems obvious to me is that Sarkozy’s project is a response, both to public pressure and perceptions, as well as to shifting political/economic realities, i.e., the collapsing market. Obama’s arts plan will likewise be similarly shaped - which is something the American arts community needs to understand if it is to have any influence whatsoever upon the incoming Obama administration’s arts policy.

Sarkozy’s right-wing centrism dovetails with President-elect Obama’s centrism. Despite the shrill and preposterous accusations from the American right-wing that Obama is a wild-eyed socialist, the President-elect is not going to govern from the left. He is a so-called “pragmatist” who will maneuver the ship of state in a direction that is neither liberal nor conservative, but a course nevertheless designed to guard the interests of the capitalist system, in other words, Obama will now be CEO of America, Inc. All good things are not simply going to flow from the White House - they must be demanded, insisted upon - just as workers pressure management for better working conditions when they go out on strike.

If American artists want a WPA-style federal arts program for the 21st century that will provide employment for thousands of cultural workers, if they want the nation’s museums to be free of all admission charges, if they want the government to invest hundreds of millions of dollars into expanding arts and culture programs instead of pouring the nation’s wealth into the rat hole of endless war - then American artists are going to have to challenge the CEO of America, Inc. to deliver the goods.

A New WPA Arts Program?

In her December 19, 2008, article for the New York Times, After a Capitalist W.P.A., What Next?, Roberta Smith opined about the impact the severe economic downturn is having on the arts community. “What will the art world be like a year from now?” she asked rhetorically, before informing us that things will essentially remain the same, only “smaller, leaner and, many assume, cleaner.” That is little more than wishful thinking on Ms. Smith’s part, seeing as how the recent financial collapse is spiraling into a full-blown depression. But it is the following passage from Smith’s article that I found distressing:

“(….) the booming art market of the past seven or eight years has amounted to an immense capitalist-driven Works Progress Administration. As with the real W.P.A., it enabled all kinds of artists to support themselves while making art, much of which was forgettable. It became relatively easy to be an artist or dealer. Now things will be different. We’re on the brink of a new phase, teetering between dread and a perverse kind of excitement. A winnowing will undoubtedly begin.”

How does one even begin to argue against the nonsense put forward in such a statement? It defies all rational thought to equate the WPA of the Great Depression era with those layers of the contemporary art world who have been drunk on cash and celebrity - a money cult if there ever was one. And the assertion that it has been “relatively easy to be an artist or dealer” these last eight years is similarly preposterous. In discussing the possibility of a new Federal Arts Project like the WPA, what is required at this juncture is not flippant banter but thought-provoking analysis and discussion.

WPA Poster - 1936

[ Shall The Artist Survive? Artist/Designer unknown. 1936 poster produced by the WPA’s Federal Art Project, announcing a forumn on the status of artists during the Great Depression. FAP Director Holger Cahill was a featured speaker at the free event. Poster from the Library of Congress collection. ]

Until just recently the American arts community has mostly ignored the WPA arts programs - now it is time to open the books and study our past in order to clear a way to our future. A good starting point to learn about WPA arts programs is Lincoln Cushing’s outstanding essay, Privatising the Commons: The Commodification of New Deal Public Art, written for the AIGA website. Cushing’s article reads like a basic primer on the WPA arts programs, but his scholarship is impeccable. Here is an excerpt:

“The deliberately public nature of WPA was a grand experiment, not just in putting artists to work, but in the democratization of the arts themselves. Fine artists worked alongside communities all over the country, reimaging the iconography of the egalitarian principles that this country believes it was founded upon. The process was participatory and inclusive, the results free to the public.”

In 1935 President Franklin Delano Roosevelt established the Works Progress Administration. Federal Project Number One, or simply Federal One, was the arts program component of the WPA. It consisted of five key divisions, each with its own director - the Federal Art Project (FAP), the Federal Theatre Project, the Federal Writers Project, the Federal Music Project, and the Historical Records Survey. After only one year in existence, Federal One had employed around 40,000 artists across the United States.

WPA Poster by artist Richard Floethe

[ Artist Richard Floethe designed this silk-screen print for an "Exhibition of Oil Paintings by Artists in the Easel Division of the W.P.A. Federal Art Project." The exhibit was held at the WPA’s Federal Art Project Gallery in New York City. Year unknown. Poster from the Library of Congress collection.]

The FAP alone employed 5,300 visual artists at its zenith in 1936, and the artists working under FAP’s Director Holger Cahill were engaged in a number of endeavors. FAP oversaw the creation of more than 2,500 murals in schools, workplaces, libraries, hospitals and other public locations. It directed a painting division where professionals created some 108,000 easel paintings documenting all aspects of American life. FAP ran a prolific poster division that created around 240,000 prints. There were many talented artists employed by FAP, and quite a number of them went on to become notables, such as Thomas Hart Benton, Stuart Davis, Arshile Gorky, Philip Guston, Jacob Lawrence, Jackson Pollock, Ben Shahn, John Sloan, Raphael Soyer, Grant Wood, and Ivan Albright.

Will the Obama administration offer even a substantially scaled-down WPA-like arts program for today, let alone provide any significant budget increases for already existing arts programs? The only chance for that will come if and when consistent demands are made upon him to do so. On January 8, 2009, President-elect Obama gave a major speech on his economic stimulus plan, the so-called American Recovery and Reinvestment Plan. In his address Obama said the following: “And as I announced yesterday, we will launch an unprecedented effort to eliminate unwise and unnecessary spending… We cannot have a solid recovery if our people and our businesses don’t have confidence that we’re getting our fiscal house in order.” Obama made clear that his economic stimulus package was “not just another public works program”, insisting that his objective “is not to create a slew of new government programs, but a foundation for long-term economic growth.”

WPA Poster

[ An anonymous artist depicted a raised mailed fist in this silk-screen poster designed for the Federal Art Project. The print announced a city wide forum in Des Moines, Iowa, on the subject of "Civil Liberties in War Times." The featured speaker at the event was Max Lerner. Year unknown. Poster from the Library of Congress collection.]

Every artist and arts supporter knows that funding for the arts, whether on the federal, state, or local level, is always the first thing to be axed from government budgets, usually in the erroneous belief that such monies are being spent unwisely and unnecessarily. Based on the above comments, I have no confidence that Obama will substantially increase arts funding or expand arts programs. In a speech delivered in 1939, FAP’s Director Holger Cahill made the following observations regarding Federal Project Number One:

“The Project has discovered that such a simple matter as finding employment for the artist in his hometown has been of the greatest importance. It has, for one thing, helped to stem the cultural erosion which in the past two decades has drawn most of America’s art talent to a few large cities. It has brought the artist closer to the interests of a public which needs him, and which is now learning to understand him. And it has made the artist more responsive to the inspiration of the country, and through this the artist is bringing every aspect of American life into the currency of art.”

Contemporary artists should pay close attention to Cahill’s words, especially his insistence that the FAP “brought the artist closer to the interests of a public which needs him.” There was a time when American artists enthusiastically integrated themselves into the broad currents of U.S. society, taking inspiration from the people and working hard to incorporate art into daily life. That is largely the legacy of Federal Project Number One. Detractors will no doubt call me old-fashioned, but I think that is a spirit to recapture.

Obama: “Cultural Shift from the Top”?

A number of arts advocacy groups across the United States believe that the incoming Obama administration possesses an innovative government plan for the arts. In part this is based upon the fact that the Obama campaign publicly released its “Platform In Support Of The Arts” nearly a year before the national elections. Conversely the McCain campaign made public its arts platform - a four sentence long document - just 33 days before the elections. However, a number of questions are raised by a close reading of the Obama arts platform, not the least of which involves the uncertainty that any of it will actually be implemented. Maintaining the occupation of Iraq and escalating the war in Afghanistan will be costly propositions for the new administration, and coupled with what the incoming President himself has called “the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression”, it seems unlikely the arts will be anything but a low priority.

The Los Angeles based arts advocacy group, Arts For LA!, represents a good case in point when it comes to overly optimistic Obama supporters. In the organization’s December 9, 2008 newsletter, under the heading of a “Cultural Shift from the Top“, it was excitedly noted that; “Last Sunday on Meet the Press, President-elect Obama spoke about his plans to address the country’s economic crisis, foreign policy, tax cuts, and his intention to ‘open the White House up to inspire innovation and imagination.’ He wants to remind people that ‘the White House is the people’s house.’ He also intends to host poets, artists and musicians because ‘art, culture, science is the essence of what makes America special.’”

Arts For LA! should be reminded that “The People’s House” is a colloquial term that has long referred to the White House. What is more, the conservative administrations of Nixon, Reagan, and George W. Bush have all spoken of the White House as “The People’s House”, so the designation as used by Mr. Obama does not necessarily indicate a new, groundbreaking stance. While the Bush administration represented the most retrograde policies, it cynically understood the arts as part of state craft. In 2006 the first lady launched the Bush State Department’s, Global Cultural Initiative (GCI), a well financed program of international cultural exchanges backed by the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA), the National Endowment for the Humanities, the American Film Institute, and the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts. GCI is the type of arts program that Mr. Obama may well feel comfortable maintaining and expanding; which would represent yet another instance of outright continuity with the Bush administration.

Tom Brokaw conducted the Meet the Press interview with the President-elect, and the brief dialog concerning cultural matters that Arts For LA! found so stirring follows in its entirety (from the official transcript);

MR. BROKAW: “Who are the kinds of artists that you would like to bring to the White House?”

PRES.-ELECT OBAMA: “Thinking about the diversity of our culture and, and inviting jazz musicians and classical musicians and poetry readings in the White House so that, once again, we appreciate this incredible tapestry that’s America. I - you know, that, I think, is, is going to be incredibly important, particularly because we’re going through hard times. And, historically, what has always brought us through hard times is that national character, that sense of optimism, that willingness to look forward, that, that sense that better days are ahead. I think that our art and our culture, our science, you know, that’s the essence of what makes America special, and, and we want to project that as much as possible in the White House.”

Inviting artists to perform at the White House does not sound like a government arts program - not by a long shot; and Mr. Obama’s remark about how “our art and culture” represents the “essence of what makes America special” is facile rhetoric utilized by every politician no matter what their party affiliation.

In Dec. 2007 President Bush signed an appropriations bill that provided $144.7 million for the National Endowment for the Arts for fiscal year 2008. It was the largest funding increase for the NEA in 28 years. Does Mr. Obama intend to increase that expenditure? He has stated that he “supports increased funding for the NEA”, but by how much? The highest level of funding for the NEA came during the George H.W. Bush years in 1992 - $175.9 million. Will Obama top that allocation? Will he work towards reinstating NEA grants for individual artists? - a program that was terminated under President Clinton’s tenure in 1994 due to attacks from the right wing. Rather than eagerly awaiting the next pronouncement from Obama, the arts community should be organizing itself to make specific demands upon the incoming administration.

Laura Zucker of the Los Angeles County Arts Commission, wrote a guest column for Arts For LA! on the subject of the arts in hard economic times. In the opening paragraph of her article titled, “Can the arts weather the recession tsunami?” Ms. Zucker wrote; “Every challenge presents new opportunities. Or as Rahm Emanuel, President-elect Obama’s new chief of staff, said in an interview recently, ‘Rule One: Never allow a crisis to go to waste. They are opportunities to do big things.’”

Whether she is in Rahm’s camp or speaks solely out of political naïveté, Ms. Zucker’s citation of Obama’s chief of staff is revealing. Since Ms. Zucker choose to bring up Rahm Emanuel, allow me to point out a few facts about his career. Emanuel was Obama’s first appointee, a pick that raised eyebrows among progressives given that Emanuel was a leading member of the Democratic Leadership Council (DLC) - a grouping within the Democratic Party known by critics as the “Republican Wing of the Democratic Party.” Rahm not only backed the congressional resolution that authorized military force against Iraq, he supported the 2003 invasion of that country. In a January 2005 interview with Tim Russert on Meet the Press, Rahm said that if he could do it all over again, he would still back an invasion of Iraq - even knowing that the country possessed no weapons of mass destruction.

As head of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee in 2006, Rahm worked to keep anti-Iraq-war candidates off the Democratic slate. His belligerent attitude and right-wing stance on foreign policy matters has earned him the nickname of “Rahm-bo.” A Nov 5, 2008 report from Reuters quoted Republican strategist John Feehery, rather gleefully declaring that Rahm “is going to spend most of his time cracking Democratic heads, getting them to move from the left to the middle. Mr. Obama is going to need a bad cop to his good cop. Mr. Emanuel fills that role nicely.” That same Reuters article quoted Kevin Smith, spokesman for House Republican Leader John Boehner, commenting that Rahm was “an ironic and controversial choice, to say the least, for a presidential candidate running on a promise to change Washington.”

If the remark made about Emanuel in the Arts For LA! column seemed a bit incongruous, at least Ms. Zucker had the where-with-all to broach the subject of the depression era Works Progress Administration (WPA), and how we are in need of such a program today. President Franklin D. Roosevelt created the WPA in 1935, providing relief to over 8 million jobless Americans. A large portion of WPA funding went to painters, writers, actors, musicians, and directors, who were put to work on projects that enhanced the cultural heritage of the nation. But Zucker’s comment seems excessively optimistic;

“On the federal front, as discussions about big construction projects to generate jobs and stimulate the economy becomes (sic) a real strategy, let’s not forget the tremendous legacy of arts projects created through the WPA projects of the depression. How about including a mega-investment in the arts this time around as well?”

While I certainly welcome a WPA-style “mega-investment in the arts” providing work for thousands of artists in communities across the U.S., I am at a loss to think of a single reason why Obama would support such a program. At present he is under absolutely no political pressure to do so, and in any event his centrist predilections seem to bar such a contingency. If he were to mount an effort at massive arts spending, I can imagine the organized right blocking his every attempt at implementing the policy for multiple reasons, and with his striving for a bipartisan approach to governance, it seems unlikely he would take a combative stance. At any rate, Obama’s “Platform In Support Of The Arts” appears to be little more than a mix of volunteerism, corporate sponsorship, and a minimal amount of government spending. If we are to have a “mega-investment in the arts”, it will only come about because the arts community and its allies apply unrelenting and effective pressure on the upcoming Obama administration.

To a large degree Roosevelt created the WPA in response to a mass-movement of workers, a situation Obama does not (yet) face. The economic collapse in the 1930s was so severe that it presented nothing less than the preconditions for revolt. Bands of organized looters stealing food became a nation-wide occurrence. “Unemployed Councils” provided direct material aid to tens of thousands of the unemployed, organizing them to fight for government relief, resist forced evictions and carry out rent strikes. By 1934 a huge wave of labor militancy had swept the nation, with strikes by hundreds of thousands of workers taking place from coast to coast. The circumstances described here only in part, forced FDR to implement massive emergency relief projects, including the Federal Art Project, which created over 5,000 jobs for artists.

For artists there are a great many parallels - and differences - to be found when comparing the Great Depression to our present situation, topics I will continue to examine on this web log. Currently there are very high expectations of changes taking place in our society, and when that frame of mind is shared by millions, societal transformation is close at hand. But individual leaders are not to be relied upon. Millions of people in motion are the engine of history - that is the only force capable of bringing about real change.

Obama’s Arts & Culture Policy

It is noteworthy that the upcoming administration of President-Elect Barack Obama is the first to present a detailed formal arts policy prior to inauguration. To foster debate, this article will reproduce in full, the Obama/Biden Platform In Support Of The Arts - with a link to the original .pdf document located on I encourage a thorough reading of the platform, but also a vigorous debate of its various points.

An opportunity for a wide public examination and discussion of the Obama/Biden Arts Policy will avail itself on Thursday, November 20th, when Americans for the Arts host a live “webcast” conversation with Bill Ivey, former Chair of the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) during the Clinton administration and the current Chair of the Obama Arts & Culture Transition Team. Those living in the greater Los Angeles area can attend the free event at the Eli and Edythe Broad Stage in Santa Monica. Those who cannot attend may view the webcast from their home computer, after first becoming a member of Americans for the Arts. Details on registering for the event or watching the broadcast are available here. I plan on attending the Nov. 20th, Santa Monica event, and will follow up with a detailed report and critique of the Obama/Biden Platform In Support Of The Arts.

While the platform planks appear to be important first steps in resuscitating the Arts in America, they should not simply be accepted without critical analysis. I find several of the planks to be questionable, i.e., Private Partnerships, Cultural Diplomacy, and Health Care to Artists being the most glaring examples, and overall I believe the entire Platform In Support Of The Arts is wholly inadequate and in need of significant expansion.

When reviewing the Obama/Biden Platform In Support Of The Arts, one should keep in mind that the 2009 budget for the United States Department of Defense is $515.4 billion - up $5.7 billion from fiscal year 2008; whereas total NEA funding for fiscal 2008 came to $144.664 million. Granted, these figures are from a budget enacted by George W. Bush, but it is hard to imagine an Obama administration modifying such an imbalance - especially since it promises a “rebuilding” of the U.S. military and an escalation of the war in Afghanistan, all while the economy is teetering on depression.

Whatever one might think of Barack Obama being compared to Franklin D. Roosevelt, this much is undeniable - FDR’s sweeping New Deal reforms came about only as a result of massive public pressure from an electorate that demanded and struggled for deep and lasting transformation. No less so, Obama can only be compelled to pursue a progressive agenda through the unrelenting demands of a mobilized citizenry. As the great African American patriot Frederick Douglass once said, “Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will.”


Reinvest in Arts Education: To remain competitive in the global economy, America needs to reinvigorate the kind of creativity and innovation that has made this country great. To do so, we must nourish our children’s creative skills. In addition to giving our children the science and math skills they need to compete in the new global context, we should also encourage the ability to think creatively that comes from a meaningful arts education. Unfortunately, many school districts are cutting instructional time for art and music education. Barack Obama believes that the arts should be a central part of effective teaching and learning. The Chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts recently said “The purpose of arts education is not to produce more artists, though that is a byproduct. The real purpose of arts education is to create complete human beings capable of leading successful and productive lives in a free society.” To support greater arts education, Obama will:

Expand Public/Private Partnerships Between Schools and Arts Organizations: Barack Obama will increase resources for the U.S. Department of Education’s Arts Education Model Development and Dissemination Grants, which develop public/private partnerships between schools and arts organizations. Obama will also engage the foundation and corporate community to increase support for public/private partnerships.

Create an Artist Corps: Barack Obama supports the creation of an “Artists Corps” of young artists trained to work in low-income schools and their communities. Studies in Chicago have demonstrated that test scores improved faster for students enrolled in low-income schools that link arts across the curriculum than scores for students in schools lacking such programs.

Publicly Champion the Importance of Arts Education: As president, Barack Obama will use the bully pulpit and the example he will set in the White House to promote the importance of arts and arts education in America. Not only is arts education indispensable for success in a rapidly changing, high skill, information economy, but studies show that arts education raises test scores in other subject areas as well.

Support Increased Funding for the NEA: Over the last 15 years, government funding for the National Endowment for the Arts has been slashed from $175 million annually in 1992 to $125 million today. Barack Obama supports increased funding for the NEA, the support of which enriches schools and neighborhoods all across the nation and helps to promote the economic development of countless communities.

Promote Cultural Diplomacy: American artists, performers and thinkers – representing our values and ideals – can inspire people both at home and all over the world. Through efforts like that of the United States Information Agency, America’s cultural leaders were deployed around the world during the Cold War as artistic ambassadors and helped win the war of ideas by demonstrating to the world the promise of America. Artists can be utilized again to help us win the war of ideas against Islamic extremism. Unfortunately, our resources for cultural diplomacy are at their lowest level in a decade. Barack Obama will work to reverse this trend and improve and expand public-private partnerships to expand cultural and arts exchanges throughout the world.

Attract Foreign Talent: The flipside to promoting American arts and culture abroad is welcoming members of the foreign arts community to America. Opening America’s doors to students and professional artists provides the kind of two-way cultural understanding that can break down the barriers that feed hatred and fear. As America tightened visa restrictions after 9/11, the world’s most talented students and artists, who used to come here, went elsewhere. Barack Obama will streamline the visa process to return America to its rightful place as the world’s top destination for artists and art students.

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.

Ensure Tax Fairness for Artists: Barack Obama supports the Artist-Museum Partnership Act, introduced by Senator Patrick Leahy (D-VT). The Act amends the Internal Revenue Code to allow artists to deduct the fair market value of their work, rather than just the costs of the materials, when they make charitable contributions.