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, A Platform In Support Of The Arts – found on the official Obama website under the heading of, Barack Obama and Joe Biden: Champions For Arts And Culture. 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.

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, 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’s hard to imagine an Obama administration modifying such an imbalance, especially since it promises a rebuilding of the US military and an escalation of the war in Afghanistan, all while the economy teeters 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 deep and lasting change. No less so, Obama can only be compelled to pursue an agenda through the 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.