The Alan Sondheim Mail Archive

December 14, 2009

---------- Forwarded message ----------
Date: Sun, 13 Dec 2009 23:13:17 -0500
From: moderator@PORTSIDE.ORG
Subject: Obama Shapes An Arts Policy ... Cautiously

Obama Shapes An Arts Policy ... Cautiously

BY BRETT ZONGKER Associated Press
Chicago Sun-Times
December 8, 2009,obama-arts-policy-nea-120809.article

WASHINGTON - In his first year, President Barack Obama
has marshaled the largest infusion of cultural funding
in decades - despite a few stumbles.

Though still far less than arts advocates contend is
needed, they have high hopes this president could
transform cultural policy, funding and arts education
for years to come.

"I think and feel he's very much in the John F. Kennedy
tradition - he embodies the humanities, essentially,"
said Jim Leach, a former Republican congressman from
Iowa whom Obama named chairman of the National Endowment
for the Humanities. "That doesn't mean a conservative
leader can't also. Abraham Lincoln was a great
conservative who embodied the humanities."

Across Washington, cultural leaders have taken note of
Obama's approach. They're impressed with the variety of
musical performances and workshops held at the White
House this year, covering classical, jazz, Latin and
country tunes.

There's also the $100 million in new funding for the
arts, including a one-time $50 million infusion from the
economic stimulus package to preserve arts jobs. There
were sizable increases as well in the annual
appropriations for the arts and humanities endowments.
Both agencies will receive $167.5 million in 2010, their
largest allocations in 16 years.

Arts supporters wanted more money, but they say the
increases were significant and symbolic of Obama's

"It's still a relatively small amount of money - a $12.5
million increase [for 2010] spread over 100,000 arts
organizations," said Michael Kaiser, president of the
John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts. "But
symbolically, it was very important because so many
state and local arts agencies are being cut by their
state and local governments, so to have the federal
government ... actually put more into arts, I think was
very important."

Obama's efforts in the arts ran afoul of critics in
August when a National Endowment for the Arts official
asked artists to coordinate with the Corporation for
Public Service on ways to help bolster Obama's public
service agenda.

"I would encourage you to pick something, whether it's
health care, education, the environment - you know,
there's four key areas that the corporation has
identified as the areas of service," the NEA's Yosi
Sergant told artists on the call. He was reassigned
after the call became public and later left the agency.

Critics said it was an overreach at Obama's NEA, while
supporters argued that the episode was overblown. Still,
the White House issued an advisory for government
agencies to avoid even the appearance of politics
playing a role in federal grants.

At a dinner during last weekend's Kennedy Center Honors,
Education Secretary Arne Duncan said improving arts
education will be a key element of his proposed changes
in former President George W. Bush's No Child Left
Behind law. He said parents, teachers and students all
have noticed a "narrowing of the curriculum."

"I'm convinced when students are engaged in the arts,
graduation rates go up, dropout rates go down," Duncan

The Obamas presided over the Kennedy Center Honors, but
they also have been frequent guests at Kennedy Center
performances and at New York's museums and theaters.

"Both the president and the first lady have demonstrated
an interest in the arts that is more active than most of
their predecessors," said George Stevens Jr., who has
produced the Kennedy Center Honors as a national
celebration of the arts for the past 32 years. "They're
young and connected to what's going on in the world, and
a part of that is the performing arts."

Stevens has been enlisted to co-chair the President's
Committee on the Arts and the Humanities. The Obamas
also have quietly recruited some of the biggest names in
music, architecture, dance and show business to help
guide arts initiatives. "Sex and the City" star Sarah
Jessica Parker, acclaimed cellist Yo-Yo Ma, and actors
Forest Whitaker and Alfre Woodard are among 25 members
appointed to the committee.

Other key arts appointments also have broken the mold.

At the NEA, which has been cautiously rebuilding since
congressional conservatives slashed funding to less than
$100 million in 1996, Obama appointed an outspoken
Broadway producer, Rocco Landesman, as the nation's top
arts official.

Landesman has said he would like to resume making grants
to individual artists, a longtime practice targeted in
the 1990s when conservatives said the NEA was supporting
obscene art. He may hold off, though. The NEA's annual
funding has yet to fully rebound to its high of nearly
$176 million from 1992.

At the National Endowment for the Humanities, Obama
chose Leach, who contends that inadequate consideration
of Iraqi cultural issues may have contributed to the
march to war in Iraq.

"To shortchange the humanities can be very expensive if
you make mistakes based upon not factoring in cultural
considerations to policy," he said.

Leach said arts and humanities programs are most
essential in difficult times. As the nation is faced
with two wars, a weak economy and a polarizing debate
over health care, Leach is conducting a 50-state
"civility tour" to promote respectful discourse. He also
plans to promote better understanding of foreign

"I'd point out in a historical way that during the Great
Depression we were spending vastly higher percentages of
federal resources on the arts and humanities than we do
today," he said. "The public coalesced around the notion
that it was important to bring perspective to issues of
the day."

In pressing to restore arts funding, the advocacy group
Americans for the Arts has stressed the economic impact
of the arts, totaling nearly 6 million nonprofit jobs
among 100,000 organizations. That's up from just 7,000
nonprofit arts groups 50 years ago.

Federal grants helped fuel that growth, said Robert
Lynch, president and chief executive of the lobbying
group, by leveraging other public support and private
funding for the arts. "It's been so successful over the
past 50 years, it's good business sense for there to be
a bigger investment," Lynch said.

Despite the increased funding this year, it's too soon
to judge Obama's impact, he said.


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