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What Will Obama Do for the Arts?

The president-elect has said all the right words, but arts organizations want numbers—and maybe a cabinet position.

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It was clear during the campaign which aspiring leader of the free world was the arts candidate. Barack Obama—his earnest mug the inspiration for a thousand loving portraits—had a brief but strong voting record on arts issues and a platform that called for more money for the National Endowment for the Arts and more art in the schools. Artists across the country took up his cause. But two months after the election, with the economy in free fall and the Middle East on fire, they're still waiting to see exactly what his administration's arts program will look like.

The arts are a no-show on the list of 23 top agenda items posted at the Obama transition team Web site, change.gov. You have to click on "additional issues" to bring up a tiny paragraph explaining that, as "the author of two best-selling books," the president-elect "uniquely appreciates the role and value of creative expression." Calls to his transition press office for clarification went unreturned, and it appears that all that can be said about the Obama arts program is that he has more pressing issues on his plate. Meanwhile, the appetite for that program is growing by the day, with the U.S. arts community salivating at the prospect of government handouts that would've been unimaginable before the economy tanked.

Work was begun on the Obama campaign's arts platform back in the drastically different old days—a year or so ago—by a 33-member national arts policy committee whose Chicago contingent included philanthropist Joan Harris, DePaul law professor Patty Gerstenblith, Court Theatre artistic director Charles Newell, and attorney Michael Dorf. It was noticeably short on specific promises. Sure, the president was committed to using his bully pulpit to talk up the arts and arts education and to promote cultural diplomacy through artistic exchange. And yes, the visa process for visiting artists would definitely be streamlined. Support for pending legislation that would give artists the same tax advantages collectors get when they donate work to museums was reiterated. And artists were promised the same health care coverage Obama was pledging for every American. But the call for more money for the NEA didn't say how much more. The proposal for creating an artists corps to teach in low-income schools didn't make it clear whether the teaching artists would be paid. Nor did the plan for expanded public/private partnerships between schools and arts organizations—which implied endorsement of the existing arrangement, in which art is an add-on provided by outsiders rather than an integral part of the school curriculum—offer any details about how things would be amplified. Crafted to be flexible, the platform was optimistic but vague. Its bounty could be large or small.

Early last summer a group of 16 major national arts umbrella organizations got together to take a proactive step, agreeing to speak as one to ensure that arts issues would get attention no matter which candidate won. Representing everything from the American Association of Museums to Opera America, the coalition developed a set of recommendations to hand to the new administration. "We didn't know which administration it would be, and we knew they'd have completely different approaches to culture," says Americans for the Arts senior director of federal affairs Narric Rome. "But we knew there'd be a transition team and we wanted to be ready."

Their document, completed shortly after the election, notes that "federal policy towards the arts has been fragmented," and calls for a holistic approach. "There were a whole bunch of issues we could have brought up," Rome says—each organization had its own priorities—"but we wrote not for just the next year, or for an appropriation cycle, but for the next four years. It's a long-vision document, and we were pretty modest in what we requested. You don't see actual appropriation numbers other than [those for] the NEA."

Even so, the recommendations have considerably more flesh than anything in Obama's platform. That NEA appropriation number, for example, stipulates a huge increase from current funding of about $145 million to $319 million. (A figure arrived at, they say, by adjusting the 1992 NEA budget of $176 million for inflation.) The coalition members also call for more funding for cultural exchanges, more money to help nonprofits find and train volunteers, and the creation of a new job in the White House: a senior-level assistant to the president to coordinate arts and cultural policy. And they take a giant step beyond the Obama platform by declaring that art should be made "part of the core curriculum of our schools." Arts education, they argue, promotes creative thinking. They cite a 2007 study showing that since No Child Left Behind became law 30 percent of school districts identified as needing improvement responded by decreasing instruction in arts and music.

One of the coalition's working assumptions is that federal investment in the arts multiplies in the economy. "For every dollar in NEA grant money that goes out, seven dollars is raised in state and local matching and private donations," Rome says. "NEA grant money is an important seed investment—and, especially now, that's what Congress is looking for."

In late November, former NEA head Bill Ivey was named, along with Clinton White House staff member Anne Luzzatto and Rutgers University history professor Clement Price, to head up the Obama transition team's review of the NEA, National Endowment for the Humanities, and Institute of Museum and Library Services. The coalition presented its document to Ivey, and Rome says they've been told he'll meet with them within the next few weeks.

NEA chief from 1998 to 2001, Ivey quit eight months before his stint was up, concluding that there had been an unhealthy proliferation of nonprofit arts organizations. In a widely read paper published in 2005, he wrote that the nonprofit sector—which he described as often isolated and arrogant—looks like "an overbuilt industry." Pointing out that "many of our most highly regarded arts activities are almost exclusively organized for profit," he called for a "more inclusive map of America's arts system" and predicted a future in which for-profit arts organizations would compete with nonprofits for foundation money. It should be interesting to see what he makes of the coalition's call for greatly expanded government support of those same old, lame old nonprofits.

In a world that's changing before anybody's ink can dry, the coalition's wish list is already looking a little wimpy around the edges. Last month former Kennedy Center head Michael Kaiser suggested an outright arts bailout, and calls for stronger action are bubbling up from the same fertile electronic field that helped get Obama elected. One online petition takes the coalition's vision of a new presidential assistant to another level, proposing a cabinet position for a Secretary of the Arts—an idea promoted by Quincy Jones, who might even be a candidate for the job. Another demands that 1 percent of the rapidly expanding Obama stimulus package be used to implement something like the New Deal arts projects. Quick now, all you art majors, what's 1 percent of a trillion dollars?v

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