The ten first steps that Barack Obama could take to renew the arts
I believe that we have an administration that will take the steps necessary to re-establish support for the arts in the US
By David A. Ross. Comment, Issue 198, January 2009
Published online: 14 January 2009
Even in the midst of the current economic crisis, there is a palpable feeling of optimism in the American art community. It’s not that the credit crunch hasn’t caused significant pain, and it’s not that we are unaware that it may last for some time to come. Quite simply, it’s the sense of hope that many of us feel as we approach the end of the Bush era, and hopefully, the end of the ongoing culture wars that have lasted for nearly a quarter of a century. As we approach the transition of power, I believe that we will finally have an administration that will take the steps necessary to re-establish serious support for the arts in the United States.
During the hard-fought months of Barack Obama’s campaign, he and Joe Biden announced a set of platform goals that may lead to an overall cultural strategy. But in the meantime, the steps they could take to help renew arts in the US are:
1. Support the tax code amendment currently in the works that would give artists tax incentives for donating their work to public museums, and fully restore the tax incentive for gifts of appreciated property to museums and other non-profit educational organisations.
2. Re-establish a programme employing artists in a wide range of cultural institutions.
3. Revive and rebuild the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities, de-politicising their processes, and providing them with budgets necessary to support the American cultural community. Nothing less than annual appropriation of $750m (as opposed to $290m today) is needed.
4. Create an independent study of the operating expenses of our museums and libraries, and then fund the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS) sufficiently, so that the core costs of our museums and libraries can be properly met. (The same should be done in support of reinvigorating the infrastructure of our institutions of music, dance and theatre.)
5. Invest in art and music education for all school pupils, and ensure that these efforts are coordinated with the increased spending in direct artist support, as well as renewed institutional infrastructure and programme support.
6. Rebuild a new Arts America programme to allow American artists, musicians, dancers and writers to serve as cultural ambassadors and help rebuild the image of the United States around the world.
7. Simplify and expedite the process for obtaining (de-politicised) visas for visiting foreign artists, musicians and academics.
8. Restore direct federal and state grants for artists, musicians and writers (including critics).
9. Establish either a cabinet-level Secretary for Art and Culture, or at the very least, create a White House arts advisory office to coordinate and show presidential support for American culture.
10. Create an emergency bailout fund for cultural institutions in dire need during this current credit crisis. At least $250m will be necessary, but this is a drop in the ocean when compared with the value these institutions return to the nation as a whole. This single act will affirm to all that the federal government will not stand by and allow these great resources to falter.
Restoring health to the American cultural community is but one of a vast and daunting set of tasks confronting President-elect Obama. And the success of this plan will depend on a number of factors, including the dedication and generosity of many individuals across the country, as well as the willingness of American artists to do their part in the re-building. But I believe that by implementing these suggested policies and actions, President Obama would provide the impetus and infrastructure upon which the rest of us could bring about critically necessary and truly meaningful change.
The writer is a former director of, among others, the Whitney Museum, ICA Boston and SFMOMA. Currently, he is director of Albion New York, a private art gallery
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