What kind of cultural leader will Obama be?
His campaign suggests he will focus on communities, education, and grass-roots organisations but there are many unanswered questions. Here we survey the policy areas where the new President is likely to take a stand
By András Szántó. Features, Issue 199, February 2009
Published online: 30 January 2009
Unlike most American presidents, he writes his own books. He is said to enjoy music, especially blues and jazz. His chief of staff was a ballet dancer. His appointees have enough PhDs to fill a faculty club. But what will his arts policy be like? And what will it mean for the visual arts?
Barack Obama was sworn in on 20 January with a historic mandate for change. Extraordinary times call for bold actions and visionary ideas. Big government is back. Hopes are for an administration that is not only more progressive, but also smarter.
This could be good news for the arts—as long as they can build a convincing case that they serve the public interest. Long banished to the periphery of public affairs, arts policy is poised to make a comeback under various 21st-century guises: from economic stimulus programmes to “soft diplomacy” initiatives to digital-age intellectual property regulation. The opportunity to rethink government’s role comes at a time when it is readily acknowledged among arts professionals that cultural support in America is outdated in its assumptions, sclerotic in its methods, biased in its outcomes, and inefficient in its use of philanthropic and taxpayer dollars. It’s time to move on. But where?
In search of a road map, I hope I’ll be excused for borrowing from one of Obama’s fellow Chicagoans. Speaking in 2003, Donald Rumsfeld, the former US Defence Secretary, famously sorted events into three types. “Known knowns” are things we know, based on the record. “Known unknowns” are things we don’t yet know, but which should be clarified in due course. Finally, “unknown unknowns” are, in Rumsfeld’s words, “the ones we don’t know we don’t know”— circumstances for which no one has prepared.
Short of major arts appointments or speeches by the President, we’re left with clues from the campaign and the transition. The Obama-Biden “Platform in Support for the Arts” was, by virtue of its existence, an extraordinary document. It was also unusually specific: invest in arts education, expand public/private partnerships between schools and arts organisations, create an “Artist Corps” to work in low-income schools and communities, increase funding for the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA), promote cultural diplomacy. There is every reason to believe these priorities should outlast the campaign.
Obama’s thinking on cultural issues is informed, in part, by a group of mainly Chicago-based academics and experts. One of his most influential advisers, Bill Ivey, the former NEA chairman now based at Vanderbilt University, is overseeing the transition of the major federal cultural agencies. His world view may be emblematic of emerging currents in arts policy.
Ivey’s approach, summarised in his 2008 book, Arts Inc. How Greed and Neglect Have Destroyed Our Cultural Rights, stresses the “expressive life” and “cultural vibrancy” of communities—qualities that rely on much more than the contributions of fine-arts institutions, such as museums. As a folklorist with ties to country music, Ivey is also a champion of universal and unfettered access to the “intangible heritage” of quintessentially American cultural forms, such as films and popular-music recordings. “The copyright-fuelled marketplace is the biggest single obstacle separating Americans from the full exercise of our cultural rights,” he argues in his book. Government, in Ivey’s view, shouldn’t confine itself exclusively to nurturing professional non-profit arts organisations—which only keep going “back to the old well with a shinier, bigger bucket”. Public funds should flow where culture actually happens, and arts policy should vigorously embrace the broadcast and Internet domains.
Ivey is hardly alone in pushing beyond traditional notions of high culture. He represents a new school of arts-policy thinking that places value on hitherto underappreciated, amateur, community-based, digitally-mediated, often commercial arts—the kind of creative pursuits, in short, which most Americans enjoy. This broadening of perspective would constitute the biggest shift in policy since the implementation of large-scale cultural support in the post-war era.
Another widely anticipated change has to do with the mechanics of government support. Total cultural expenditures by the federal government—through agencies for education, trade, parks, transportation, trade, and even defence—vastly exceed the National Endowment’s paltry budget. (Compare the NEA’s $144m annual allocation to the $10 billion Obama has pledged for early childhood education.) Rather than try to massively boost the NEA—a hard sell, even in the best of times—the administration will likely emphasise coordination across the full breadth of government. No “arts czar” is likely to be installed in the West Wing, and my bet is that calls to create a cabinet-level “Secretary of the Arts” (as recently sounded by music producer Quincy Jones) will fall on deaf ears. But the arts may be inserted into the portfolios of senior departmental officials.
Economic stimulus and bailout projects would be the most obvious cross-agency initiatives. With the economy tanking, there is no shortage of proposals—including some that amount to wishful thinking. Mark I. Pinky, writing in The New Republic, for example, proposed a bailout for old-media journalists in a revival of FDR’s Federal Writers Project. From universities to museums, every cultural group is composing its own wish list. It shouldn’t be long before we hear pleas to revive Depression-era programmes in art, music, and theatre. If government could employ 3,700 visual artists in 1933-34, the thinking goes, why not do the same in our current hour of need?
But, unfortunately, the arts will be at the back of a long line of potential bailout targets—and, as the case of the Las Vegas mob museum that found its way into a Nevada bailout request exemplifies, some ideas will be shot down as frivolous. Moreover, the rationale for subsidising art production isn’t as clear today as it was 70 years ago. Back then, America was a young nation with a weak arts infrastructure. Today, it may have a cultural overproduction problem—too much art chasing after the same audiences and dollars.
That’s why public investment will be directed to education and national-service initiatives (on the Peace Corps and Teach for America model). Beyond their unassailable human and community benefits, such programmes create jobs while helping to replenish tomorrow’s arts audiences.
So what would a latter-day federal arts project look like? We don’t know, but we can guess. Few predict a renaissance of mural painting, as happened during the Great Depression, though restoring those WPA-era murals would be a good way to deploy idle artistic capacity (a huge inventory of cultural sites awaits refurbishment). A percent-for-art programme attached to stimulus spending on schools, roads, bridges, hospitals, and mass transport could spark a boomlet in public art. Yet, a 21st-century public work project—if there is one—should address some contemporary needs and use the modern skills of today’s creative workers. The monumental effort of digitising public collections and moving libraries and civic institutions online would be one place to start.
Here are some other policy domains that have likely, but as-yet unclear implications for the visual arts:
• Public diplomacy: Under Hillary Clinton, the State Department is expected to dust off the arsenal of “soft” statecraft to burnish America’s image in the world. Sponsorship for cultural and educational exchanges, exhibitions and festivals, heritage and preservation could uncork funds for the visual arts. Questions abound: would Secretary Clinton recreate the United States Information Agency (which her husband’s administration merged into State)? Would public diplomacy initiatives range beyond hot zones like the Middle East? Does today’s art faithfully represent America’s positive ideals, as Abstract Expressionism was believed to have done during the Cold War?
• Intellectual property: Intellectual property regulations have been fervently criticised for erecting unduly high barriers of access to content—a big problem for artists seeking to use source material by others. Yet copyright also underpins the livelihood of creative industries. Will copyright laws, in particular the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, come under review by the new administration? Can Obama engineer a workable compromise between content owners and content users?
• Old and new media: With the vast majority of Americans connecting to culture electronically, questions about distribution and access loom large. The Federal Communications Commission might become an important battleground of cultural policy. What will happen to public radio and public broadcasting? Do existing decency laws still make sense? Will “net neutrality”—the principle that all digital information must be treated equally—prevail online, or will telecommunications companies be allowed to impose tiered restrictions and fees on certain types of content?
• Tax policy: Much of America’s arts policy is, in fact, tax policy. The scale and timing of the rollback of Bush-era tax cuts for the wealthy—including the perpetuation of the estate tax—will have a measurable impact on philanthropic donations, and thus, arts organisations. Several arts groups are pushing for tax incentives for artists to donate work to museums by allowing them to deduct the full fair-market value of their creations (they can presently deduct only materials). But how soon Obama can address taxation is anyone’s guess.
• Symbolic politics: Under Obama, artists may be a more frequent sight in the White House, and not just in an ornamental role. They can be parties to conversations about America’s problems, which require empathy and imagination to solve. In a time of anxiety, artists—who rallied behind Obama’s Presidential Campaign in unprecedented numbers—may be drafted to help lift the national spirit. This may sound touchy-feely, but Americans are, to an extent other nations consistently underestimate, remarkably susceptible to symbolic appeals. The story of Shepard Fairey’s reverential Obama portrait, which became an icon of the 2008 campaign and has now been acquired by the National Portrait Gallery (see right), may portend a new alliance between politics and art.
Finally, the surprises which nobody really knows how to tackle. The best-laid plans may have to be put on hold to deal with situations unlike any recent American president has faced.
What if there is a systemic failure of cultural institutions? How does public policy work during deflation? Who will sustain the arts if foundation assets go up in smoke? What should government do if scores of museums go bankrupt (as LA MOCA did) and private benefactors don’t step up (as they did in Los Angeles)? Should Washington rescue state arts budgets? Does austerity demand more oversight of nonprofits, or more freedom so they can figure out how to survive? More fundamentally, will a nation that has partially nationalised its financial institutions warm up to nationalising cultural assets? What would US culture feel like if government were compelled to become more deeply enmeshed in the arts?
The most urgent question for the visual arts is whether they can make a valid claim on public resources amidst the current economic calamity. Or will they be branded elitist, out-of-touch, of no clear and present value to the project of national renewal? “As long as art is the beauty parlor of civilisation, neither art nor civilisation is secure,” the philosopher John Dewey warned in 1934, as America faced another upheaval while inventing a new cultural role for government. Barack Obama’s thinking may be similar, and the art world should take note.
The writer is Senior Lecturer at Sotheby’s Institute of Art in New York
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