I spent a lot of time at Change.gov this morning, looking at Obama’s agenda for the next four years and, in general, agreeing with much of the direction he is proposing for the Obama/Biden Administration. There was, however, one area where I hoped to find a longer and more detailed commitment for the future and that is in “The Arts”.
The only mention of the subject was this:
Our nation’s creativity has filled the world’s libraries, museums, recital halls, movie houses, and marketplaces with works of genius. The arts embody the American spirit of self-definition. As the author of two best-selling books — Dreams from My Father and The Audacity of Hope — Barack Obama uniquely appreciates the role and value of creative expression.
While this is a positive statement it is also highly generalized, vague, and lacking in the kind of focus I found in most of the topics covered.
Some background on my point of view is necessary. Way back when Ronald Reagan won his first Presidential election I was the Director of the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, MA, a revered organization in the visual and literary arts that provides workspace and funding for 20 or so young artists throughout the winter months. As a program it draws hundreds of applicants, the best young artists in the country, for its minimal number of live grants. The funding sources for the FAWC are comprised of private donations, foundation grants, and state and federal program contributions, and my job as Director was to spend about 75% of my time seeking that money.
It became clear that the National Endowment for the Arts was likely to cut funding of individual artist programs – this was reinforced by a conversation I had with Eleanor Mondale, wife of the then Vice President Walter Mondale, whose special interest was the arts and the funding of artists and who was visiting the FAWC on a tour of northeast institutions. I was getting ready to change directions in my life and was going into private business and felt that this would be a good time given the political implications.
One of the first things the NEA did under Reagan was to stop its funding of individual artists, mostly due to conservative Republican criticism of what some artists did to offend them with artwork. It was an ugly situation. Although funding continued, and even expanded, to educational programs and established museums, the encouragement of individual artists by this Federal agency disappeared.
Given the employment needs of the current recession, my hope was that Obama would say something more related to providing arts incomes for people in the extremely shaky position of being professional artists. FDR did it in the WPA arts program, and out of that program brought us geniuses like Thomas Hart Benton, who spent a couple of years doing great murals in American post offices, and Orson Welles, who created superb theatre pieces with unemployed actors who would have had no other work at the time.
No one is publicly pushing for artist support in the proposed new programs of the Obama Administration and I would guess that most Americans won’t think such support has any import, given the major problems of our time. I think the support of our creative expression is part of the road to recovery, however, and may be the way that we help make the world aware of out current needs in all other areas.
It is my hope that this will change with whoever Obama appoints s NEA Administrator.