Arts looking for new dawn


Many people involved in the arts in the US are hoping their new president will repay their support with cabinet-level representation. But if such a post never materialises, can artists learn to coordinate their interests more effectively? asks BELINDA McKEON.

AS PRESIDENTIAL portraits go, it’s a change – no surprise there. But the portrait of the US’s brand-new president, unveiled last weekend at the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery in Washington, represents a departure from form radical enough to raise the eyebrow of even the most slogan-weary watcher of Barack Obama’s journey to the White House.

Shepard Fairey’s Barack Obama,a mixed-media, hand-stencilled collage based on a Reuters press photograph (and, in no small part, on images from Soviet propaganda), began life as a piece of illegal street art, rocketed to online notoriety, and eventually became the central image of the Obama campaign. Its creator is a 38-year-old graffiti artist, born of the LA punk-and-skateboarding scene, who claims to have been arrested 14 times for his guerrilla dissemination tactics, most recently during the Democratic National Convention in Denver last year, when police in full riot gear picked him up for postering the Obama image (and others) around the city.

Meanwhile, at the convention centre, Fairey’s Obama original took pride of place, and no amount of arrests was going to change that pride.

Fairey’s collage was more than just the face of the Obama campaign. It was the face of the vast grassroots art movement that sprang up around the campaign and helped it to storm the November polls. And it was the face, too, of a new relationship to politics, and to Washington, and even to the US, of American artists right across the cultural map. Underground and established, avant-garde and commercial, struggling and celebrated alike, they stepped up in their thousands to give Obama their vote.

Every artist in the country, it seemed, wanted to hitch their wagon to the Obama star, and this week, in Washington, the new president was surrounded by his artistic endorsers and adorers. Aretha Franklin sang to him. Elizabeth Alexander wrote a poem for him. John Williams composed for him, pieces played by Itzhak Perlman and Yo-Yo Ma. At Sunday’s concert, rock legends and Hollywood stars saluted him. And in a gallery across town, his grassroots disciples in the visual arts exhibited the work he had inspired, in a show of more than 200 pieces curated by Fairey to address the themes of healthcare reform, workers’ rights and the green economy.

NOW THAT THE party’s over, Obama’s high-profile new friends in the arts will be hoping for an invitation to his new digs. The word “Camelot”, with its connotations of star-studded dinners at the White House, its promise of artists and intellectuals gathered, has been thrown around more liberally than ticker tape these past weeks. But others are asking to come to the table in a very different way. In the new Obama administration, the floundering US arts industry has glimpsed an opportunity for representation, development and support – indeed, for survival – that it is not willing to let go without a fight. In 2008, the arts community stepped up for Obama, and it has no intention now of slipping quietly away. What it wants is a place for the arts at cabinet level, an appointee with the ear of the president.

Last summer, a coalition of 16 major arts organisations authored a set of recommendations for the eventual new administration (be it Democrat or Republican), advising, among other things, a senior-level assistant to the president who would work to coordinate arts and culture policy.

And in November, New York musicians Jaime Austria and Peter Weitzner (acting on remarks made on radio by the singer Quincy Jones) wrote an online petition asking Obama to appoint not just an assistant but a secretary for the arts. Like every grassroots movement connected to Obama, the petition gathered rapid steam, and has now garnered more than 150,000 signatures, some of them holding up the Irish system of grant aid for the arts, not to mention tax exemptions for artists, as something of an ideal.

The timing of it all seems less than ideal, however, with the new administration already neck-high in urgent priorities born of the economic downturn, none of them directly related to the arts. But, then, the American arts community knows all about the economic downturn. Last month in the Washington Post, Michael Kaiser, president of the John F Kennedy Centre for the Performing Arts, warned that the consequences of decimated endowments, slashed private, foundation and corporate donations, falling ticket sales and pallid fundraising prospects had already weakened the country’s “arts ecology” to a very dangerous extent, and that things looked set only to worsen.

The time might have come, Kaiser said, to consider a federal bailout for the arts, in the form of emergency grants and new tax breaks.

It’s a grim situation, but that the arts community is even articulating these appeals to the White House speaks in itself of a new confidence, of a new sense that there is now a platform for the arts that might be built upon.

And indeed there is such a platform. During the campaign, the Obama team consulted with artists and organisations to build a set of proposals for the arts. In truth, the three-page document was much more a platform for arts education than for the arts per se, given over mostly to promised partnerships between schools and arts organisations, an “Artist Corps” to work in low-income schools, and to the reintroduction of arts and music education in all school districts. There was, however, also mention of increased support for the one federal agency that does support the arts, the National Endowment for the Arts, of improved cultural diplomacy, of a smoother visa process for foreign artists, and of healthcare and tax “fairness” for artists.

Certainly, it was a platform constructed in better times – pre-downturn – and there was little trace of it on the Obama transition team website,, but it was a start. And even though it seems impossible that room might be made for it amid the tasks that the Obama administration now faces, some in the arts are still hopeful. As they see it, a crisis might offer a better opportunity than would a boom.

Douglas McLennan, editor of the Seattle-based, thinks that this might, in fact, be a vital moment for the arts, that the financial meltdown, and the collapse of so many arts organisations that is likely to follow, “could be the impetus to examine, in a significant way, how we fund the arts in this country”. Just as the general crash has made possible an enormous stimulus package that would never even have been considered a year ago, McLennan says, the crisis in the realm of culture might force the government’s hand towards action. After all, as Kaiser points out, the sector provides 5.7 million jobs and is worth $166 billion (approximately €128 billion) in economic activity annually. That’s a figure that puts into fairly stark perspective the current funding to the National Endowment for the Arts of $145 million (€112 million).

But neither is the kind of stimulus package needed by the arts in the US one that consists only, or even primarily, of financial aid or of reimagined funding structures.

“Artists always say we need money,” says writer Elyssa East, “but what we really need is for artists to be better connected and educated about pre-existing opportunities like funding, arts service organisations, education, audience-development opportunities, and for audiences to be expanded through national and international marketing. I’m not saying we don’t need funding, but that route gets incredibly contentious with questions of value and taste. Serving artists and helping them build their markets could be a better use of this office.”

BEN CAMERON, programme director for the arts at the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation, agrees that the biggest crisis in the arts is arguably not financial but related to “new audience behaviour” fostered by internet and digital technology. Who wants to pay $100 for tickets when culture is available online for free? Arts organisations need help grappling with that new reality, as well as with the other curveballs thrown their way by technology: matters of intellectual property or copyright extension, for example, or of bandwidth release or media regulation.

As critic and consultant András Szántó sees it, however, this assistance can come through “closer coordination between agencies” at government level, with no need for the creation of a new bureaucracy.

The National Endowment for the Arts, Szántó feels, is “well set up” both to accelerate federal dollars to arts groups and to facilitate the kind of cross-agency communication that could keep artists and arts organisations involved in the conversations on the many issues affecting them – on tax policy, on cultural diplomacy, on building conservation, on arts education, on copyright law, even on the US’s image around the world; on, that is, what constitutes cultural policy in the US.

THE QUESTION IS whether the arts can only offer a coordinated response to these issues with the help of a dedicated cabinet post. Can the arts learn to coordinate from within, if such a post never materialises? Szántó, for one, is pessimistic about the possibility of a secretary for the arts, but points out that, if it’s a question of making manifest the importance and centrality of the arts to American life, the president himself can make a huge difference by setting an arts-friendly and pro-intellectual tone at the White House.

One thing is for sure. If Obama does turn his attention towards the arts, it will be mainly towards the need to put arts education back into low-income schools, from which it has almost entirely disappeared in recent years. While no one in the arts disputes the urgent need for arts education to be revived, most do not particularly want to see Obama checking his entire arts platform at the school door.

“That platform is a huge leap,” says Olga Garay, Los Angeles Commissioner for Culture. “Most presidents don’t even look at the National Endowment for the Arts for months. But here you have someone who’s actually published a nuanced public platform for the arts, going way beyond the sort of ‘mom and apple pie’ arts education rhetoric that’s so common, that says we have to go back to cultural diplomacy as one of the primary tools of this country, of how we interact with the rest of the world, and then complements that statement by saying that we need to provide ways for foreign artists to enter into our communities. That’s a pretty powerful level of specificity. I think if ever there was a chance that this discussion could be elevated, or have a fighting chance of coming into reality, this is that moment.”