Tyler Green
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Barack Obama and the arts: A disappointment

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In 2008, when Barack Obama was running for the White House, arts lovers believed that he was one of us. We thrilled to the story of how he took one Michelle Robinson to the Art Institute of Chicago on their first date. He was the first presidential candidate to offer up a set of arts policy proposals. But how has President Obama done on arts policy? [Image: President and Michelle Obama applaud the performance of Harry Connick Jr. and the Big Band in the East Room of the White House on Feb. 21, 2010. All images via the White House Flickr stream.]

The Obama record on the arts comes to the fore today because the venerable Museum of Fine Arts, Boston is closing so that the president can visit. Well, not exactly visit, more like preside… as in, preside over a big-dollar Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee fundraiser. According to the White House, the president is scheduled to make remarks at the MFAB at 7:05pm and to be at Logan Airport by 8:00.

The MFAB shutdown reminds us that the president talks a good game on the arts — he’s visiting MFAB so he must love and value art! — but that when it comes to the details, his administration has a lot of work to do. (Metaphor-alert: The museum is closing on a day it would normally be open, and the president is not there to see art, he’s there to milk fat-cat donors).

When we look at the Obama administration’s recent record on arts policy, we first see a Democratic president talk about how important jobs are to America’s economic recovery, but then offer a federal budget in which he cuts federal support for arts jobs around America.

In his just-released fiscal year 2012 budget, the White House proposed 13 percent funding cuts for both the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities. This gave Congressional Republicans an opening: Noticing that the White House wouldn’t to take a stand on arts funding, the Republican-controlled House of Representatives promptly doubled the president’s proposed NEA and NEH cuts to 26 percent each, the deepest decline in 16 years.

Just as troubling: The White House has not slowed Congress’ penchant for cutting art funding wherever it finds it. Candidate Obama said that supporting arts education funding was one of his top arts policy priorities. So much for campaign promises, because the White House just stood idly by as Congress cut art education funding earlier this month. As part of passing a continuing resolution to keep the federal government functional while Congress works on a FY 2011 federal budget, both the House and Senate cut $40 million in funding for art education.

Let’s look back at Candidate Obama’s much-vaunted, eight-part arts policy campaign platform. Candidate Obama proposed new art education programs, including an “artist corps,” but has offered nothing of the sort — yet. Candidate Obama said that he supported increased NEA funding, but after supporting modest increases in the NEA’s appropriation earlier in his presidency, President Obama just proposed that big funding cut. Candidate Obama proposed an increased focus on cultural diplomacy, but so far the president’s most significant effort on that front has been a tiny $1 million program. (See my column in the February issue of Modern Painters for more.) The Obama campaign pledged to streamline the process for artists needing visas to enter the United States, a situation which is hard to measure but which administrators report has improved. Obama promised health care for artists. We’ll see how that works out. And finally we’re still waiting for the Artist-Museum Partnership Act to be approved by Congress so that artists who donate their work to cultural institutions receive a fair tax deduction. Judged against Candidate Obama’s own plans, President Obama still has a way to go — and has even taken some steps backward.

In place of policy achievement, the Obama administration’s support for the arts has been mostly attendance, which isn’t unimportant. To much praise, the president and the first lady hung a lot of art in the White House. There was that well-publicized visit to the Pompidou (image above) in Paris and the Obamas have hosted regular concerts at the White House, events typically programmed to appeal to the president’s progressive base (Joan Baez sang “We Shall Overcome.” Bob Dylan received a presidential embrace. And so on.) The First Lady has been at the Right Arts Events too, including  presiding over a ribbon-cutting at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Of course, these are the kinds of things George and Laura Bush did too, which reminds us that so far the Obama arts policy has been much symbolism, not enough substance.

Barack Obama is only two years into his first term. There’s still time for him to fulfill his own promises and to emerge as an important supporter of the arts in America. But it hasn’t happened yet — and the recent signs aren’t encouraging.

Also: Shame on the MFA for turning away its community today so a bunch of brahmins can rent access to politicians. The closure is entirely inappropriate.

But is it legal? I asked Andy Finch, the Association of Art Museum Directors’ co-director of government affairs, if the closure was within federal rules for non-profits. Via email, he said: “As far as I understand it, a [501(c)3 non-profit] absolutely may allow its facility to be used for a fundraiser, just as long as a) the organization itself doesn’t endorse the candidate/committee and b) it makes its facility available on the same terms to other candidates/committees. So if [Sen.] Scott Brown [R-Mass.] wants to have a fundraiser there, as long as he pays the same as the DCCC did and as long as the museum treats him exactly the same, it’s perfectly OK.” Finch also pointed to this guidance from the IRS.

Update: If MFAB has anything to add, I’ll publish it here. As of publication time, the museum hadn’t replied to an inquiry.

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  6. Kaelby says:

    Cutting federal funding is the in-thing for both parties these days. However, the Republican presidential and VP candidates have made it known that they plan to do away with funding for the NEA, PBS, and NEH – a travisty I believe in so many ways. Our politicians need to be educated and the populace of this country needs to learn that cutting funding for many things does not necessarily translate into balancing the budget. They forget that there is money that is generated and returned to the govt. when govt. spends. When it doesn’t, there is less for everyone and everything. It could lead to a genuine depressions and we’re too close right now.

  7. […] Tyler Green in “Barack Obama and the arts: A disappointment” at the Modern Art Notes blog issued a mid-term report card of sorts for the Obama […]

  8. […] a great ally to the arts, or at least a decent friend.  But so far, art journalist Tyler Green laments, that hasn’t been the case.  And given the fraught political and economic climate, one […]

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