Tyler Green
Art-focused Journalism by Tyler Green

Tyler Green Modern Art Notes

Waking up the White House on arts policy

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When it comes to arts policy, the Obama administration has been a disappointment. It has helped to eliminate arts-related jobs by proposing spending cuts for the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities. After saying that art education would be a top arts-policy focus, the Obama administration has allowed art education funding to be slashed. Obama has failed to pursue most of the arts-related campaign promises he made in 2008. Instead, tokenism: The White House has been good at letting us know when it’s hung some new art. [Image: President Obama straightens Thomas Moran‘s The Three Tetons (1895) in the Oval Office. Photo by Pete Souza via the White House Flickr stream.]

No one in the White House seems even remotely interested in arts policy or arts-related jobs. Given that Obama was the first presidential candidate to offer a set of arts-related policy proposals, the White House’s shrug at the arts has been all the more glaring. However, a new initiative just-launched by the White House may provide a way for frustrated and disappointed arts lovers to get some answers — and to put some ideas in front of the White House staff.

Last week the Obama administration announced a new public-input initiative called We the People. The idea is astonishingly straightforward: The White House promises a response to any online petition that gains 5,000 signatures. (Or at least that’s the “initial threshold.”) We the People is modeled after a program in the UK called e-petitions (which has a 100,000 signatures threshold for response). The White House program has yet to officially launch, but you can read more about the process here.

It remains to be seen how the new initiative will work, but in launching it the White House has already found art useful: In an effort to create a link between its new idea and the beginnings of American democracy, the new We the People website features a famous painting: Howard Chandler Christy’s Scene at the Signing of the U.S. Constitution. (The painting, commissioned by Congress and painted in 1940 and at left, is located along the East Stairway in the House of Representatives wing of the Capitol.)

Given that the White House has been substantially disinterested in arts policy, here’s hoping that a few arts lovers or a few arts institutions come up with petition ideas, promote them among their social media followers and put them in front of the White House. I’d particularly like to see the White House formally establish a White House arts adviser, to create an office that would put consideration of the arts inside the rooms where policy is made. (Bonus: The White House doesn’t seem to support arts-related spending and this office would be inexpensive.) I’ll keep my eyes open for good ideas to feature here. As ever, feel free to use MAN’s comments to bat around some ideas.

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  1. CJ Nye says:

    While we’re waiting for We the People, I would like to encourage artists and arts supporters to send follow up cards to the project I & some fellow artists just concluded: “Artists and the Economy – Postcard protest to the White House”

    Quotes, stats, facts, & proposed Bills can be found here: http://bit.ly/ArtistsAndTheEconomy

    Thank you, Tyler, great article~ CJ

  2. Immediately after Obama’s election, I was involved with a museum that was being considered as one of the White House’s sources for loans to the government. A different museum was chosen, but it was a strange way to support art. Yes, the government would be showing art, and paying for some loans, but the money would only go to supplement a major museum, not creating new jobs at said museum.

  3. Stephen says:

    As disappointing as Obama’s arts policy is, it’s far superior to the draconian policies of the Republicans. Part of creating a better arts climate in government is working to ensure that Obama is re-elected, and a more sensible majority takes over in Congress.

  4. Brian Sherwin says:

    Stephen — We get it… you dislike Republicans. As for President Obama — why re-elected him on the ‘hope’ that the next round he will do more for the arts? Furthermore, tell me why President Bush did more for the arts than President Obama. Under Bush’s watch the NEA, from what I understand, received more funding than it had in years — and districts that normally did not get much help received help. The most Obama has done for art came in the form of his publicist buddy, Yosi Sergant — who at the time was working for the Obama campaign and later worked at the White House, then NEA after Obama was elected, helping to boost Shepard Fairey’s career. Over-priced trendy shirts for all.

  5. mmmmmm comments closed on the “establish a White House arts adviser, to create an office that would put consideration of the arts inside the rooms where policy is made.” link. hey, send me a link to that petition, i’ll sign and post on facebook and linkedin,
    Let’s do this!
    replace the death/war economy with one of life and ART!

  6. Tyler Green says:

    Comments there closed because that post was written on a different software platform than the one MAN is now published on, sorry!

  7. Ron says:

    My word!

    Why do the tax payers of this Country have to bail out a bunch of failed artists? If your work is so good, it will stand on its own merits. The least damage the Obamanation has done to us is his disinterst in the Arts. You might want to look at the financial DISASTER perpetrated by this inexperienced puppet in the White House. Our House by the way!

  8. Tyler Green says:

    I’m unaware of any suggestion — let alone any policy proposal — that American taxpayers “bail out” “failed artists.”

  9. Rania says:

    Good God people…do we really want an Obama administration
    ‘art policy’? Or any government taking baby steps to
    regulate art in this country. You accept “help” at your peril.

  10. Tyler Green says:

    I’m unaware of any suggestion — let alone any policy proposal — that the federal government “regulate art.”

  11. Rania says:

    Any money spent by a government to fund chosen projects, institutions, artists, etc. at the expense of others is censorship by default. Public art is controlled by the wealthy and the media, and that is bad enough. Accepting
    help, by way of policy, compromises freedom of expression with the need for pay back.

  12. D.G. says:

    Setting aside the tiresome and ultimately fruitless arguing against the claim that any sort of goverment activity is a horrid intrusion, grants to set up loan exhibitions from major regional museums at smaller regional galleries-schools in state university systems might be a good platform for this-could be interesting. This would both make it easier for more people to see major art in person and might do something to raise the profile of all galleries involved. An added bonus would be that such shows would probably be comparatively affordable since the art need not travel as far and I’d imagine insurance costs would be lower as well. Obviously, this does more for historical art but in principle this could be extended to contemporary art as well.

  13. Stephen says:

    Brian – it’s not a question of how much is spent. Bush’s profligate spending is part of what got us into this mess, along with Clinton’s profligate spending, Bush Sr.’s profligate spending, etc. It’s a question of an administration that is open-minded toward the arts. For evidence, see Boehner/Cantor vs. “Hide and Seek.”

  14. James says:

    While I agree that there are potential conflicts when governments fund practices that inherently question authority, individual artists and arts institutions are only part of the arts ecosystem. Establishing policies that create conditions that might be beneficial for the arts [with minimal impact on freedom of speech] require considering more than ‘failed artists’ or pouring more funds into arts institutions – most of which inexplicably belie their own missions by charging exclusive admissions. And frankly, aside from the spate of recent vanity shows, ‘the wealthy and the media’ have less of an impact on the public interest than committees that settle for mediocre art because it offends the least number of constituents.

    Maybe constituents would be less offended if they were more culturally literate.

    The obvious domain in which arts funding could benefit everyone – the general public first, followed artists and arts institutions – is in education. The critical practice of *visual* literacy is lacking in education. ‘Excellent verbal and written skills a must,’ is on virtually every job description [and our educational system isn’t doing so well at that either] – with good reason. Aside from communicating with one’s colleagues, the act of writing forces one to work out chains of reasoning, often making explicit the assumptions and gaps that otherwise would have been overlooked. This in turn, often suggests alternatives and options that lead to unique and novel solutions.

    Similarly, being able to sketch, act, sculpt, make noise, etc are great ways to *embody* complex, non-linear relationships, and again, arrive at unique and novel solutions. Being a creative ‘maker’ has little to do with the technical aspects of drawing, using a camera, playing an instrument, etc. It has *everything* to do with seeing, hearing, perceiving both personal and social realities. Deeper skills are necessary not only to ‘make,’ but to critically assess what is being presented. Is what I am being shown true? Authentic? What are the ideas and concepts based on? Can I build upon it or extend it in some way? Yet most people I encounter simply say, ‘I don’t get it,’ and, ‘I can’t draw a straight line.’ As if it was about straight lines!?

    This is not a new analysis, in fact I’d bet it’s the boilerplate for dozens of proposals, like STEAM [which aims to extend the STEM initiative.]


    “America’s ongoing focus on STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) as an essential component of national innovation needs art and design to gain STEAM. STEM + Art = STEAM. Artists and designers humanize technology, making it understandable and capable of bringing about societal change. The studio method that is the hallmark of arts education teaches the flexible thinking and risk-taking that is needed in today’s complex and dynamic world. The tools and methods of design offer new models for creative problem-solving and interdisciplinary partnership, introducing innovative practices of design thinking into STEM education and research. To realize this potential, scientists, artists and designers must develop new ways of working together and new modes of research and education.”

    At a recent congressional briefing, STEAM panelists discussed art education as a matter of ‘national security,’ – if American businesses can’t compete with innovations in products and services, we can’t compete in a global market. Product design, service interfaces, scientific simulations – all of these require a kind of cultural literacy that most engineering and business programs don’t offer. Conversely, most creative programs don’t offer the kind of pragmatics that would enable creatives to ‘play nice’ with the ‘suits.’

    So, in broad strokes, things I might petition for:

    + Get arts back in schools, from pre-K through undergrad. Teach kids how to critically look, listen, make.

    + Shop class? Fab Lab! This is the 21st century. I want to rapid-prototype my mom’s Christmas spice rack on a 4-axis CNC mill.

    + Teach visual literacy and rhetoric so kids aren’t passive consumers of eye candy. How do they acquire a critical eye? Get kids to make their own eye candy. Look at other people’s eye candy and talk/write about it.

    + In support of above, make Edward Tufte’s, ‘Visual Display of Quantitative Information’ required reading for 10th-graders. Even when Tufte is wrong, he’s right. If you disagree with him it is because he’s led you far enough down a path to form your own opinion. To balance out Tufte, also require John Berger’s, ‘Ways of Seeing.’

    + Create a program to attach creative grads into start-ups. Every design team needs a crazy, sloppy artist. For every 3 engineers there should be two writers and one painter/filmmaker/sculptor/musician/whatever.

    Even for those who don’t specialize in a ‘creative’ discipline, a robust cultural education will provide a rich vocabulary of ideas that will:

    + lead them to value the contributions of creatives,

    + enable them to engage with creatives in professional domains in support of novel product solutions,

    + cause them to be more critical of how man-made stuff is embodied,

    + give them greater appreciation of more subtle expressions [like, um, art?]

    Basically, a maker society is what’s needed, one in which people make choices for themselves and have the capacities to actualize what they want, to create a culture that leads away from mass production and consumption.

    It’s not clear to me what the model for a petition is, how specific it should be [is it a concrete proposal or a wish list?], or what kinds of activities are more actionable by the government. Tyler, perhaps you can point out some good cases?

  15. Rania says:

    Oh Henry, come back. We need you.

  16. […] in the comments section were appallingly off-topic and un-productive. In a blind rage I wrote this response. Read it and weep. Like this:LikeBe the first to like this […]

  17. […] in the comments section were appallingly off-topic and un-productive. In a blind rage I wrote this response. Read it and weep. Like this:LikeBe the first to like this […]

  18. Jimelle says:

    James – you lost me at culturally literate. Just because I don’t want the government to be my sugar daddy does not mean I’m stupid.

    I am an artist, but first I am a single mother. In addition to my art, I have a big-girl job to feed and house my family. Every time a president funds something new, it comes, in part, out of my paycheck. That includes the NEA or any other arts programs. With a cut in pay I have to work longer hours to make ends meet, which leaves less time for my art. This is real-world, boots-on-the-ground truth.

    Also, if my art is crap, it won’t sell. Period. That’s my fault, not the taxpayers. “Nobody understands me!!” is melodramatic and vomit-inducing. If my ‘message’ is not communicating ideas successfully to the public, it means I have to change, not them. I wouldn’t go to a foreign country and demand that everyone learn English…again-I must change, not them.

    Everybody wants to eat at the government’s table, but nobody wants to do the dishes(Werner Finck). I, and a lot of others, are tired of doing the dishes. Donate your own money, and leave the little I have left alone.

  19. James says:

    @Jimelle I’m sorry I lost you because:

    I’n my post I was not suggesting that the government become ‘sugar daddy’ to you, me, or any other artist.

    I am also an artist, with *several* big boy jobs to make ends meet [barely]. Everyone has their own ‘real-world, boots-on-the-ground truth.’

    There’s a lot of art being made that is not popular and is not necessarily going to find a ‘market’ – but it still should be made and preserved as part of a cultural stewardship. If Works Progress Administration hadn’t existed after the Depression, an entire generation of artists would simply not be on the cultural record – at all. American art would never have gotten out of the 19th century. [Many would argue that is precisely why WPA should not have existed, but…] But that’s beside the point because I don’t know of *any* American artist who directly receives my tax dollars, as NEA does not give grants directly to artists. NEA funds, as I understand it, go to institutions – generally to pay curator and keep the doors open. Little or none of those funds actually go to working artists.

    ” “Nobody understands me!!” is melodramatic and vomit-inducing. If my ‘message’ is not communicating ideas successfully to the public, it means I have to change, not them.”

    My proposal above is not to fund artists, it is to fund programs that benefit everyone through education – one side effect is that more people will be active, rather than passive consumers of art.

    I don’t know of any artist that wants to eat at the government’s table, precisely for reasons given in my post, and in another post prior: it’s hard to cast a critical eye at the hand that feeds you – conflict of interest.

    I don’t relish the fact that most of my tax dollars go places that I find abhorrent. However I do want my tax dollars going to education – that has a direct impact on the economy. I teach at two very different colleges, but in both cases, students are not coming out of high school with the intellectual and creative skills to even recognize when there are opportunities to invent with novel solutions. Those creative skills could be developed through arts education that simply doesn’t exist. If there were a measure or policy that I could vote for, I would gladly pay extra, knowing that it it a much sounder investment in America’s future than most of what my dollars currently go to.

  20. Brian Sherwin says:

    “an administration that is open-minded toward the arts”

    I’m sorry — but President Obama’s administration has not done much yet to show me that they are open-minded toward the arts. Obama has been silent on many controversial issues involving art, censorship, and so on — but he can comment on a basketball game? What the hell. Where is this ‘Champion of Art’ that so many were ranting about during the campaign?

    As for funding for the arts in general — honestly, I think more should go toward early art education. More needs to be done to bring art to smaller communities as well. I’ve seen small communities — ones that people would technically call rural communities — come together to establish their own art community… and it actually ends up boosting the local economy due to art festivals and so on. With a little help they could increase their efforts.

    As for art museums — I think more museums should focus on documenting regional art in order to preserve that history. In fact, I would go as far as to say that in order to continue receiving funding they should be expected to exhibit — at least one time a year — art from the region. Not art selected by the art world elite either — art chosen by the public. After all, the public helps to keep museum doors open. An initiative like that could benefit ALL artists — give artists a chance that they would never have otherwise.

  21. […] other week, I read a post by Tyler Green about the Obama Administration’s failures to make good on art policy promises while offering up art-advo…. President Obama straightens Thomas Moran's The Three Tetons (1895) in the Oval Office. Photo […]

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