Bending the President's ear

It was less than two weeks after the election that Quincy Jones told John Schaefer on WNYC radio, "The next conversation I have with President`-elect` Obama is to beg for a secretary of the arts." The legendary composer and arranger wasn't the first to promote that idea, but his comment juiced the possibility like no one had before. The bassist Jaime Austria, who plays in the New York City Opera Orchestra, took up the charge, setting up an online petition which, as of 3 p.m. Tuesday, Feb. 10, had more than a quarter of a million signatures.

Americans for the Arts president and CEO Robert Lynch is among those who had previously called for a senior-level arts advocate in the West Wing. He acknowledges that Washington has some federal arts support in the national endowments for the Arts and Humanities, and that the State Department sends cultural icons on ambassadorial missions. Still in play is the possibility that the NEA could get a $50 million boost on its roughly $145 million budget, thanks to Obama's economic stimulus plan. A Feb. 9 dispatch from United Arts of Central Florida explained the bad news that followed the good news that the House bill did include the $50 million for the NEA.

"On Friday, the U.S. Senate, during their consideration of the economic recovery bill, approved an egregious amendment offered by Sen. Tom Coburn (R-OK) that stated ‘None of the amounts appropriated or otherwise made available by this Act may be used for any casino or other gambling establishment, aquarium, zoo, golf course, swimming pool, stadium, community park, museum, theater, art center, and highway beautification project.' Unfortunately, the amendment passed by a wide vote margin of 73-24, and surprisingly included support from many high profile Senators including Chuck Schumer of New York, Dianne Feinstein of California, Barbara Mikulski of Maryland, Bob Casey of Pennsylvania, Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota, Russ Feingold of Wisconsin, and several other Democratic and Republican Senators including Bill Nelson and Mel Martinez." (posted in full at

Sherron Long, president of the Florida Cultural Alliance, which works in partnership with Americans for the Arts, says, "We are very disappointed with Sen. Nelson and Sen. Martinez, because we had discussed with them … how vital the arts and culture industry is to Florida's economy."

That doesn't mean it's too late to contact both state and national representatives, she adds, and all the links to do so are posted on Even if the Senate version of the bill does not include the NEA, Long says there will be another opportunity in "conference" for both the House and Senate to hash over what's in and what's out.

Lynch says that even with increased funding, the NEA can't fully leverage the possibility American culture offers as a representation of America to the world. And it's not just about money.

"The existing federal infrastructure in support of the arts doesn't have a senior official in the West Wing to connect the dots," Lynch says. "So when needs or opportunities come up, there's no one to talk about cultural diplomacy. Like when the New York Philharmonic went to North Korea `in February 2008` — that happened privately, so the U.S. government wasn't involved in one of the most significant cultural diplomacy events that we've had." The Bush administration even played down the concert, which reportedly involved the largest group of Americans to visit North Korea since the end of the Korean war.

But change is in the air. The current president has put action where his advocacy is, involving artists prominently in his campaign, which included an arts platform calling for, among other things, health care for artists.

Lynch says Americans for the Arts, a national advocacy organization with 5,000 organizational and individual members, pressed for the same in a 2007 pro-arts policy brief, and again last month in recommendations on how the arts could be supported in Obama's economic stimulus package. He also points to others that have pushed for a Secretary for the Arts. The U.S. Conference of Mayors, in 2008, offered a 10-point plan for how the president could help American cities. One of the points was "the creation of a Cabinet level Secretary of Culture and Tourism charged with forming a national policy for arts, culture and tourism."

And then there's Bill Ivey. In his book Arts Inc.: How Greed and Neglect Have Destroyed Our Cultural Rights, the former NEA chairman has also called for a senior White House staff arts liaison. Ivey had a role in Obama's transition team, so his voice may have extra weight.

Besides the New York Philharmonic's example of international diplomacy, Lynch mentions others that show how some cities — like Philadelphia, San Francisco and Miami — have benefited from cabinet-level arts liaisons in their mayors' offices, making connections between arts organizations and local economic opportunities. Of course, not all artists and performers are enthusiastic about governmental involvement. There are plenty who don't want city hall or the White House to have any part in supporting the arts because they fear that funding and a politically connected voice would come with obligations and, potentially, censorship. Or that artistic work would be co-opted to promote official messages, as happened under the Depression-era Federal Art Project of the Works Progress Administration.

Lynch doesn't think that's a real concern. "Art does not become subservient. The danger is for art to be seen as simply decoration and amusement," rather than an integral part of culture.

As far as money goes, he thinks no one is talking about enough money to compromise the arts and cultural sector because, he says, ticket sales and private donations account for about 90 percent of arts organizations' revenue in the U.S. Local governments provide a little more than 9 percent, primarily by investing in community development projects. Only one-third of 1 percent comes from the federal government.

In meetings with members of the Obama transition team, Lynch was told that the administration is taking the Secretary for the Arts idea very seriously. "They've gathered a lot of information. I would suspect within the next month or so we're going to see closure on a senior level position."

Additional reporting by Lindy T. Shepherd.

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