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Obama Administration Lets Down The Arts — Again

Ordinarily, I would agree that President Obama has too many other important things on his desk right now to spend time finding someone to head the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities. True, Rocco Landesman exited the NEA late last year, and Jim Leach left the NEH months ago, but there is the little matter of health care, not to mention Syria, Iran, etc. that the President has to deal with.

downloadHowever, I sat up and took notice in late September, when the White House sent me notice of these “key administration posts”:

  • Frank F. Islam – General Trustee, Board of Trustees of the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts
  • Amalia Perea Mahoney  – General Trustee, Board of Trustees of the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts
  • Shonda L. Rhimes – General Trustee, Board of Trustees of the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts
  • David M. Rubenstein – General Trustee, Board of Trustees of the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts
  • Alexandra C. Stanton – General Trustee, Board of Trustees of the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts
  • Walter F. Ulloa – General Trustee, Board of Trustees of the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts

And it happened again today, when I receive more news of “key administration posts”:

  • Stephanie Cutter – Member, President’s Committee on the Arts and the Humanities
  • Caroline “Kim” Taylor – Member, President’s Committee on the Arts and the Humanities
  • Margaret Russell – General Trustee, Board of Trustees of the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts

The Kennedy Center is worthy of attention but, you know, it already has a heck of a lot of trustees. These are simply political appointments – rewards of some political sort.

Meanwhile, the Endowments are being lead by Joan Shigekawa, Senior Deputy Chairman of the NEA, and Carole M. Watson, Acting Chairman of the NEH. No “acting,” “senior deputy” or “interim” has real clout with Congress.

For a man who was supposed to be an arts backer, President Obama has been disappointing from the outset — and it only continues.


  1. Lutoslawski says:

    I agree with you completely. The arts and humanities are off Obama’s radar. This may have something to do with his education policy, which focuses exclusively on science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. Very disappointing indeed.

  2. As a supporter of Barack Obama since his 2007 primary campaign (and a continuing supporter on most issues he faces), I share Ms. Dobrzynski’s disappointment in the extended vacancy of this post. At a time when the president’s every move is blocked by a discredited and dysfunctional opposition party, here is an opportunity for an appointment with no pushback.

    This frustration is hardly new. At a Conference of musicians (representing top American orchestras) last August in Kansas City, the proceedings opened with a call to fill this vacancy and concluded a few days later with a formal resolution to do the same.

    For more detail about that Conference and the weight given to this issue, I recommend pages 2-3 on the following link.

    Full disclosure – I earn my living as a musician in the Virginia Symphony where some of us have a saying, “Supporting the Arts Means Supporting the Artists.” How about it, Mr. President?

  3. Disagree.

    Obama continues to to be the only presidential candidate to publish an arts platform, and his was the only campaign to give a decent amount of time to arts advocates. I also know of no precedent for his appointment of William Ivey to see through the transition to Rocco Landesman. One of the first benefits for the arts after Obama’s election was a $50m allocation for the NEA from the Recovery Act, which was not as much as many had hoped but by no means a sure thing. Republicans predictably rallied to try and kill it, and Senator Schumer even voted against it (although he later claimed not to have known exactly what he was voting on). In sum, at the outset Obama was certainly not a disappointment.

    US Government funding for the arts under Obama has actually increased, but it’s been largely under the radar. Certainly not at the NEA, which continued to be a high-profile right wing target in an era when abuse of the filibuster and Republican majorities on House Committees (which, for example, killed a request for additional funding for Landesman’s “Our Town” initiative) basically put paid to any progress on that score.

    The clearest example of success I know of is at the State Department, where Obama’s goal of promoting cultural diplomacy has been realized with new funding for such programs as DanceMotion, smARTpowerSM (which advanced two planks of the Obama platform – cultural diplomacy and creating an artist corps) and Arts Envoy. There have also been advances in the platform’s goal of promoting arts education through public/private partnerships (

    So I haven’t been disappointed in Obama as an arts backer. But I’ve been deeply disappointed in Republicans who have consistently blocked attempts to increase government funding for the arts, and used the arts as a political pawn to manufacture misguided outrage to rally their base (for example, taking the Wojnarowicz video at the Smithsonian completely out of context for purely political gain, turning a blind eye to the damage that ensued for the arts).

    I recently secured a grant from the US State Department for an international tour – the first of my career. I tried to do the same in 2003, during the Bush administration. I called a State Department employee to ask for guidance, and she laughed at me. Let me tell you, I was definitely disappointed with that.

    For anyone reading this, next time someone throws out a blanket condemnation of Obama’s record on the arts, I suggest you take a bit of time and look beneath the surface.

    • Use of the arts as a “political pawn”? The Obama administration has in the past not been above that practice, as documented by Aristos Co-Editor Michelle Kamhi (once dubbed “The Joe McCarthy of Art Education” by Richard Kessler, the former executive director of the Center for Arts Education in New York) in “The Hijacking of Art Education” Aristos, April 2010 [ ]:

      “One of the chief sources cited in the 2010 [National Art Education Association] program coordinator’s notes is a White House Briefing on Art, Community, Social Justice, [and] National Recovery held in May 2009. According to a published report, the purpose of the briefing was, in part, to determine ‘how the remarkable mobilizing power of community arts can be used by the Obama administration as a tool and a pathway for national recovery’ and ‘to identify existing efforts within the cultural and social justice movements that are in alignment with the national agenda . . . on such issues as green jobs, health care and economic justice.'”

      The article cites numerous other examples of the politicization of art in our culture.

      Louis Torres, Co-Editor, Aristos (An Online Review of the Arts)

      • Sounds to me like an attempt at responsible use of taxpayer dollars that would benefit Republicans and Democrats alike.

        If more government funding were given to arts projects that created more green jobs, improved health care, and achieved greater economic justice, I’m all for it.

    • I will grant you the $50 million in stimulus, but I would guess that then-Secretary of State Clinton was behind the grants you describe.

      • Well, there’s a direct correlation between the kinds of cultural diplomacy initiatives described in Obama’s arts platform and these new State Department initiatives.

        So if we’re guessing, I’m going to give Obama the benefit of the doubt and say that these initiatives came about as a result of the platform he established at the outset.

  4. Blah, blah, blah, blah, blah. The President should have appointed new leadership at the NEA and NEH some time ago for regardless of whether those agencies are funded properly or improperly, regardless of whether they are or are not targets for the radical right, they still exist and they still have staff and they still have programs to administer and they still have funds to disburse and you can’t navigate a ship indefinitely without a duly authorized captain — unless, of course, you’re OK with subordinate leadership dissolving into puddles of disfavor, disunity, disillusion and resentment. Which is just what the radical right is hoping for.

    But all of this is entirely separate from the question of whether the President’s development, creation and presentation of an arts platform ultimately translated into workable policy — and, just as important, policy achievements. In this respect, he has disappointed me — though not surprised me, and this is coming from one who supported Obama in 2008 and 2012 and remain steadfastly ready to fall on my sword for him.

    The problem is now what the problem was then: too many in nonprofit-land still labor under the misguided notion that if we’d only hurl hundreds of millions of more dollars at the NEA and NEH all the sector’s issues and problems would cease. They would not. I write that knowing most of you reading this will disagree. You have every right to be wrong.

    But knowing how so many cling to the notion that government largesse and only government largesse can cure the chronic ills of the sector — not unlike the right-wingers who cling to their guns, believing that arming oneself to the teeth is the only way to spare America from demographic doom — I have given up trying to shout to the deaf and bedazzle the blind on this. Realistically, when the President does pick a head of the NEA and NEH, he will most likely pick a quiet, diffident, placeholder-caretaker type, and charge them with avoiding any attention-drawing ripples in the water. The moment for a cogent, coherent, holistic national arts policy came and went in 2008 and 2009. It will not return, if it ever does, until there is a new President and, to be sure, a Democratic Congress.

    • I don’t for a minute think that the NEA/NEH and government largesse are the answer to curing the chronic ills of the arts sector. But his inaction toward them, even as he makes political appointments, are indicative of his attitude towards the arts. His arts platform was a gesture, but that’s about it.

  5. A challenging and complex issue — certainly President Obama’s accomplishments pale compared to his campaign platform and Bill Ivey’s transition document.. But the opposition is fierce and the administration has been fighting for its life on all fronts pretty much since the day after the 2008 elections. If the Republicans can block the confirmation of manymoderate judges to vacancies on a federal court, as well as a cabinet nomination proposed for a sitting 11-term House member, what makes anyone think they would allow the confirmation of anyone as chair of NEA and NEH? My guess from far outside (Indiana, 600 miles outside of DC) is that the White House probably doesn’t see the inevitable filibuster “hold” of its nominees as worth the trouble, so these posts will likely go unfilled until (!) the vetoproof Dem majority arrives in the Senate.

  6. Jim VanKirk says:

    Hear, hear.

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