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Romney’s going to kill arts funding. So how’s Obama doing?

The Republican candidate has made it clear that he intends to shut down the National Endowment for the Arts which, for the past half-century has funneled small amounts of seed capital into deserving causes. Following a huge debate on this topic, Slipped Disc has commissioned a series of articles on the state of the arts in the United States under the Obama administration.

Will the arts be better off in an Obama second term?

To start the ball rolling, here’s Nicholas Alexander Brown, a Conductor and Arts Administrator based in Washington, D.C. He argues that the arts were badly hit in the first half of the term, followed by an upward correction in the second. Are the arts worse off than in 2008?

1600 Pennsylvania Avenue and the Arts

By Nicholas Alexander Brown

American presidents have served as barometers for the health of the Arts in America as early as the turn of the nineteenth century. It was Thomas Jefferson’s sale of his personal library to Congress in 1815 which established the Library of Congress, one third of which is comprised of books relating to “Imagination,” Jefferson’s own classification topics relating to the creative arts.

It is without question that President Barack Obama assumed the United States presidency in the midst of one of the greatest global economic crises ever recorded. Therefore, it is no surprise that his policies towards the Arts have been impacted by the fiscal climate. During his 2008 campaign, then-Senator Obama developed a structured arts policy, promising to advocate and invest in arts education, develop private/public sector relationships with schools and arts institutions, establish an “Artist Corps” and provide health care to artists.

While advances have been made with many of these promises, there have been significant reductions to government arts agency budgets during the President’s tenure. Yes, budgets of the National Endowments of the Arts and Humanities were reduced by 13% in the 2012 budget proposal. There have also been significant cuts to every other government agency, from the Department of Defense to the Executive Office. The reductions in arts funding ought to be viewed as a result of the times rather than a desire to undermine the vitality of the American creativity.

The President’s commitment to the Arts may be evaluated in the trend of arts funding in his budget proposals from 2009 to present, not to mention that he is a distinguished author. Americans for the Arts, a non-partisan advocacy organization, produced a study evaluating the well-being of the Arts in the United States this year. After 2009, which received the lowest index rating since 1998, there was a slight increase in 2010. The President’s policies reflect a desire to gradually increase federal government funding for the Arts in a cautious manner which accounts for the current economic instability.

The 2013 budget proposal sees a 5% increase for the principal cultural agencies:  the NEA, NEH, Institute of Museum and Library Services, Smithsonian, Kennedy Center and National Gallery of Art. Hardly enough to compensate for previous reductions in full, there has nonetheless been a clear impetus from the administration to achieve its goals through effective uses of available means. The key to this mission has been innovative programming and educational efforts, such as the President’s Committee on the Arts and Humanities establishment of the Turnaround Arts Initiative, working in low-performing schools to increase student engagement in the Arts through public and private sector partnerships.

Perhaps both candidates for president should take heed of FDR’s success with the Works Progress Administration and its Federal Music, Art and Theatre Projects, for the sake of innovating ways to put unemployed artists to work. It seems like a win-win to provide jobs to thespians, musicians and artists, while formally implementing an increased focus on arts education and encouraging creativity.

(Remember Inauguration Day?)

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  1. Norman, did you intentionally attach the video of Perlman and Ma playing “air” violin/cello at O’s inauguration? If not. you might want to reconsider. Otherwise, I’ll take that as an indirect comment on his administration.

    • Robert Fitzpatrick says:

      My vote is to leave the video in place, Norman. It was a great moment even though the music was prerecorded by the same artists. The only thing “dishonest” about it is that TV commentators didn’t mention the pre-recorded sound until well after the event (they knew about it because of the technical needs of that feed). The temperature at that moment was about -2C. Yes, it is an indirect comment on the Obama administration. They presented serious music front-and-center. The clarinetist Anthony McGill is from Chicago and is currently Principal Clarinet of the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra. I believe that everyone recognized the string players. There is also no question that the follow-up has been disappointing; we can hope for better in his next term. If Romney were to win, I leave it to the good contributors to this blog to suggest the program and the artists.

  2. Mr. Brown served as an intern in the office of First Lady, Michele Obama. This helps us understand why his commentary reads like a highly manipulative political speech rather than a statement of fact. Obama has not kept his promise to raise the NEA budget to 190 million, the level it had before it was almost halved in the 90s. He made empty promises, as politicians are want to do. In simpler terms, it’s called lying.

    To rationalize this betrayal as necessitated by economic conditions is absurd. The NEA budget of 154 million is only about 1/25,000th of the 3.7 billion dollar Federal budget. Reducing the NEA by 13% has no effect whatsoever on the deficit, and yet Mr. Brown and the other Democrats who have betrayed us use this as an excuse. It would also have had no effect on the deficit to raise it to the promised 190 million. Shame on them.

    I hope this series of commentaries will contain some honest and informed voices. We have already heard too much empty political baloney like Mr. Brown espouses.

    • Correction: That should read 3.7 TRILLION for the Federal budget.

    • Paul D. Sullivan, Arlington/Boston US says:


      The Federal Budget for FY 2011-2012 was $3.8 TRILLION of which $1.56 TRILLION was deficit spending.
      You are correct in saying he has not kept many of his promises either. That being said you must realize that CONGRESS controls the money, and there was no way that republicans were going to allow any increase, no matter how small, in the NEA budget. It is, after all, something they have wanted for years to remove. I truly don’t believe will get any additional funding now or in the near future no matter who gets elected.

      As always, Individuals and the private sector will carry on with their support, or at least what we can afford, so expect more bad news for a long time to come.

  3. “Will the arts be better off in an Obama second term?” Wherever one resides within the political spectrum, shouldn’t the question be whether the nation would be better off in an Obama second term? By comparison the arts issue is a sideshow.

    • No, we should not shift our focus to the larger picture and ignore the arts. We are artists and the arts are a significant force in shaping the larger picture.

      • Very true. One would think that, with studies clearly demonstrating the positive effects of the arts in schools and society (as Brown noted), they would be significantly embraced by governments attempting to deal with social ills. But that would call for some big thinking and compromise.

  4. No one is saying we should ignore the arts; certainly as an artist myself I do not by any means suggest that we do. My point is that as a citizen or larger national issues should be of primary concern, for the health of the arts is entirely dependent upon the health of the country as a whole. Being a musical ostrich helps no one, artists and laymen alike.

    • I agree. That is why we as artists should keep a strong focus on the arts and their support structures. The arts have profound social influences, and in fact, that is why they are being supressed.

    • “for the health of the arts is entirely dependent upon the health of the country as a whole. ”


      “for the health of the country as a whole is entirely dependent upon the health of the arts.”

      I think the health of a country as a whole and the arts are inseparable.

  5. I found it a bit ironic that this post moaning about NEA juxtaposed against the post about composer Allan Pettersson, ” the Swedish composer who resisted the blandishments of state respectability.” All the great music and not even a dime from the NEA.

    Dollars to donuts, The late, great Mr. Petterson would be the last person the nitwits at the NEA would give a grant to.

    • The work in question by him was recorded by the state owned and operated Swedish Norrköping Symphony Orchestra. Due to the many state orchestras, it is far easier for European composers to have orchestral works performed and recorded.

  6. Live Obama Inaugural Music:

  7. I was with you up till the suppression part.

    • It is difficult for Americans to believe that their government would suppress the arts, even though massive events ranging from McCarthyism to the CIA’s Congress for Cultural Freedom are well documented examples. Jessie Helms halved the NEA budget in the 90s because he did not like some of the art that was being funded.

      • Cutting a budget doesn’t equal suppression. Such a conclusion reeks of entitlement.

        • Eliminating or reducing financial support structures suppresses any field subjected to it, arts or not. Another example is eliminating or confining funding to suppress various aspects of birth control – another big republican theme – though one the Democrats have been better at fighting. The American rightwing does not like what many artists have to say, so they keep funding for the NEA at a minimum. Of course, there are ostriches who refuse to see that…

  8. The NEA has, with the exception of the 40% of their budgets directed to state arts councils, become increasingly irrelevant over the past 10 years as they have changed their grant making priorities. Barely worth the effort these days for orchestras.

  9. I spent some time working at Bain and Company in the early 1980s, and from my experience with “Bain culture” I believe that Mitt Romney’s sense of art would be, at best, just something to invest in in order make money. Music doesn’t really fit into the economic scheme he seems to set forth in his vision of the future.

    (I worked at Bain as a word processor, and I left when I realized how counter the culture of downsizing was to my personal sense of morality.)

    President Obama really does like music and art, and he hasn’t proudly declared that he wants to defund the NEA and the NEH like Romney has.

    • Hi Elaine. That’s what I find so interesting. The Republicans castigate the NEA even though it is a completely insignificant part of the budget, but then do not actually eliminate it. And the Democrats propose minor increases that amount to almost nothing and sometimes even reduce the budget. It’s like a simulation of politics that in reality gives us no viable choices. Why is there no party, or even a politician, who wants to create a public funding system for the arts comparable to what ALL other developed countries have long had? How can we stand so completely apart from the rest of the world without any politician offering an alternative?

      “They’ve got a set of Republican waiters on one side and a set of Democratic waiters on the other side, but no matter which set of waiters brings you the dish, the legislative grub is all prepared in the same Wall Street kitchen.”
      — Huey Long, campaign speech for the re-election of Senator Hattie Caraway (D-AR), 1932

  10. My sense of what art is and some other American person’s sense of what art is are never going to agree with one another (unless we happen to play in an ensemble together). I actually don’t think that supporting classical music organizations the way they need to be supported is possible to do in 21st-century America. The way classical music organizations (and all arts organizations, for that matter) remain viable has everything to do with individual people who care about music, and lots of them. All the past successful patrons of the arts rode their own hobby horses, and they made it possible for some terrific composers to write some terrific music. Consider Aaron Copland, our president’s favorite composer. If, for example, Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge (who, as we all know, was not related to Calvin) hadn’t commissioned a Ballet from Martha Graham with music by Copland, we would be far poorer as a culture. Coolidge had her interests: they aimed towards the mid 20th-century avant garde (like Schoenberg) and the rediscovery of great composers of the past (like Monteverdi–she paid for the first scholarly publication of his works in conventional modern notation).

    A big problem today is that there are not enough people with large amounts of money and a real interest in the kind of music that rich people during the mid 20th century were interested in. Since America is a country organized around selling stuff (free enterprise), it would be a rare thing indeed for people who made it to high-level positions in a hypothetical organization that REALLY funded the arts they way they need to be funded (to provide endowments for ensembles that would allow them to be able to function properly in the 21st century without having to spend so much energy and so many financial resources on public relations and marketing) to be a person you or I would share musical tastes with.

    Maybe a pie-in-the-sky solution would be to set up a special pension fund so that musicians and artists who have spent their entire lives working for very little money (I’m thinking about freelancers and composers like me who work like crazy but are only able to piece together a meager living), but have contributed a great deal to the culture can live their later years in a truly dignified manner. Application would be by resume, and the stipulation for getting such a pension would be that the recipient would be expected to share his or her knowledge a few times a month with young people in public schools, during school hours.

    Yeah. Right.

    • Paul D. Sullivan, Arlington/Boston US says:


      Thanks for bringing some sense to the discussion. No matter how the European members here deride the US the fact of the matter remains that the private sector has always supplied money for arts. Your statement about tje new wealthy class is so true, they have little connection with classical music. Sad but true. Even the members of my own local orchestra, the BSO, show no interest in talking to concertgoers. They are the first out of the house, rushing to their SUV’s ans Mercedes not once thanking patrons and concertgoers for their attendance. Averting their eyes and rushing off. To talk with an orchestra member costs a donor $1359 to talk with an orchestra member “intimately” costs $5000. In all my years of exiting the Hall only 2 BSO players have ever spoken to me J. Salkowski retired Bass (who has become a very close friend) and Susan Neilson,bassoon a very gracious player, The rest rush out to their cars and speed away. Here is what it costs to “meet” a player in the orchestra:

      I have to admit that it is only the tenured players that act this way. Contract players are much more approachable and and willing to talk with you. It is unlikley that I could possibly afford $1350 to $5000 talk” with the tenured players, and they could care less anyway. BTW I’ve been to literally 100′s of BSO/POPs over the years and have a 24 concert subscription this year also. And in the past I have been a substantial donor also,
      This was mainly to POPs to try to invigorate the playing of “Lt. Classics” but they have disappeared totally from the repertoire.

      I would like to here from all musicians, low and pro to hear what tour suggestions are to resurrect orchestral music here in the states. Not someone from Europe that has only the desire to trash us but but folks from the US who have a true desire to save us. What can I , we do to rescue our bands, My paltry checkbook remains open. Where should my money go?

      • Oh how things have changed in Boston, Paul. This is very disturbing, and this graphic boggles my mind. This is not the BSO I knew.

        When I was growing up in Boston, the relationship between orchestra members and friends was very different, but then again the orchestra was very different (what a difference a generation makes). The BSO used to have a fundraising “program” where if you paid a certain amount of money to the orchestra you would get to go on an airplane ride with one of the pilot members of the orchestra (there were a few, as I remember), or groups of musicians would come to your house to give a private concert (I did this with my family many times when my father was still playing in the BSO). There were cooks in the orchestra, and people with various hobbies, and members totally enjoyed sharing their talents with people from the audience for the benefit of the orchestra. Orchestra members were very friendly. There were always people backstage after the concerts, and they were always normal people from the audience. It was in Boston that I learned how important the relationship of performing musician to audience member actually is.

      • There is something extremely distasteful about the practice of the wealthy getting to interact with a musician by paying 5000 dollars. I remember reading about an Austrian performance artist who made a parody of this. For ten thousand dollars, the organization would provide a small, private booth where the patron could take the artist and do what he or she wanted. The arts should not privilege the wealthy, and especially not in ways that have disgusting, neo-feudalistic overtones. Artists should be engaged with their communities, but in ways that are dignified, sensible, democratic, and humanistic.

        I’m an American composer who has lived in Europe for over 30 yeas, more or less as an economic refugee. The idea that fund-raising should be oriented around groupie-like fans hob-knobbing with musicians is rather silly. An orchestra needs thousands of patrons and there would simply not be time for the musicians to interact with all of them.

        America will continue to rely on such nonsense until it joins the rest of the developed world and creates an effective system of public funding for the arts. This isn’t demeaning America, my country, but simply looking at the truth so that we can begin to make genuine progress instead of fooling ourselves.

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