Patrice Walker Powell, NEA’s acting chairman, left (photo by Kevin Allen)
Carole Watson, NEH’s acting chairman, right
Part of the reason why culture is getting short shrift during this economically and politically sensitive moment may be the continuing vacuum of leadership at the top of the federal arts and humanties hierarchy.
Notwithstanding the opinion of Obama arts transition leader Bill Ivey, as expressed to me in a recent interview, that the new President “will see a vibrant cultural scene as a public good,” a truer indication of the place of the arts in presidential priorities may be that he has yet to appoint a chairman for either the National Endowment for the Arts or the National Endowment for the Humanities. These officials are the first-line advocates for cultural funding from Congress. Their absence is felt.
Just when we need strong inside-government advocates, to influence legislators’ thinking on whether to provide arts institutions and organizations with economic-stimulus support, we’ve got two placeholders:
Just yesterday, NEH announced that Carole Watson, the agency’s assistant chairman for partnership and national affairs, was appointed by Obama to serve as NEH’s acting chairman, “until the presidential nomination and Senate confirmation of the agency’s next chairman.”
Similarly, NEA announced last week that Patrice Walker Powell, NEA’s deputy chairman for states, regions, and local arts agencies, would serve as acting chairman. She’s not related to Colin, but her father, Wyatt Tee Walker, was former chief of staff to Martin Luther King Jr., NEA’s press office informed me.
In its Powell press release, NEA also announced that Anita Decker, a longtime Obama aide and a staffer in his presidential campaign, was appointed by the White House as the agency’s director of
government affairs. Shouldn’t the new director, whoever that may eventually be, have a role in choosing the staff? This looks too much like a reward for a loyal foot soldier.
Also falling below the radar was the December appointment by President Bush of visual artist Barbara Ernst Prey to the the National Council on the Arts, NEA’s advisory body, which reviews and makes recommendations to
the chairman on grant applications. The art agency’s then chairman, Dana Gioia, declared that Prey’s appointment continued “our tradition of having prominent visual artists as members
of the National Council on the Arts.” If, like me, you’re unfamiliar with her work, you can see it here. According to the description in NEA’s announcement, her paintings have been much shown at U.S. embassies and consulates. This new assignment came fast upon Bush’s appointment of country music singer Lee Greenwood to the National Council.
I’d like to think that Obama will treat arts and humanities appointments as seriously as appointments to other federal agencies. But initial indications are not encouraging.
Where’s Michael Dorf when we really need him?