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Art, Government, Money — and a New Administration


by Jerome Weeks 26 Jan 2009

There has been a lot of debate and speculation about what President Obama might do with arts funding, arts policy and the NEA in particular, now that President Bush’s appointed head, Dana Gioia, has resigned. Thanks to Quincy Jones, and the online petition supporting him, there’s been much talk about a ‘secretary for the arts‘ […]

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There has been a lot of debate and speculation about what President Obama might do with arts funding, arts policy and the NEA in particular, now that President Bush’s appointed head, Dana Gioia, has resigned. Thanks to Quincy Jones, and the online petition supporting him, there’s been much talk about a ‘secretary for the arts‘ — or in arts blogger Tyler Green’s preferred formulation, a “White House arts adviser,” akin to the long-established “science adviser.” Meanwhile, Baylor professor David Smith, author of Money for Art, has written in the Wall Street Journal against the idea of a cabinet-level arts position as an “old, bad idea.”

The big reasons for all this hubbub? Obama was one of the rare presidential candidates to issue a formulated arts policy statement. Which raised a lot of hopes and the expected Kennedy-era echoes, this time with Yo-Yo Ma and poet Elizabeth Alexander performing at the inauguration. But here it is, the second week of the new administration, the transition is over, the cabinet has been formed, and he hasn’t indicated anything definite about who he might pick for the NEA and NEH. Or anything else arts-wise.

Plus, there’s that recession. Which is why arts leaders are putting pressure on Congress and the administration to do something soon:

“We wanted to make sure arts were not left out of the recovery,” said Robert L. Lynch, president of Americans for the Arts, a national lobbying group. “The artist’s paycheck is every bit as important as the steelworker’s paycheck or the autoworker’s paycheck.”

… what arts executives are most eager for, they say, is additional direct financing and a president who sends the message that art is important. The country’s 100,000 nonprofit arts groups employ some six million people and contribute $167 billion to the economy annually, Mr. Lynch said. “I don’t think of this as a bailout for the arts,” he added. “It’s an economic investment in the arts.”

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  • Bill Marvel

    A Secretary for the Arts is a bad idea. The arts should not be entangled with government for the same reason religion shouldn’t be entangled with government. Entanglement means control. The pressure to underwrite and encourage anything but the blandest of works will be irresistible. We’ll get endless cries for censorship, endless protests, Congressmen acting as art critics. Most artists will hunger down and produce safe works. Those on the margins will be no better off.
    The greatest objection is that the public will inevitably come away with a false idea of what art is and what it’s supposed to do. We’ll choke on cheery, affirmative art that reinforces all the received ideas. Political correctness will reign.
    I don’t want to be put into the position of urging that the art market that we have now is desirable. But in many ways it’s preferable to art sponsored by the government, even a seemingly benevolent government. Perhaps especially a benevolent government.