Image by Sean O’Hare
Do you really know much about the history of arts funding?
A quick brush-up: Read Davd A. Smith’s Money for Art. A quicker brush-up: Read the Art&Seek essay on Money for Art, beginning with Part 1.
Or go ahead, be creative, just plunge right in.
1. Which president established the National Endowment for the Arts?
a) Roosevelt b) Eisenhower c) Kennedy d) Johnson
2. To which Democratic president was JFK’s old “Camelot” mantle — as a patron of the arts — passed on?
a) Carter b) Clinton c) Obama d) all of them
3. Which president oversaw the greatest expansion of the NEA’s budget and reach?
a) Johnson b) Nixon c) Ford d) Carter e) Reagan f) Bush 1 g) Clinton h) Bush 2
4. Name the only American president with a background as a professional artist.
5. A two-parter: Name the president whose administration was both hailed and feared as the one that would kill the NEA. And what made his position or approach different than all previous political opposition to the endowment?
BONUS QUESTION: Give at least two reasons all of this is relevant to President Obama.
1. Franklin Roosevelt established the Works Progress Administration (WPA), which included the original, federally funded arts programs, but he did not create the NEA. And the WPA was dead by 1943. For his part, John Kennedy inspired people as a glamorous patron of the arts (and thus helped advance the cause of arts funding in general). But it was Lyndon Johnson who did the heavy lifting and pushed the legislation through Congress that established the NEA. LBJ (and Lady Bird) has rarely gotten the credit he deserves for this, partly because he and the arts world were always extremely wary of each other.
Kennedy did get artists and their social circles considerably enthused by simply spotlighting writers, composers and musicians, inviting them to the White House. Somewhat surprisingly, this had never been done to the extent that Kennedy did. Flattered artists felt that, at last, they had a president who understood their struggles and their contributions to America’s place in the world.
These moves weren’t all just gestures. Kennedy’s secretary of labor, Arthur Goldberg, had the department intercede as the arbitrator in the 1961 Metropolitan Opera strike — saying,”the nation must come to accept the arts as a new community responsibility and part of this responsibility must fall to the federal government.”
But in reality, Kennedy’s personal tastes tended more toward James Bond novels and Las Vegas acts. And as Dr. Smith notes, much of our federal promotion of culture at the time — beginning with Eisenhower but gaining real momentum under Kennedy and Johnson — was approached as another front in the Cold War. We were trying to counter Soviet propaganda that American culture was shallow and commercial.
On the other hand, Jackie Kennedy was an eager employer of the First Lady’s media spotlight and became a major figure promoting glittery high culture to the American public. She was also a true fan, a bit awed by the creative types. When she was introduced to Aaron Copland, she was, for once, struck speechless. “Oh, Mr. Copland!” was all she could say. See Alex Ross’ The Rest is Noise.
2. Because of Roosevelt’s WPA but even more because of the Kennedys’ shining example, every Democratic president since the ’60s — Carter, Clinton and Obama — has been greeted with an effusive arts crowd hailing a new renaissance in America, no matter how thin (or non-existent) the evidence was for such hope.
During Carter’s campaign, for example, when his “peanut farming man of the people” image was promoted, the candidate was actually much better known for enjoying beer and the Allman Brothers than liking classical music or poetry (which he actually wrote — something Dr. Smith fails to mention). Carter’s presidential opponent, Gerald Ford, had actually become a notable convert to government arts funding, while Carter had cut the state arts budget when he was governor of Georgia. It didn’t matter; Carter was welcomed by the arts community anyway.
As for Clinton, it was widely assumed that he, too, would bring a new cultural awakening until it became clear that the arts were far down on his political agenda. Despite being painted by his enemies as a radical liberal, Clinton was a thoroughly pragmatic politician. Most of the artsy-intellectual types were already in his camp, so why spend any political capital wooing them?
In the end, the NEA and National Endowment for the Humanities took their biggest budget hits ever under Clinton, dropping them to the levels of the late ’70s. Clinton did eventually make a smart appointment with Jane Alexander to head the NEA. But it was the Clinton Justice Department that appealed the case against the NEA Four to the Supreme Court — against Alexander’s advice — and deservedly lost. As is characteristic of much of his presidency, Clinton spent so much time staving off the Gingrich Revolution and his own impeachment that it’s hard to say he actively advanced the cause of the arts much. It could be said that he helped save the NEA from an even worse budget beating.
3. Because Democratic presidents can expect to be awarded this “high art halo” by default, most people don’t realize that Richard Nixon presided over the largest expansion of the NEA’s budget. Nixon’s motives, though, were not entirely altruistic. Dr. Smith recognizes the cynical calculations here: Nixon hoped to buy off some of his liberal critics. But he argues that Nixon really believed the arts could help heal what he saw as a wounded nation. I tend to weigh the cynical calculations more in the balance myself, but then I’m prone to cynical calculations. See my comments below on How to Rank Your Score.
4. and 5. Harry Truman played the piano, Dwight Eisenhower liked to paint and Bill Clinton played the sax. But none of them made a career of it. Ronald Reagan holds the ironic position of being both the only president who had actually worked as a professional artist (yes, movie acting qualifies, especially when you once were the head of the Screen Actors Guild) and the president who was considered most likely — by conservative supporters and liberal opponents alike — to kill the NEA.
He represented a significant game change for arts funding: Before Reagan, the NEA had never suffered a serious budget setback. But it had always battled Congressional opposition with White House support backing the endowment, no matter how tepid. Now it was Congressional forces that sought to save the NEA from a presidential administration whose members, notably budget director David Stockman, considered it a waste of money and a primary target for elimination. In the end, some of Reagan’s conservative friends, notably Charlton Heston, tried to persuade the president to save the endowment
BONUS: Obviously, President Obama’s candidacy and administration have been too recent to be included in Dr. Smith’s Money for Art. But all of this arts funding history is relevant for at least three reasons. First, as noted in Answer #2, Obama has inherited the Kennedy mantle, big time. Second, he inherited it big-time because he was the first presidential candidate in history to campaign with a lengthy, detailed arts policy even before he successfully garnered the Democratic nomination. This sent the arts community’s hopes through the roof. And third, Obama, being true to his campaign promises of ‘hope’ and ‘change,’ has made a notable appointment with Broadway producer and theater owner Rocco Landesman to head up the NEA.
How to Rank Your Score:
- 0-2 correct answers – Arts, schmarts. None of this counts toward our final grade, does it?
- 2-4 correct answers – Very good! You know enough to sound off in tweets, blogs or call-in talk shows.
- 4 or more – Top notch. Sign up now. You, too, can be a frustrated arts manager.