Thursday, December 11, 2008

What An Obama Administration May Mean for the Arts

On Sunday's Meet the Press, the president-elect spoke about his vision for arts and culture in the White House. (A clip of this segment of the interview can be found on the blog of Americans for the Arts.)

"Part of what we want to do is to open up the White House and remind people this is the people's house," Obama told Tom Brokaw. "Thinking about the diversity of our culture and inviting jazz musicians and classical musicians and poetry readings in the White House so that once again we appreciate this incredible tapestry that's America... Historically, what has always brought us through hard times is that national character, that sense of optimism, that willingness to look forward, that sense that better days are ahead. I think that our art and our culture, our science--you know, that's the essence of what makes America special, and we want to project that as much as possible in the White House."

We have already noted that the Obama children take ballet lessons and that Obama's chief of staff, Rahm Emmanuel has his own dance background.

Shortly after Obama named Emanuel as his White House Chief of Staff, the president-elect announced Bill Ivey, former Chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts from 1998-2001, would head his transition team for arts and culture.

If you want to know a bit about Ivey's perspective on culture, go to a library and check out a copy of his book Arts, Inc.: How Greed and Neglect Have Destroyed Our Cultural Rights.

In the book Ivey argues the public's right to access its cultural heritage is threatened by monopolistic corporations, ever-expanding copyright laws and the erosion of the concept of the "public domain," and "fair use." He makes a strong argument for the concept of the cultural commons-- an artistic heritage that belongs to the entire community.


There is no guarantee, he writes, "that music, drama, literature, and dance created over the past century will be made available, or that, when we look for it, the heritage we seek will exist."

In 1999, while he was still heading the NEA, Dance Magazine ran a biographical feature on Ivey:

"For me, the excitement of working with the Endowment is trying to accomplish two things," he told Dance Magazine. "I'd like to leave this job with the agency stronger than it was when I came in, supported with a broad consensus that the work we do here is important to society." Ivey's second goal is to preserve the country's "living cultural heritage," he said, "so that young people in the year 2000 and beyond have good access to the creativity of artists who have gone before."

For dance, this means documenting the choreography of American legends such as Martha Graham, Alvin Alley, and Fred Astaire. In a refreshingly honest statement, Ivey admitted that he didn't know enough about dance to come up with other names off the top of his head, though he knew that there were many more. He did note, however, that Pilobolus and the Lar Lubovitch Dance Company--both known for their high energy and innovative choreography--are his favorite troupes to watch. "I think they're wild," he said.

The NEA's most contentious experience in the spotlight under Ivey occurred on June 25, 1998, when the Supreme Court decided to uphold the law requiring the organization to consider decency as a criterion in allocating grants. The law originated from the 1989 controversy surrounding Robert Mapplethorpe's homoerotic photographs, and was recently challenged on grounds of freedom of expression by New York's chocolate-smearing performance artist, Karen Finley. While many artists consider this highly subjective criterion a violation of free speech, Ivey supports it wholeheartedly.



This summer Ivey told Danielle Maestretti, in an article that appeared in the Utne Reader, that he is concerned that Americans have become consumers of art rather than creators.

"We feel that sports are invigorated when many people can play at many levels. While we understand that amateur basketball players are not going to be as good as a superstar, there’s no sense that they shouldn’t be doing what they’re doing. But in the arts, around the fourth or fifth grade, we find people who have special talent, we separate them, give them special attention, and create some terrific artists who serve society—but we tend to denigrate the amateur."

He went on to call for a greater value to be placed on the imaginative solutions that artists could bring to an entire range of problems: "If we’re talking about a new sewage disposal system, there should be an artist on that panel; there should be artists on school boards and neighborhood commissions, not to make the project look pretty, but to bring a unique approach. Artists are very good at metaphor, at seeing less-obvious links, at right-brain thinking that might not be linear but that gets you to a good result by making an imaginative leap."

In 2005, an essay Ivey wrote entitled "America Needs a New System for Supporting the Arts" was discussed in Back Stage.

"If I had titled it," Ivey told Back Stage, "I would have called it 'It's Time for America to Reassess Its Approach to Intervening in the Cultural System,' and I use the word 'intervene' rather than 'fund' because I don't know that all questions involving the vitality of America's cultural landscape are all about money."

In particular, he noted that "the 1996 Telecommunications Act laid the groundwork for the consolidation of radio stations" and "the Digital Millennium Copyright Act toughened criminal penalties on unauthorized duplication of recordings, films, and software code, and extended the penalties' reach into the homes of average citizens."

Both measures, Ivey argued, undermine the ability of artists and arts organizations to foster creativity. He also wrote that he was "slightly queasy" about the "disconnect between the priorities of the cultural sector and the reality of the arts system... Had those of us who cared about the health of America's system for supporting the arts, by concentrating narrowly on cultural nonprofit groups and the agencies and nongovernmental organizations that help them, overlooked the policy interventions that were really shifting our cultural landscape?"

Resources for Further Reading