Obama's arts agenda 

Arts advocates have been arguing that the arts make a significant impact on the economic vitality of communities for some time, but this hasn’t kept states from cutting public funding for the arts. Over the past two years, cuts across the country have totaled almost $100 million.

But the arts may be about to get their biggest advocate yet in President-elect Barack Obama. While there is no question but that the new prez will have a lot on his plate — grappling, for example, with the continuing crises of an economic meltdown and wars on two fronts — there is also evidence that Obama is nothing if not a wholistic thinker. A person, in other words, capable of seeing the interconnectedness of things. Thus health care reform can be understood as economic stimulus, economic stimulus as part of national security and national security as depending on not prolonging an economically ruinous war.

It turns out that Obama has been thinking about how the arts might advance his agenda for well over a year. In spring of 2007, he convened a special committee to help him articulate what an arts agenda might look like during an Obama administration. The committee was chaired by movie mogul George Stevens Jr. and Broadway producer Margo Lion. Other members included novelist Michael Chabon, Broadway director Hal Prince, classical musicians Pinchas and Eugenia Zukerman and the former president of the Museum of Modern Art, Agnes Gund.

This committee made several recommendations that Obama adopted for his platform. These recommendations would seem to reflect and be consistent with the larger themes of Obama’s campaign.

Following on Obama’s emphasis on forms of national service, his arts platform calls for creation of an “Artists Corp” consisting of young artists trained to work in inner city schools and other disadvantaged communities.

Obama links the arts to his larger education initiative by calling for the expansion of public-private partnerships to increase cultural education programs, using the U.S. Department of Education’s Development and Dissemination Grants. His administration also promises to find increased support for arts education among corporations and foundations.

Obama’s conviction that the U.S. needs to rely more heavily on skilled diplomatic efforts includes the promotion of cultural diplomacy. Obama wants to resurrect the model of cultural diplomacy used by the United States to spread American ideals and values during the Cold War, when cultural leaders were sent around the world as artistic ambassadors. Obama sees artists as being utilized to help “win the war of ideas against Islamic extremism.”

At the same time, Obama wants to reverse the cultural isolationism prevalent during the Bush years by encouraging cultural exchanges and making it easier for foreign artists to present their work in the United States.

Obama also supports Sen. Patrick Leahy’s Artist-Museum Partnership Act, which amends the IRS Code to allow artists to deduct the fair market value of their work, rather than just the cost of materials, when they make charitable contributions.

And, in keeping with his goal of reforming the nation’s health care system, Obama would enable artists to buy into an affordable health care plan comparable to that available to federal employees.

Finally, Obama supports increased funding for the National Endowment for the Arts.

Obama’s arts agenda has won praise from arts advocates like Americans for the Arts for its level of detail and pragmatism. It is notable for its lack of dependence on increased spending in what is bound to be a fiscally stressful period. “All I want to say to him now,” Lion told The Times of London, “is, ‘God bless you, this is one big job.’”

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David Hoppe

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