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The Lebrecht Weekly


Visit every week to read Norman Lebrecht's latest column. [Index]

Barack Obama's New Deal for the arts

By Norman Lebrecht / January 28, 2009

Five days before Barack Obama was sworn in, leaders of America’s arts organisations were summoned to Washington for a meeting at his transitional headquarters. The twenty or so individuals who leaped on a plane at the summons represented such worthy umbrella groups as Dance America, the symphony orchestra league, the association of museum directors and the National Association of Latino Artists. All were dogged bureaucrats whose faces are seldom recognised outside their own office walls, which may explain why the meeting received little media coverage in the following week.

In the past, when presidents have feigned attention to the arts, it tended to be for a photocall with Nashville and Hollywood stars, a bid to boost their poll ratings by rubbing padded shoulders with international celebrities. Barack Obama has no need of such fripperies. With an eighty percent approval ratings and a crowd of millions at his inauguration, President Obama is the biggest celebrity on earth, the acme of cool.

Unlike Tony Blair in his Cool Britannia days or Bill Clinton playing sax at his inaugural with Bruce Springsteen’s back-up band, or Jimmy Carter entertaining a tuxedo’d John Lennon, Barack Hussein Obama requires no validation from pop stars to set a style. He has more history on his side than the music and movie industries combined and more moves on the dance floor than most screen professionals. Obama could easily be assembling a Camelot all his own.

But by setting up an arts and culture transition team, something no president-elect has ever done before, the 44th president has declared that he is serious about the arts as a matter of policy. Serious enough to summon the worker bees to Washington instead of the glamour queens, and serious, too, about changing the way America relates to its many forms of culture.

The winds of change have been blowing ever since he won the election. On a New York radio show, the veteran music producer Quincy Jones announced that ‘One of the next conversations I have with President Obama is to beg for a Secretary of the Arts.’ Jones, 77, an ally of Martin Luther King and a founder of the Institute for Black American Music, put up an online petition in support of a Cabinet voice for the arts. Almost 200,000 people have now signed.

Jones urged during the campaign that music and arts should be put back into the syllabus of public schools. That idea was inserted into Obama’s manifesto. Change will soon be coming to subsistence-level, inner city schools.

In Washington, Michael Kaiser, president of the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, challenged the new administration to offer emergency bail-outs to arts companies. Kaiser listed two opera companies and the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art that are on the verge of closing.

Since his article appeared three weeks ago, Sacramento Ballet, Orlando Opera and half a dozen museums have run into trouble and the mighty Metropolitan Opera has scrapped two productions and wants to cut wages by ten percent. The arts in America are starting to crack in a crisis that has dried up corporate funding and wiped out the investment value of their endowments – in the Met’s case one-third of its $300 million pot. Kaiser, who hauled Covent Garden back from the edge of insolvency a decade ago, sees a need for direct state intervention.

‘I’m not talking of state funding for the arts as we know it in Britain,’ he told me. ‘We’re not going to government with a begging-bowl. We’re not General Motors and we don’t need those kind of sums. I’m looking to start a conversation and I’m hoping President Obama will restructure how the arts are handled by government.’

Some believe that restructuring has already begun. Obama’s campaign literature noted how Louis Armstrong and Dizzy Gillespie used to travel as cultural ambassadors for America during the Cold War. “Artists can be utilized again to help us win the war of ideas against Islamic extremism,” said the election leaflet. What Obama was saying is that the arts must be harnessed once again to the national cause.

At his inauguration, four classical musicians were given a few freezing moments to show – albeit pre-recorded – that the new president has got more than rock, jazz and rap on his i-Pod. Anthony McGill, 29, who played the clarinet in the insipid John Williams commission, is a classic example of empowerment through art - a fireman’s son who rose through Chicago schools to hold a principal’s seat in the Met orchestra. His brother, Demarre, equally determined, is principal flute in San Diego. Men like the McGills are the music behind Obama’s message of hope. No administration since John Kennedy’s has shown so warm an appreciation of culture and none since Roosevelt’s has grasped the regenerative potential of arts in an economic crisis. FDR in his 1933 inaugural speech declared that ‘happiness lies not in the mere possession of money; it lies in the joy of achievement, in the thrill of creative effort.’ Convinced that creativity could lead America out of Depression, Roosevelt pumped millions of New Deal dollars into the arts.

In the first winter of his presidency, he paid indirectly for 6,800 paintings, 6,500 sculptures, 2,600 designs, and some 400 murals. The programme was short-lived, but the impetus it gave made post-1945 New York a world capital of modern art. Parallel projects in music, theatre, dance and photography had an equivalent effect. At one point 16,000 musicians were employed by the government to play in bands and teach the children of the destitute. There were 6,686 writers on the federal payroll and 12,700 theatre workers.

It is unlikely that President Obama will need such radical measures, but his language has a distinct New Deal ring to it and his early-days overtures indicate that the arts will take a front seat in his revival plan. In the next few days he will announce a new head of the National Endowment for the Arts, which channels $145 million in federal funding. One name in the frame is Wynton Marsalis, star trumpeter and director of Jazz at the Lincoln Center. Another is Professor Bill Ivey, head of the transition arts team.

Whoever gets the nod, there is going to be more tax money spent on arts in America and relations between arts and the state are about to undergo their greatest redefinition in seven decades. America is on the brink of a cultural revolution, and what America does today, Britain usually fudges the week after next.

At a time of economic fragility, it seems beyond absurdity that we are ushering in this week Dame Liz Forgan as chair of an Arts Council that has lost its independence and outlasted the reasons for its creation 65 years ago.

Instead of grappling with economic crisis in the arts, our government is hiding behind moribund institutions. While America takes its first steps to recovery, we are having a ragged comfort blanket pulled over our heads.

To be notified of the next Lebrecht article, please email mikevincent at scena dot org

Visit every week to read Norman Lebrecht's latest column. [Index]



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