Obama Offers Hope to the Arts


Raul Martinez considers the impact of Obama’s economic stimulus plan on arts funding.

Had he not been assassinated on November 22, 1963, John F. Kennedy would have appointed the Federal Advisory Council on the Arts upon his return from Dallas. It was meant to be the first federal attempt to subsidize the arts in the United States, and the seed for the current National Endowment for the Arts – a plan which fortunately was taken up by his successor Lyndon B. Johnson and founded in 1965.Over forty years later, the recently approved economic stimulus legislation represents a new historic day for the arts. Not because the amount allocated to the NEA is particularly generous: the bill allows for and additional $50 million to bolster the organization’s current $ 145 million annual budget. Rather, its significance lies in its recognition of the arts as an effective tool for economic recovery. For the first time since the Works Progress Administration’s initiatives, it offers greater consideration for those who work in the arts.

Initially opposed to the bill, the Senate passed an amendment making casinos and golf courses along with museums, theaters and art centers ineligible for stimulus funding. Public outcry did not go unnoticed: Mobilizing quickly, arts advocacy groups swamped Congress with over 85,000 letters, calls, and ads; the revised version approved by both Congressional houses did finally include the arts in its $787 million plan.The amount allocated to protect creative industries is meager when compared to the bill’s total financial purview. (By contrast, the Paris National Opera received over $125 million in 2006, roughly the same amount the NEA distributed to arts organizations across the whole country.) Yet As Ruth Ann Stewart, Clinical Professor of Public Policy at New York University’s Wagner School of Public Service observes, “[In addition to the money] the recognition of the strategic role played by the arts in stimulating local economies is a major public policy advance for the arts and cultural sector”.

The arts community has pledged its support to newly elected President Barack Obama. Not since Kennedy have artists so enthusiastically embraced a new president; no political figure has benefitted from such a seemingly spontaneous movement as Obama has. (As was the case with Shepard Fairey’s ubiquitous HOPE poster, featured in the March issue of Art In America.) This paradigm shift offers the promise for a better appreciation of the arts in the United States: Proving the power of grass roots organizations, as manifested in Obama’s own campaign strategies, advocacy groups were able to persuade politicians into recognizing the arts as a powerful economic tool.

Easily overlooked in these times of economic uncertainty, the so-called “creative economy” nevertheless represents 5.7 million jobs, and $30 billion in tax revenues — an impact totaling $166 billion annually (as advocacy group Americans for the Arts has insisted throughout Congressional deliberations). While there is certainly much to do to gain the respect that such a large sector of the economy deserves, a major vote of confidence has arrived with the Obama administration. There is hope for the arts.

Image courtesy Shepard Fairey and the Barack Obama campaign.