Arts and Politics: Where are We?

By Michael Wade Simpson

October 1, 2008, PUBLISHED BY IN DANCE

“Every grand American accomplishment, every innovation that has benefited and enriched our lives, every lasting social transformation, everything that has from the start made America the world capital of hope, has been the fruit of the creative imagination, of the ability to reach beyond received ideas and ready-made answers to some new place, some new way of moving through the world.”
Michael Chabon, Arts Policy Committee Member, Campaign to Elect Barack Obama

There may be many pressing issues on the table in the upcoming Presidential election, not to mention other contests at the state and local levels come November 4, but this year, Arts advocacy groups are making sure that their needs and ideas, and the voices of artists, are not overlooked.

ArtsVote2008 is a program of Americans for the Arts Action Fund, and they began pushing the arts agenda at the beginning of the Presidential Primaries, and are continuing to push, creating a presence at both party conventions in Denver and St. Paul.

At the Democratic Convention, where Barack Obama became the first presidential candidate in recent history to even mention arts and arts education in his platform, (more on this later), Rhythm and Blues star John Legend, Sheila C. Johnson, who co-founded Black Entertainment Television, and Miami Mayor Manny Diaz were among the supporters speaking out about the importance of arts. In St. Paul, ArtsVote organized a Republican advocacy panel on September 2 featuring Former Presidential candidate Governor of Arkansas Mike Huckabee; Rep. Todd Tiahrt (R-KS); Tom Cochran, Executive Director and CEO US Conference of Mayors; Debbie Allen, the dancer, choreographer; John Rich, the country music singer; and others.

“Arts will always fall off the plate if you let politicians check off the important issues before they get to the ‘extras,’” said Mark Vogl, a San Francisco theatre director turned Hewlett Foundation program officer who also serves on the Arts Policy Committee for the Obama campaign. “Obama’s policy is anchored around the idea of connecting arts to issues that loom as the most urgent—for example, if you really believe that the education system needs reform, arts has a place; if you believe the world would be a safer place if people liked the United States again—there is the idea of cultural diplomacy, definitely a place for the arts. There are bold links and connections to be made, and I’m excited that Barack Obama gets it.”

The Chicago Tribune, in an August 17 article titled, “Where the Candidates Stand on the Arts,” sent out questionnaires to both Presidential candidates to find out where they stood on such issues as funding for the National Endowment for the Arts and National Endowment for the Humanities, public television and arts education programs. They asked if the candidates thought that artists who donate their work to, say, a museum, should be allowed a tax deduction based on the work’s fair market value, as art collectors can. Also, they asked if the two candidates thought that foreign artists faced unreasonable delays in getting U.S. visas.

According to the Tribune article, the McCain camp flatly declined to respond, while the Obama campaign didn’t respond directly, but sent a platform document outlining Obama’s general stand on the arts. The Tribune went on to say that while little can be ascertained regarding McCain’s current stand, his record in the Senate is unmistakable: he voted on numerous occasions to drastically cut funding for the NEA (especially during the early 90s hot-button years when attacking the NEA was the thing to do). The writers said that McCain is also a steadfast critic of earmarks, the congressional funds directed to special programs in members’ districts, and as a result, has not helped to direct federal funds to arts organizations in Arizona, his home state. Robert Booker, head of the Arizona Commission on the Arts, was quoted by the Tribune. “McCain is not a positive supporter of the arts nationally or in Arizona.”

As announced at the convention in early September, the Republican Platform included the following categories:

– Defending Our Nation,
– Supporting Our Heroes, Securing the Peace
– Reforming Government to Serve the People
– Expanding Opportunity to Promote Prosperity
– Energy Independence and Security
– Environmental Protection
– Health Care Reform: Putting Patients First
– Education Means a More Competitive America
– Protecting Our Families
– Preserving Our Values
– But nothing about the arts

On the Democratic side, there is the relative cornucopia of arts-positive verbiage in Obama’s platform. A brief summary of the multi-page document available on the candidate’s website includes these commitments:

– Reinvest in Arts Education
– Expand Public/Private Partnerships between Schools and Arts Organizations.
– Create an Artist Corps (young artists trained to work in low-income schools and their communities)
– Publicly Champion the Importance of Arts Education
– Support Increased Funding for the NEA
– Promote Cultural Diplomacy
– Attract Foreign Talent
– Provide Health Care to Artists
– Ensure Tax Fairness for Artists

“The train is going a million miles an hour,” said Vogl, who helped draft the document along with a volunteer staff of arts luminaries from around the country. “There were dozens of these committees,” he said. “What we’re really trying to do is get Barack Obama elected. We need to get this guy elected. But we also need to engage the community of artists and people who care about the arts, to get them to contribute to the effort. These platform statements lay some groundwork so that Barack can hit the ground running, can start right away turning things around in this country.”

State and Local Races
Any survey of candidates for State and Local races must take into account the current budgetary crises in both arenas. “The economy is in a crisis and the arts get tagged first,” said Krissy Keefer, the dancer most closely linked to politics and candidacy in all San Francisco. “It’s not like there’s no money,” she said. “We’re all working our asses off, paying our taxes,” she said. “But it’s a dead economy. Plus, we need to send 3 trillion to Iraq.”

“California ranks last in per capita spending on the arts,” lamented Vogl. “How do you make people believe that the government is a force for good, for change?” he asked. “It is encouraging for me to see arts being discussed on the national level, because it has been so absent for so long.”

At the local level, Debra Walker, chairwoman of the San Francisco Arts Task Force says that a few candidates for Board of Supervisors stand out in terms of their commitment to the arts.

“John Avalos in District 11 spearheaded an effort to get community input into the budget process while he was an Aide to Councilman Chris Daley, which helped get a million and a half dollars towards Arts and Community,” she said. “It was a huge deal.”

“David Campos in District 9 and David Chiu in District 3 both reached out to artists for input to create an arts platform for their campaigns. Campos is from Tom Ammiano’s old district, and seems committed to continue Tom’s strong history as an arts-funding advocate.”

“On the State level, Mark Leno (State Senate District 3) is basically running unopposed, but his support for the arts has been waiting, as he puts it, ‘for the right vehicle.’ We’re hoping he finds the vehicle soon,” she said.

Other Board of Supervisor candidates who responded to a request for a statement about their support for the arts included Eric Mar, District 1, who wrote, “I have served on the San Francisco Board of education for nearly 8 years, and have been a strong supporter of arts in the schools. Along with Supervisor Tom Ammiano, I co-wrote Proposition H, passed by the San Francisco voters in 2004, which created a funding stream between the City and County of San Francisco and the San Francisco Unified School District. The additional $60 million going into the schools has permitted various schools to add arts enrichment and other programs to their curricular offerings.”

David Chiu, District 3, Alicia Wang, District 1 and Sue Lee, District 1, all offered statements in support of Arts efforts in their neighborhood.

“The arts enrich our lives by adding beauty and depth. It’s obvious arts are threatened by lack of funding and misunderstanding. As Supervisor for district One, I will keep San Francisco a great place for local artists.”
— Alicia Wang

This article appeared in the October 2008 issue of In Dance.

Michael Wade Simpson is editor of and has written for the San Francisco Chronicle and other publications. He holds an MFA in dance from Smith College, founded “Small City Dance Project” in Massachusetts, and was an NEA Fellow at the Dance Critics Institute, American Dance Festival, in 2004.