Published: January 25, 2009-- As the Obama administration tackles the challenge of shoring up the economy through infusions of capital and job creation, cultural leaders are urging the president not to forget arts institutions, which are also reeling from the market downturn.
"We wanted to make sure arts were not left out of the recovery," said Robert L. Lynch, president of Americans for the Arts, a national lobbying group. "The artist's paycheck is every bit as important as the steelworker's paycheck or the autoworker's paycheck."
For the moment eyes are largely turned to the National Endowment for the Arts. Dana Gioia, the outgoing chairman, officially stepped down on Inauguration Day and President Obama has not yet named his successor.
In Congress the American Recovery and Reinvestment bill, approved last week by the House Appropriations Committee, includes a $50 million supplement for the N.E.A. to distribute directly to nonprofit arts organizations and also through state and local arts agencies.
The bill is expected to go to the full House for a vote on Wednesday before proceeding to the Senate. It could reach the presidentís desk as early as mid-February, an N.E.A. spokeswoman said.
Arts groups, meanwhile, are urging federal departments like Transportation or Labor to factor culture into their financing. A transportation enhancement program, for example, could pay artists for related public artworks; through the Labor "Every one of these places is a vehicle through which the money is going to flow, and we want to make sure the arts is part of it," Mr. Lynch said.
Much of the clamor arises from anticipation stirred by Mr. Obama's campaign remarks about the importance of the arts. One of the few candidates with an arts platform, he called for a young "artist corps" to work in low-income schools and neighborhoods; affordable health care and tax benefits for artists; and efforts at cultural diplomacy, like dispatching artist-ambassadors to other countries.
The president is considering the establishment of an arts-and-culture portfolio within the White House's Domestic Policy Council, according to Bill Ivey, who served as the administration's transition-team leader for the arts and humanities, including the future of the N.E.A., the National Endowment for the Humanities and the Institute of Museum and Library Services.
Some cultural figures have even been calling for a cabinet-level arts czar. In a radio interview last fall on WNYC's "Soundcheck," the music impresario Quincy Jones said that when he next spoke to Mr. Obama he would "beg for a secretary of arts" along the lines of the culture ministers in many European countries. His comment inspired an online petition that now has more than 199,500 signatures.
Americans for the Arts has proposed appointing a senior-level administration official with an arts portfolio, along the lines of Leonard Garment of the Nixon administration, August Heckscher under John F. Kennedy or Roger L. Stevens under Lyndon B. Johnson. "Someone to connect the dots," Mr. Lynch said. "We don't have that right now."
But what arts executives are most eager for, they say, is additional direct financing and a president who sends the message that art is important. The country's 100,000 nonprofit arts groups employ some six million people and contribute $167 billion to the economy annually, Mr. Lynch said. "I don't think of this as a bailout for the arts," he added. "It's an economic investment in the arts."
Funds for the N.E.A. have declined to $145 million in fiscal year 2009 from $176 million in 1992. Representative Louise M. Slaughter, a New York Democrat who is co-chairwoman of the Congressional Arts Caucus, said she would seek more in the next fiscal year. "I'm more encouraged than I've been in a very long time," she said of Mr. Obama. "He has said many times how important the arts are to him."
Mr. Ivey is director of the Curb Center for Art, Enterprise and Public Policy at Vanderbilt University and a former N.E.A. chairman. "There has never been an administration that looked at the cultural agencies as a partner in advancing big, overarching policy objectives," he said in an interview. "That's a real unfulfilled opportunity and I think this administration is poised to do a better job."
On Jan. 15 Mr. Ivey convened a meeting of about 20 arts organizations at the transition teamís headquarters in Washington. Among those attending were the chief executives of groups like the Association of Art Museum Directors, Chorus America and the National Association of Latino Arts and Culture.