With arts and public broadcast issues percolating on the edge of the race for the 2012 presidential race, I thought it made sense to look at where the declared and prospective candidates for president have stood on arts issues throughout their careers. Their views on everything from arts education to intellectual property rights to support for local artistic traditions say a lot about how they value culture — but also about how they think about the role of government.
Now that we’ve run through the Republicans, it’s time to look at how one last candidate approaches arts policy: the incumbent President Barack Obama. Obama didn’t take on arts issues much during his tenure in the Illinois state Senate, but as a candidate and as president, he’s pursued a fairly wide-ranging arts policy that’s met with mixed success because of the pressures of the recession. I’m not including a discussion of internal changes by the National Endowment for the Arts here, though I’m a fan of the Our Town program, because I want to focus on the things that Obama’s made significant priorities:
2008: In his presidential campaign platform, Obama supported the Artist-Museum Partnership Act, which would have let artists deduct the full market value of works they donated to charity on their taxes, rather than just deducting the cost of the materials that went into the work. He also committed to expanding cultural diplomacy through public-private partnerships and to make it easier for foreign artists to get visas to come to the U.S.; to increase funding for the National Endowment for the Arts; and to add block grant funding that would support arts education through the Education Department (he cited the Mozart effect in stump speeches). At the time, this was considered one of the more comprehensive platforms a candidate had ever offered on the arts. The question is, how well did he live up to it?
2009: The stimulus bill Obama worked out with Congress included $50 million in arts funding, including $20 million in funding that went directly to state governments. The National Endowment for the Arts was supposed to use the funding specifically to bolster arts non-profits that saw their budgets shrink in the recession. In the normal budget process, the NEA got its highest budget in 16 years, $167.5 million, and the Education Department got $38.166 million for its Arts in Education program.
When Obama adjusted restrictions on travel to and from Cuba, he made it easier for cultural programs to take Americans to Cuba and for Cuban artists to make it to the United States.
But the administration’s cultural efforts became a minor political kerfuffle when the NEA’s Yosi Sergant encouraged artists to work with the Corporation for Public Service on projects that would highlight the administration’s public service efforts. Sergant eventually left the NEA.
2010: Obama made good on his cultural diplomacy promises in a number of ways, allocating $1 million to help visual artists create public art works in 15 countries as pat of a new smART Power program; increasing the State Department’s cultural diplomacy budget 40 percent in 2010 to $11.75 million; sending Stanford professor Clayborne Carson to Israel to put on a production based on Martin Luther King, Jr.’s writing.
At the same time, he proposed consolidating grants programs for education, leaving some advocates worried that arts programs would have to compete against science and literacy programs for funds. And the administration proposed cutting NEA funding by $6 million in is fiscal 2011 budget, both moves that drew criticism from arts advocates.
This year, U.S. Intellectual Property Enforcement Coordinator Victoria Espinel presented Obama and Congress with the first national strategy on intellectual property law and copyright violation, which includes improved interagency cooperation, targeting of websites that distribute pirated material, and better economic analysis of the impact of intellectual property law and violations on American firms. That same year, at the Export-Import Bank, Obama gave a speech in which he promised vigorous IP protection: “Our single greatest asset is the innovation and the ingenuity and creativity of the American people…It is essential to our prosperity and it will only become more so in this century. But it’s only a competitive advantage if our companies know that someone else can’t just steal that idea and duplicate it with cheaper inputs and labor.”
2011: An Obama-commissioned study argued that creative classwork has an “unambiguous place in the curriculum,” though it acknowledged that there needs to be more research to quantify the impact of arts education on achievement. Education Secretary Arne Duncan’s made the case for keeping arts education even in a recession throughout his tenure in the administration.
And on the copyright front, the Obama administration helped broker the deal that got Internet Service Providers to start providing warnings to users who are caught downloading content illegally.
It’s clear the president and his wife enjoy the arts, and they’ve hosted lots of cultural events at the White House — though his stance on copyright allies him more with content producers than with consumers. Obama has called for tax reform, and it would be interesting to see, if comprehensive efforts happen, if he includes artists’ tax credits, the one item in his 2008 platform that he hasn’t really addressed while in office. Whoever the Republican candidate is in 2012 is, they may be able to rally support by attacking the existence of the NEA (it’s dubious any of them would break with him on IP issues), but it remains to be seen if any of them will match Obama for a sense that arts policy isn’t just a matter of funding.