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To Be, Or Not To Be, An Arts President

Ryan David McRee |
November 13, 2015 | 12:37 a.m. PST

Senior Arts and Culture Editor

Back in late September, Bernie Sanders released a rather personal home video-esque statement advocating for the arts in America and building himself up as one of their most prominent supporters. The message was nicely summed up in the catchy phrase, “I will be an arts president." In a political campaign season that, given world events, is focused largely on violent extremism and national security, Sanders addressed an oft-ignored problem in the United States today—the decline of support for the arts across the nation. And guess what? No one saw it.

This should come as no surprise, as the arts have not been a major issue in the political realm since the New Deal, the first example that pops into most minds when arts legislation is brought up. Roosevelt’s wide-reaching programs countering the economic sinkhole that was the Great Depression of the thirties were instrumental in nurturing the work of artists in the U.S. in a time when art may have been a last priority for most citizens. 

The efforts of the Works Progress Administration fostered artistic development in nearly every area. The Federal Art Project commissioned artists like Willem de Kooning, Marsden Hartley, Jackson Pollock, Diego Rivera and Mark Rothko, among many others, while the Federal Theatre Project gave opportunities for struggling young dramatists like Tennessee Williams and Arthur Miller, giants on the American stage that fostered a legacy still felt in playhouses around the world today (not to mention directly producing Theodore Ward’s “Big White Fog,” one of the most significant developments in African American theatre). The Federal Music Project aimed to educate the nation’s youth by providing access to musical training, while the Federal Writers’ Project gave birth to such literary geniuses as Zora Neale Hurston and John Steinbeck.

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These programs were created with the belief that every American, regardless of race, gender, or socioeconomic status, should be exposed to the arts. Theatre and opera prices were greatly reduced or eliminated to grant access to those who had never been able to attend, and galleries were full of new works depicting the hardship of regular, everyday Americans during the Depression. These programs were all included under a single umbrella program run by the WPA, entitled “Federal Project Number One.” Number One.

My, how things have changed.

Now, when arts participation is on the decline, we rarely hear of any politician bring up the arts unless it’s part of an obligatory tag-on to educational issues, with programs like No Child Left Behind or the Common Core. Yet, we have this statement—“I will be an arts president.” We have to ask ourselves what it means to consider a politician a true advocate for the arts. And no, George W.’s new painting hobby doesn’t quite cut it—though we’ll give him some credit for trying.

Debate season is hot, and while the arts certainly won’t come up as a priority issue during these events, it’s good to keep track of what the current field of candidates looks like. The NRA and NEA release their own ratings, and it’s high time we kept score on arts advocacy. Let’s start with the guy who opened up this can of worms (most candidate data comes from the website for Americans For the Arts Action Fund):

Bernie Sanders—A

Sanders certainly has the approval of the Americans for the Arts Action Fund, considering that he’s received an A+ on all of their Congressional Arts Report Cards since 2004. His congressional voting record on arts advocacy is impeccable, and he’s done great things for the arts in his home state of Vermont, including starting an annual Choir Concert for Vermont high schools and building arts events into the parks system of Burlington when he served as their mayor. The video doesn’t hurt, either, particularly because he doesn’t constantly loop discussions about art into education as most of the other candidates tend to, respecting arts advocacy as its own free-standing issue.

In his video statement to the Arts Action Fund, Sanders stated, "You have my promise that as president, I will be an arts president. I will continue to advocate strongly for robust funding of arts in our cities, schools, and public spaces."

Hillary Clinton—A-

As First Lady, Ms. Clinton created the White House Sculpture Garden and received a National Arts Award for Arts Advocacy back in 1999 for her support of arts education. Since then, she had continued to be a strong advocate of arts education, but recently released a fiscal policy plan that would put a cap on tax-deductible charitable donations, reducing private donations that many non-profit arts organizations heavily rely on.

As Clinton remarked in her presentation of "Creative America" to the President's Committee on the Arts and Humanities in 1997, "We must encourage communities to identify and preserve their local traditions, history and fold creations. We must inspire the commercial and non-profit organizations that produce or own much of our cultural material to take steps to preserve their holdings."

Jeb Bush—B+

In 2003 during his first term as governor, Bush disappointingly cut arts funding in Florida from $28.1 million to a crippling $6 million in response to a suffering economy. In his second term, however, Bush pulled a 180 and raised the arts budget—this time to $32.6 million. When his administration replaced Florida’s Common Core Standards with the Florida Sunshine State Standards, it added significantly more opportunities for the performing arts, music, and visual art. His wife Columba, once an artist herself, has also been an exemplary advocate for arts education.

The Americans for the Arts Action Fund reported Bush praising arts education to a group of activists inBedford, New Hampshire last October, saying, "Art... Makes students better."

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Donald Trump—???

While Trump has privately donated a significant amount of money toward arts institutions in New York (at least around a half a million dollars), his policies on federal arts funding, as with most of his fiscal policies, are an enigma.

Ben Carson—N/A

Carson announced his bid for the presidency at the Music Hall Center for the Performing Arts in Detroit, and the event featured a number of artistic performances. You can listen to his wife, Candy Carson, singing the National Anthem at the event here. Other than his Carson Scholars programs and outspoken advocacy for students to read avidly, he hasn’t stated much about arts advocacy, although he opposes federal educational structuring.

Mike Huckabee—B+

In 2004, Huckabee served as chair of the Education Commission of the States and has consistently vocalized support for arts education. As Governor of Arkansas, he signed a bill requiring at least 40 minutes of arts instruction in all public elementary schools, and also created a program entitled the Future Art and Music Teachers Pilot Program, a unique educational program allowing high school students to teach arts classes for elementary schools. He also served as the moderator for ArtsSpeak 2012 at the Republican National Convention, where artists and policymakers discussed the legislative future of the arts. He does, however, maintain that arts education should not be handled on the federal level.

"We know our nation is up to the challenge, but we must mobilize, inform, educate and inspire education and policy leaders to recognize the vast potential returns that can be realized by investing now in arts education," Huckabee stated in Education Week.

Marco Rubio—N/A

Marco Rubio has said very little regarding his policies on advocacy for the arts.

Chris Christie—A-

Christie is one of the few Republican candidates who has openly expressed advocacy for public funding of the arts, and as governor of New Jersey, he maintained arts budgets in the face of major slashes to other areas of state government spending. He has also described the arts in New Jersey as being an economic engine that the state depends on.

"We are educating our children today for businesses and industries that have yet to be invented. In this new environment, creativity and innovation will be as important as the ability to read, write and multiply. Arts education is one of the key ways to unleash the creative capabilities in our young people," Christie wrote in his position paper on the arts when running for New Jersey governor in 2009.

Ted Cruz—F

Cruz has openly advocated for the elimination of both the department of education and the National Endowment for the Arts, and is fundamentally against federal involvement in such areas. He has provided little to no plans to encourage state governments to advocate for the arts, and his mentioning of the arts at all is pretty much limited to statements about country music.

In a debate at the Wedgwood Church of Texas back in 2011, Cruz declared, "I have spent a lifetime trying to defend the Constitution and defend the 10th Ammendment. We need to get the federal government out of areas it doesn't have the constitutional authority to do. We need to eliminate the Department of Education, we need to eliminate the Department of Commerce, we need to eliminate the National Endowment for the Arts."

Rand Paul—F

As a fundamental libertarian, Senator Paul’s position on federal arts advocacy should be self-explanatory. He favors eliminating both the Department of Education and the National Endowment for the Arts and supports no federal support of arts programs or organizations.

Reach Senior Arts and Culture Editor Ryan David McRee here.



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