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The Obamas: An Opening in the Arts

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In Act One of their administration - the well-lit, heavily reviewed and widely watched opening months - Barrack and Michelle Obama have positioned themselves actively in the arts. For the country, and especially for those of us interested in culture, it has been remarkable to see how quickly and how seriously the President and the First Lady have incorporated the arts into their national presence.

The Obama commitment to the arts began even before his election. During his campaign, Obama released an unprecedented arts policy document advocating an "artist corps" of young creators to work in low income communities (a new WPA, as it were), increased activity at the NEA and in cultural diplomacy, renewed attention to arts education, amid other proposals. Now the President and First Lady are engaging directly with artists - featuring jazz and poetry at the White House, filling its walls with recent work by diverse artists, attending dance and theater performances in the Capital and beyond. The selection of Rocco Landesman, a seasoned theater producer, for the NEA chairmanship demonstrates a similiarly direct commitment to the arts at work.

The most unexpected and unusual development has been the wide open door for cultural issues at the White House. Arts leaders, arts advocates, artists and cultural policy makers have easily interacted with White House officials on such subjects as the arts and social justice, the arts and accessibility, design, the arts and national service, the arts and the military (related to NEA programming in this area in recent years), and on the visual arts in American embassies (interacting specifically with the Foundation for Art and Preservation in Embassies, FAPE). The White House has arts advisors on its staff, and has appointed a staff liaison within the National Endowment for the Arts.

In this brief time, our new administration has poised itself culturally in ways that cut across issues, that cut through red tape - they have, as it were, produced a cutting edge of culture in the capital. It is inspiring to think about what culture's future could become in this administration as it moves ahead. How will the country be helped by an emphasis on culture? How can the White House and the administration build on what they have begun? And how can we help them? The answers to these questions are close at hand, if we look at the issues embodied in the cultural activities that the new Washington has already undertaken.

Already, for instance, the White House and its people have demonstrated a clear understanding that the arts contribute functionally to life as most Americans lead it. Americans strive for education; arts in education is a stated priority of the Administration. Americans are diverse, tied to their roots and their families and to many backgrounds and beliefs; the Administration has identified the arts as socially responsive, rooted in heritage, diverse in representation of the national mix. The White House has been especially attentive to the ways in which Americans volunteer, the ways in which they serve each other, and the ways in which the arts are embedded in national service. In these and other ways, the Obamas signal that the arts are useful and ubiquitous in the daily lives of Americans, that they infuse every aspect of our lives.

Building on this, the Obamas can and should work to make culture more central to the domestic goals and policies that matter to them. Obama's domestic policy team and his cabinet members should be reminded to consider cultural implications throughout their work - in education, in trade, in urban affairs, health, the military, communication and technology. Whether it is community building, health, trade and commerce, the airwaves and the internet, education, whatever the particular manifestation, the arts are never far from the beat of daily life or from policy deliberations about bettering life in the United States.

The Obamas have also shown their comprehension of the diversity of the arts themselves in form, in content, in reach. The Obamas have applauded classical dance, experienced new theater, shared the spoken word, welcomed the sounds of jazz and of childrens' choruses, encouraged art in schools, recruited entertainers to First Family causes. They seem to understand that art forms are fluid and multiple, that the arts pressure and inspire and weep and salute in reflection of national moods and happenings, from the social to the solemn, from the sidewalk to the stage. The White House doesn't seem to think of high and low in the arts, or in life.

The administration can build on this promising start by articulating the importance of the arts in public and community practice. The Obamas should challenge mayors and governors, school councils and community associations, indeed all Americans, to put artists to work in every square and train station and playground and empty lot. There are good examples of this throughout the country; in New York City, for instance, Mayor Bloomberg has heightened the city's vibrancy through public art. The Obamas should use the arts to celebrate, honor and memorialize events, to inspire action, to reflect hope and need. They should challenge the citizenry to do the same.

Given their openness to the arts, the Obamas can also take an unprecedented federal lead by encouraging new art forms and acknowledging the cosmopolitan achievements of artists. Artists are merging forms, breaking patterns, crossing boundaries. They are carrying the visual arts into media, installations and feature films, as Shirin Neshat and Steve McQueen are doing. They are combining video and dance, animation and opera, as Peter Sellars and William Kentridge show us. Artists are moving to the internet, pushing dance and theater through technological prisms, building fresh artistic alliances, connecting communities, crossing ethnicities and nations. In the expanding global environs of our time, the arts challenge givens. In our shifting global context, the President can and should press the State Department and other government agencies to promote art and artists on the world stage.

Much of the Obamas' power is the power of influence, of example, of constancy to ideas and issues. If the President and the First Lady move from occasional to constant cultural engagement, the universality of the arts will become obvious. At any official moment, a chorus or a backdrop or a poem or a band is appropriate. On almost any national or cross-national issue that the administration cares about, the arts are a factor. This administration is positioned to bring national and international attention both to our cultural traditions and to our cultural future.

How can we help Washington achieve this repositioning and repurposing of the arts in national life? First, the arts establishment should mobilize to make it easier. Non-profit arts organizations and institutions and artists should be working together to signal interest in issues, to offer time and talent, to advocate for all America. The natural tendency of arts advocates to protect the field and seek resources should give way to a shared campaign for national strengthening through culture. Second, the White House and the administration should seek the counsel of cultural leaders, professionals and volunteers, on how to advance national priorities with the help of the arts. A cultural leadership group like the one that produced the campaign policy paper should be working with the Obama team to recommend actions in the several important domains identified in that document.

In my own experience with arts institutions and with artists, the strengthening of national goals through culture seems so obvious. In the aftermath of September 11th in New York City, Studio in a School, an arts education initiative, worked with children directly affected by the tragedy to help them say what they saw, cope with their distress and express it. That's just one example of the healing power of the arts. At the Brooklyn Academy of Music, under the leadership of Joe Melillo and Karen Brooks Hopkins, American audiences were very recently drawn in to experience "Muslim Voices," a festival of expressions and aspirations from Islamic societies. In no more powerful way could the peoples of different places be connected. At the Museum of Modern Art, media and video and film, performance art and computer art, are being incorporated and made accessible as artists lead the way to new understandings through new technologies. There are so many examples of the ways in which the arts exemplify coping, connecting and change-making in the modern world.

The vitality and relevancy of America culture today is available for the most daunting purposes, the most daring hopes, of this administration if the Obamas elect to continue and deepen their early overtures in culture. And - in an overture of their own - if policy-makers, political leaders, artists and cultural administrators put themselves forward to help them.