When it comes to campaign themes, the arts can't
compete with healthcare reform, national security, the sluggish economy
-- just about anything you might name.
But this presidential primary season, people who work at the crossroads
of politics and culture say the arts have attained a higher profile than
usual -- and the push for an arts agenda has established a foothold in
the campaign landscape.
Linda Frye Burnham, well known in Los Angeles
arts circles for starting High Performance magazine and co-founding
Highways Performance Space in Santa Monica, began hearing in January
about Barack Obama's support for the arts.
Along with thousands of other arts figures, she received an e-mail
detailing how Obama would increase support for the National Endowment
for the Arts, embrace arts education, strengthen cultural diplomacy,
advocate an artist-friendly tax law and propose an Artist Corps to send
young artists to teach in low-income areas.
In Ohio, meanwhile, Hillary Rodham Clinton's campaign worked to arrange a
gathering at which her advisors hoped to win arts-interested voters
with her commitment to the same ideas. Mike Huckabee has promised that
should he be elected, he'd follow through on his devotion to arts
education, especially. And last March, John McCain answered a New
Hampshire theater manager who said he hoped the senator would support
the arts by sending the man a personal check for $500.
The statements and promises, as it turns out, reflect an initiative
called ArtsVote2008 mounted by the political arm of a group called
Americans for the Arts, or AFTA.
In advance of the Iowa caucuses, ArtsVote gave all the candidates then
running a 10-point plan for the arts in public life. No. 1 stresses NEA
grants to the sorts of local arts agencies and groups that AFTA
represents. No. 6 urges candidates to enhance healthcare coverage for
arts groups and artists. (The complete text is available at
www.americansforarts.org.) ArtsVote then urged the candidates to address
these points in public.
Such political pressure "is pretty common among other advocacy centers,
but for the arts it is somewhat new," says Rindy O'Brien, director of
the American Arts Alliance, which represents opera, ballet and orchestra
groups in Washington. "I come out of the environmental realm, and they
would do a lot of that electoral work -- and Planned Parenthood does --
but, for the arts, you haven't seen it."
One reason it's visible now is a matter of resources. In 2002, AFTA
received a $127-million gift from Ruth Lilly, heiress to the Eli Lilly
The money, given in annual installments and spread across the group's
political, educational and service activities, lifted its yearly budget
to $14 million from about $8 million. And those extra millions helped
give clout to ArtsVote, a part of AFTA's political arm, the Arts Action
With its 10-point plan in place, ArtsVote tracked candidates' responses
by giving a $40,000 grant to a group called New Hampshire Citizens for
the Arts so it could hire Suzanne Delle Harrison, who runs a theater in
the state. She, in turn, put candidates and their staffs on the record
by asking them about their views before the state's primaries. On the
ArtsVote website are both the campaigns' arts statements and a diary of
Harrison's lobbying adventure:
The diary alludes, for example, to a lecture Huckabee gave ArtsVote
volunteers that Harrison described in an interview as a "fascinating"
evangelistic interpretation of human creativity as a conduit for the
creative role of God.
Beyond his $500 gift, McCain doesn't appear in the log. His silence,
arts advocates say, is already framing a clear difference on public
financing for the arts between whichever Democrat runs and the
Republican front-runner. "It would be a stark contrast, especially since
Sen. McCain hasn't responded in any way about supporting the arts,"
says Narric Rome, director of federal affairs for the Arts Action Fund.
An issue of particular interest on the ArtsVote agenda is arts
education, which, arts advocates say, became a casualty of the
test-driven No Child Left Behind Act.
Obama, Clinton and Huckabee all extol exposing students to the arts.
Speaking before the Virginia primary, Obama declared: "I want our
students learning art and music and science and poetry and all the
things that make education worthwhile."
Pollsters have not attempted to measure the power of a national arts
vote, and it's hard to know how such stands will sway the public.
But the Arts Education Partnership, a coalition of 140 organizations,
recently commissioned a poll of 1,000 likely voters from Lake Research, a
Democratic polling firm. It showed that 57% of the respondents would
more likely vote for a candidate who supported the development of the
imagination in schools.
The poll, which had a margin of error of plus or minus 3 percentage
points, also found that 57% of voters would be less likely to pick a
candidate who voted to cut funding for arts education.
Current and former Clinton and Obama campaign staffers speak of the
candidates' self-driven support for the arts. But they also credit
former Americans for the Arts officials and members of other arts
organizations for helping AFTA develop its 10-point plan. O'Brien of the
American Arts Alliance says it was consulted. And Rachel Lyons, the
Clinton campaign's deputy political director in New Hampshire, is a
former director of the American Arts Alliance, which ArtsVote's Harrison
believes won her a particularly "open and knowledgeable" hearing with
Last spring, a key Arts Action Fund official gave an extensive briefing
calling for more funding for arts education and its other priorities to
the Obama campaign's Arts Policy Committee, a growing volunteer group of
arts professionals, researchers and artists that both considers arts
policy and works politically.
In addition, novelist Michael Chabon has written a statement of
principles for the campaign called "Thoughts on the Importance of the
Arts to Our Society".
Clinton advisors, for their part, speak of the ArtsVote proposals as one
of several influences. The Clinton campaign exchanged e-mails with Rome
about arranging the arts gathering in Ohio.
According to Clinton officials, the campaign has no arts policy
committee but instead has opted for what domestic policy advisor
Catherine Brown calls "a more organic approach" of reaching out to
"Hillary Clinton's many friends who know about her passion for the
Overall, the Democrats' formal responses to ArtsVote are similar in how they parallel the ArtsVote priorities.
The Clinton campaign has outlined nothing comparable to Obama's Artist
Corps, but it has proposed a Putting Arts in Reach initiative, which
would "offset the cost of musical instruments, art supplies, drama
equipment, and other things used in arts education for children from
Will such words actually produce programs?
Says Burnham: "I've lived long enough to know that platforms mean
relatively little when people get in there and find out what is going
on. They give a sense of whether the candidate gets it or not -- the
value of the arts to the American public. I know that Americans for the
Arts will keep rattling their cage for change, whether it is Obama or
"What I wonder is what would happen if McCain got in and Huckabee were
vice president. What would happen to the arts then? I think about that a
By Allan M. Jalon
For The Los Angeles Times