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Obama eyes NEA head

January 16, 2009 |  5:38 pm

Obama The Obama transition has stayed pretty disciplined in keeping appointments under wraps until they become official. But it increasingly looks like Michael Dorf, a Chicago attorney who has played key roles in shaping arts policy in both his city and on a national level, is the leading candidate to become chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts in the Obama administration.

At least, he’s won the outspoken support of union leaders who represent workers in the arts and entertainment fields and who, after years of feeling left out in the cold about the NEA appointment, are energized by what they view as the president-elect’s interest in their opinions. On Jan. 7, about 10 top officials of these unions, including the Screen Actors Guild, Actors Equity and the American Federation of Musicians, took part in an hour-long conference call in which they interviewed Dorf. They did so, says Paul E. Almeida, president of the Department for Professional Employees of the AFL-CIO, to which the unions belong, with the “background understanding” that Dorf is a likely pick for the job, that “there’s a there there with this guy.”

A Washington figure familiar with the thinking of Bill Ivey and other members of the Obama transition team for arts-related proposals, told The Times that “there are other names under consideration, but he’s certainly there.” Dorf’s name has been tossed around before, along with that of Caroline Kennedy and even Ivey himself, based on his record as NEA chief under Bill Clinton. But the unionists say they’ve heard that Ivey doesn’t want to repeat his role, that he may even be in line for the much-discussed “arts czar” post advocating for the arts in the White House. And Caroline Kennedy’s attentions have turned toward becoming the next Senator from New York.

Dorf is the only one the labor leaders say they see on the horizon.

The result of their telephonic meeting with him was support so vigorous that, on Jan. 12, Almeida wrote John Podesta, co-chairman of the Obama-Biden Transition Team, a letter extolling Dorf’s background and his capacity to give the arts a vital part in the administration’s efforts to revive the economy.

Dorf has a long resume built at the crossroads of the arts, politics and policy, not to mention roots in Obama’s political career. Reached in Chicago, Dorf declined to comment about the NEA job. But he’s a well-known figure in his city. He directed development of the city’s first official cultural plan and served in a wide range of other arts-related capacities. Dorf, 56, an amateur bassoonist, worked in Washington as a top aide the late Rep. Sidney Yates, a Chicago Democrat whose formative contribution to the NEA and support of the arts became legendary. During the culture wars of the 1990s, when NEA support for controversial artists drew attacks from conservatives, Dorf was made legal advisor to an independent commission that sought to save the NEA by forging a balanced view of government’s role in the arts.

He’s taught university courses in arts policy. And he was on the Arts Policy Committee that shaped arts proposals Obama advanced on the presidential campaign and has also advised the transition team’s arts group.

All that said, his appointment is not a done deal. According to sources close to the transition, he has yet to pass through the final stages of the selection process.

Still, those union heads liked Dorf on Jan. 7. “In these difficult economic times,” wrote Almeida in his letter to Podesta, “it is easy to forget about the arts as a part of the American economy. That would be a grave mistake. The Great Depression gave rise to the Works Progress Administration (WPA), which provided meaningful and constructive employment to tens of thousands of artists, musicians, writers, actors, and others working in the theater. The WPA provided the nation with a wealth of art and culture we still enjoy. As we work to avoid another depression, the NEA — with the right leadership — could play a vital role. Michael Dorf would provide that leadership.”

Labor played a big part in the formation of the NEA, in the administration of Lyndon B. Johnson, Almeida and others point out. “We were there at the beginning,” he said. “Starting in the Reagan years, we got squeezed out. Now, we believe that, with President-Elect Obama’s new sense of inclusiveness, there will be a real place for us.”

Said John Connolly, executive director of Actors Equity, who sat in on the conference call: “What really struck me about Mr. Dorf is that he understands the NEA needs to be about the promotion of excellence in the arts, that there is an educational component, the intervention of artists into the educational process, and, third, that local amateur community arts are not incidental, that they need to be respected and get funding.

“The mission of the NEA has become radically muddled in the past few years,” he added. “I don’t know if Michael agrees with everything I say on these subjects, but I believe he will bring a lot of clarity and definition to the arts policies at the NEA.”

Will Mr. Podesta write back to his union correspondents? Maybe. But efforts to obtain comment today from the Obama transition were unsuccessful.

-- Allan M. Jalon

Illustration: Zack Trenholm / For The Times

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