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Behind the curtain of Obama's arts policy

January 14, 2009 | 10:16 am


So far, we’ve seen only glimmers of how arts policy might look in the Obama administration. But Robert L. Lynch, head of Americans for the Arts, a nonprofit group that worked through the campaign season to give the arts a new political visibility, says he’s met with members of the Obama transition team and that nine proposals the group released Tuesday reflect where things are heading.

As with so much else, it comes down to the economy.

The idea, Lynch says, is to weave the arts into the upcoming administration’s broad stimulus package, with a dollars-and-cents focus that embraces improved access for artists to unemployment and health benefits, as well as culturally targeted use of U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development grants -- through the well-known Community Development Block Grant program -- and giving public art projects an increased role via the Department of Transportation. The recommendations, which can be read in full here, also target programs in the commerce and agriculture departments.

At the same time, Lynch’s group is voicing renewed support for key ideas advanced by the Obama campaign’s Arts Policy Committee. Among them are an Artists Corps whose artist-members would teach in low-income schools and a senior-level White House official charged with making the arts a priority in the White House. In mid-December, a leading Washington figure with access to the transition team’s thinking told the Times that the “arts czar” concept was a fading possibility. Lynch, however, said his more recent talks with two members of the Obama transition team left him thinking the idea lives.

The argument in its favor apparently highlights the prospects such a position would offer for building bridges between the National Endowment for the Arts and other federal departments. Lynch said that such connections have increasingly engaged Obama arts planners. A petition pushing the creation of an “arts czar” is making its way on the internet.

Lynch said he’s attended two meetings with Bill Ivey, who heads the transition’s arts team (he was National Endowment for the Arts chairman under Bill Clinton) and Anne Luzzatto, who also worked in the Clinton White House and is said to have been reviewing NEA policy under the out-going president. Ivey and Luzzatto could not be reached for comment. But, said Lynch, “they were looking for me to give my ideas to them and the conversation was about economic recovery and how the arts should be involved. They have not shared back with me what they want to do, but the indication is that the arts transition folks would be sympathetic to the kinds of things I am talking about here.”

—Allan M. Jalon

Photo by Kevin Dietsch