Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Election Night: Obama Vs. McCain on Arts Policy

Since today's election will decide the successor of the National Endowment for the Arts, it remains an open question whether a bill currently in the House of Representatives will pass and give the NEA a $15.3-million increase for fiscal 2009. So which candidates support the arts?

Many artists have gotten behind Democratic candidate Illinois Senator Barack Obama and his running mate from Delaware, Joe Biden.

The Obama for America National Arts Policy Committee, chaired by American Film Institute founder George Stevens Jr. and Broadway producer Margo Lion, has advised Obama on his extensive arts platform, available at www.barackobama.com.

The site says Obama would offer support for increased funding for the NEA and for amending the Internal Revenue Service code to allow artists to take full deductions (at fair market value, rather than cost of materials) on works donated to a museum or nonprofit.

No matter how impressive-looking, Obama’s policy paper is only an official position. Based on his actual record, posted on Arts Action Fund (see www.artsactionfund.org/pdf/artsvote/Obamaarts1.pdf), the Illinois senator has a history of supporting chamber music events, public-school arts-enrichment programs, poetry workshops and student outreach—but there is no mention of his active support of theatrical institutions, individual theatre artists or the NEA.

What about Republican presidential candidate Senator John McCain? A steadfast critic of earmarks, congressional funds directed to special programs, McCain has not helped to direct federal funds to arts organizations in Arizona. In a Chicago Tribune article, Robert Booker, head of the Arizona Commission on the Arts, said McCain “is not a positive supporter of the arts nationally or in Arizona.” Kevin Moore, managing director of Arizona Theatre Company, adds that McCain gave ATC “a small donation” in 1998.

On his campaign website, McCain does not spell out an official policy on the arts, arts funding or arts education. The only way to assess McCain’s position is to divine the tea leaves from the very few public remarks he’s given. McCain has opposed federal funding for the NEA on the basis of “the obscene and inappropriate projects this organization has supported with tax dollars.” Instead he favors “block grants of federal funds to the states for arts education and artistic endeavors pursued by state and local authorities, while assuring that federal tax dollars are not spent on obscene or offensive material.

This past October, McCain team, however, did issue an arts-related statement in a Salt Lake Tribune article. His team said: "John McCain believes that arts education can play a vital role fostering creativity and expression. He is a strong believer in empowering local school districts to establish priorities based on the needs of local schools and school districts. Schools receiving federal funds for education must be held accountable for providing a quality education in basic subjects critical to ensuring students are prepared to compete and succeed in the global economy. Where these local priorities allow, he believes investing in arts education can play a role in nurturing the creativity of expression so vital to the health of our cultural life and providing a means of creative expression for young people."

Having used her line-item veto power to chop nearly a quarter-billion dollars from the state’s budget, Alaskan governor Sarah Palin—the Republican vice presidential candidate who has received nearly as much ink as the president-of-the-U.S. contenders—has not endeared herself to Juneau arts groups. “To my knowledge, Palin has not yet attended a show at Perseverance Theatre,” says its interim managing director, Merry Ellefson. “Sarah vetoed the Perseverance’s capital request that our legislators endorsed. It was for $25,000 for improving our dimmer system.”

Palin also vetoed this year a $100,000 funding request to assist with renovations for the Juneau Arts and Humanities Council, a former National Guard armory that the city is converting into an arts center, confirmed Nancy DeCherney, the council’s leader.

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