FRED PLOTKIN is one of America’s foremost experts on opera and has distinguished himself in many fields as a writer, speaker, consultant and as a compelling teacher. He is an expert on everything Italian, the person other so-called Italy experts turn to for definitive information. Fred discovered the concept of "The Renaissance Man" as a small child and has devoted himself to pursuing that ideal as the central role of his life. In a “Public Lives” profile in The New York Times on August 30, 2002, Plotkin was described as "one of those New York word-of-mouth legends, known by the cognoscenti for his renaissance mastery of two seemingly separate disciplines: music and the food of Italy." In the same publication, on May 11, 2006, it was written that "Fred is a New Yorker, but has the soul of an Italian."
The Presidential Candidates’ Silence About the Arts
Wednesday, August 31, 2016 - 04:38 PM
The four leading presidential candidates (Democrat Hillary Clinton, Libertarian Gary Johnson, Green Party Jill Stein and Republican Donald J. Trump) have said almost nothing about the arts in their public discourse and campaign communications. Equally concerning, I think, is that no major journalist seems to have asked about the arts during a presidential campaign that has lasted more than a year.
In 2015, Bernie Sanders released a video in which he asserted that he would be “a strong arts president.” He lost the Democratic nomination to Hillary Clinton.
With this article, I want to bring the arts into the public conversation during this political season. In my reporting, my aim was to find out about the positions the leading presidential candidates have taken regarding the arts. I am including everything relevant I could come across. Nothing I state here should be interpreted as an endorsement of any of the candidates.
I spent more than a month conducting research, including reading the campaign websites of Clinton, Johnson, Stein and Trump — and doing research on each of them. I did not find a single word in the campaign websites of Clinton, Johnson and Trump about their vision of the the arts (funding, education, use in diplomacy, First Amendment issues and more). In Jill Stein’s platform it says, under the section on education, “Restore arts, music and recreation to school curriculums.”
Ms. Clinton’s site addresses some 38 issues and, as of Aug. 31, includes by my count 164 “fact sheets” on her positions. I read all of this as thoroughly as one could and did not find a single mention of the arts. In 2013, just as she ended her tenure as Secretary of State, Clinton wrote a short article in Vanity Fair praising the State Department’s Art in Embassies program as a tool of diplomacy. Art, she said, “reaches beyond governments, past the conference rooms and presidential palaces, to help us connect with more people in more places. It is a universal language in our search for common ground, an expression of our shared humanity.”
Mr. Trump’s site refers to issues as “positions” and only seven are addressed: “Economic Vision”; “Pay for the Wall”; “Healthcare Reform”; “U.S.-China Trade Reform”; “Veterans Administration Reform”; “Second Amendment Rights”; and “Immigration Reform.” Nothing about the arts.
The platforms of the two major parties are more revealing. The 54-page Republican platform makes no mention of the arts. It is worth noting that Mr. Trump’s positions are not always the same as those of the Republican platform. The Democratic party platform contains a full paragraph called “Promoting Arts and Culture”:
"Democrats are proud of our support for arts funding and education. We are committed to continuing the policies and programs that have already done so much for our creative arts industry and economy. Investment in the arts strengthens our communities and contributes to our nation’s rich cultural heritage. We will continue to support public funding for the National Endowment for the Arts, for the National Endowment for the Humanities, and for programs providing art and music education in primary and secondary schools. The entire nation prospers when we protect and promote the unique artistic and cultural contributions of the women and men who create and preserve our nation’s heritage."
Although Hillary Clinton did not include such text in her campaign website, the Democrats’ platform, which included considerable input from the Sanders faction, can be assumed to represent her views, or she would have opposed it.
Some background on the National Endowment for the Arts: In 1970, the first year that contained a budget from President Richard Nixon, the NEA received $9,055,000. Nixon was an active supporter of the endowment and, by 1973, funding reached $31,480,000, a more than 300-percent rise in a short time. In 1982, the first full year of the Ronald Reagan presidency, the funding was $143,456,000. This year it is $147,949,000.
On Aug. 31, 2016, I checked the U.S. Census, which reported that the nation’s population was 324,366,600. This means that NEA funding per American resident is not quite 46 cents, less than the price of a first-class postage stamp.
Funding for the NEA has gone up and down during the years, but cuts were related more to politics than finances because even at its peak the NEA’s funding was meager. In 1992, the last year of the George H. W. Bush administration, it was $175,954,600, the highest allotment ever. Yet by 1996 it had fallen to $99,470,000.
When Republican Newt Gingrich became Speaker of the House in 1994 during Bill Clinton’s first term as president, he issued the “Contract with America.” One of Gingrich’s aims was to reduce funding for the arts. Position papers from think tanks such as this one by the Heritage Foundation in 1997 called for the dismantling of the NEA.
Gingrich, who has been a fervent supporter of Donald Trump, happens to be an opera lover, and I see him often at the Kennedy Center. I once asked him if he had a favorite work and he replied “Rigoletto, because it is a family opera.”
Whoever moves into the White House in 2017 will have to decide about arts funding but also set a tone and policy for the role of the arts and culture in American life. This includes arts in education, which is often a separate budget consideration. In mid-August, after conducting my research about the four leading candidates, I wrote to their press offices and asked to know what positions their nominee has on the arts. I gave a deadline of Aug. 29. None of them replied to me.
The two leading candidates, Clinton and Trump, live in New York, the state that leads the nation in arts activity. There is a social and political component for prominent citizens to support the arts in New York City yet neither of them seems to have been actively engaged. After serving as First Lady of the United States, Hillary Clinton was Senator from the State of New York. Donald Trump is one of the city’s most flamboyant and well-known figures. Both of them cut a huge swath in New York social circles, but given their prominence, their charitable roles in the city are quite insignificant. An article in the Washington Post published on Aug. 25 discussed the topic of their charitable giving.
It is not always the case that a political figure shies away from supporting the arts. Before, during and after being mayor (2002–2014) of New York, Michael Bloomberg’s philanthropic activities were notable not only for their extraordinary generosity but also for the fact that in addition to his support of health, education and gun control, Bloomberg has no hesitation about supporting the arts, including being a leading sponsor of the Metropolitan Opera’s international HD broadcasts.
This is important because it suggests that a politician does not have to avoid arts support even if, because of our belief in freedom of expression, some works might be controversial or give offense to certain people. We are bigger and stronger than that.
There are local governments that fund the arts more generously than the federal average of 46 cents per resident for the NEA. The New York State Council on the Arts has $46.9 million for 2016 (and again in 2017). With a state population of 19,865,000, the allotment for each resident is $2.36. According to Ryan Max, director of external affairs for the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs, the allocation for Fiscal Year 2016 was $158.9 million. Based on a population of 8,440,405, New York City spends $18.58 on the arts for each resident (more than 40 times the federal expenditure). If either New Yorker — Trump or Clinton — becomes president, I want to know what they think about this.
In the future, I plan to write about charitable giving and the arts and hope that the candidates and their campaigns will provide detailed and specific policy statements on issues such as freedom of speech, tax deductions and the meaning of the arts in our great nation.
After conducting my research and sending questions to the campaigns, I went to the website of the Americans for the Arts Action Fund, where one can find summations of the arts policies of many of the current and former candidates. These include Clinton and Trump though not Johnson or Stein. I commend them to you as you make your decisions.
I invite readers to write to me on the comments page beneath this article about what role you think federal, state and city governments should have in promoting arts and culture in the nation. Please make suggestions that can be gathered in a future article that might influence not only political leaders but foundations and generous individuals. Thank you.