The Presidential Candidates’ Silence About the Arts

Wednesday, August 31, 2016 - 04:38 PM

Neither Donald Trump nor Hillary Clinton has mentioned arts funding during the campaign season. Neither Donald Trump nor Hillary Clinton has mentioned arts funding during the campaign season. (Gage Skidmore/Evan El-Amin)

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 ClintonJohnsonStein 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.

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Comments [18]

Tedies from Fly Over

You cucks deserve nothing. You exaggerated the value of art to a ridiculous degree, you don't understand popular culture, and you see cultural as nothing more than something to signal your own pseudo-enlightenment. Art is not going to change jack shit because most of it is bullshit, especially the crap that is considered high culture. Only empirically guided thought and debate will advance humanity, none of your showy Peacock feather collecting changes anything.

Nov. 19 2016 07:10 PM
Christi Amonson from Alabama

Thank you for this article. I am a classical singer and a Professor of Voice and Opera Workshop in Alabama. Yours is one of the very few articles I could find discussing the candidates and the arts. I will be voting for Hillary R Clinton with full support, but I would really appreciate hearing at least a mention of the Arts in her vision to promote education and restore the economy. The arts foster community and goodwill. As a singer, I want to live in a country that values what I do!

Nov. 06 2016 08:55 AM
ARN from UWS

Yes, we need government funding for the arts in this country. However, there should be stipulations upon the funds. I have seen too, too often, some group or individual receive public funding for what turns out to be some narrow-focused spectacle that is limited in its appeal to the public, at best, or, at worst, ends up being the focus of a scandal due to the same reason.I must agree with Vespasian that our popular culture is quite ugly these days, with far too much focus being placed on sexual innuendo (or the act itself) and on violence, very often in the form of insubordinate defiance from the perspective of individuals who have been arbitrarily plucked from the lower shelves by the King Makers of the pop culture elite. The message becomes far more about being indignant than about finding the common ground upon which to build a more compassionate and loving society.
I am all for individual expression and finding new ways to portray the full range of human experience, but I don't feel public money should be used to fund experimental or potentially controversial works. This is due to the propensity of our governing officials to consistently throw the baby out with the bath water - and you may be sure that even one high profile project that ends up offending any of a few specific groups, and there will be a well organized campaign to defund all pubic art projects.
I feel that public money should fund art forms that have evolved from and into universally recognized genres that have an organized framework of theory, discipline, training, and universal appeal, such as opera, ballet, symphonic ensembles, repertory theatre, etc. etc..
One problem that exists is the erroneous belief that in introducing the arts to those groups who have the least exposure and access to them, an approach should be taken that uses contemporary cultural references specific to the group. What happens then is that the individuals are immersed in some pseudo-art form such as break dancing, in which they are encouraged to "express themselves", and are denied exposure to the depth and universality that is innate to established art forms like ballet, with its stringent standards and required disciplined study. I have never seen a group of dancers of any vernacular style execute ensemble choreography that didn't look like a bunch of amateurs, in my opinion. No uniformity of position, timing, posture, etc. Rather than promote such examples to those who have no arts, give them an awe inspiring corps de ballet number from, say, Swan Lake, and desist the concept that 'anyone can do it', for this implies casual ease. Inspire them with "it's difficult, yes, but anyone can do their best, and so can you!" Respect for the arts is lost when the knowledge of what is required to make the art is not instilled in the minds of the public. This is also how mediocrity assumes a place on the dais, as it has now for the past several generations across the spectrum of the performing arts.

Sep. 10 2016 04:01 AM
Theodore Cerame from Perris, CA

As with many others my stand on the issue Mr. Plotkin raises is that it is imperative for the people of a community to join and unify to promote and build a higher quality of life through the humanities and the arts. History has taught that we cannot always rely on government to make the best choices for the people. It is up to the people to increase awareness of the benefits of a well-rounded education in music and all the arts. It is unquestionably the obligation of those who understand to teach those who do not understand.
If funds are channeled to the arts through political affairs all well and good.
Recently I read a novel about a couple in love with Opera,
their medical work, humanity and Nature. The primary themes are, a) to expose Opera, to share Opera, c) to promote the education of music and the arts and to open the mind to the possibilities and potentials of learning and growing while inspiring the people of the community to pull together and as a whole build knowledge about the fine arts, and to build community hospitals that provide excellent care for everyone.
Accordingly the book makes a strong stance that by working together it is the people who should and can be the front line educators and builders of the quality of human life. Perhaps as an adjunct to the great work Mr. Plotkin is doing please allow me to pass along to Mr. Plotkin and all Opera lovers/ Humanitarians and serious readers this novel Titled, Love Letter Songs of the Earth, published by Amazon Kindle Book Store. This book was written precisely to those who care so that they may be inspired to spread the good news to those who have not been exposed to Great Opera, Beauty, and Love. However, let me make it abundantly clear that this book is not being advertised here but hopefully shared as it deals precisely with the issues Mr. Plotkin has raised. If not fellow Opera lovers and the intelligentsia there-of who else would find in it a contribution to the cause raised and of which many Opera lovers will perhaps be inspired by?
Let the politicians fight with one another, while we, the people go straight forward and support the Arts and a higher quality of life. A feasible goal, no? A worthy one for sure

Sep. 07 2016 04:30 PM
Barry Owen Furrer

Recently, a provision in the House of Representatives was brought forth to limit the use of military bands and ensembles from performing anywhere except on base - this in the name of saving $$. If it passes in the Senate, it could mean a pre-recorded soundtrack at the upcoming presidential inauguration instead of the "President's Own" U.S. Marine Band!
The lack of funding in the arts is nothing new as I recall back during the Reagan administration, funding cuts cost Reagan's son, Ron, his position with the NYC Ballet.
Currently, when the top military ensembles are on tour, tickets to these events are free to the public and I believe if there were nominal fees to help defray operating costs, all of these concerts would still sell-out.

Sep. 07 2016 09:17 AM
VESPASIAN from Suffolk

It is too bad that those who control the media, tv programming, etc. have no sense of duty to produce anything of beauty. just the cheapest and most tawdry programming. Films with vulgarity and violence. No shame at all. Very little of the popular culture is uplifting or inspiring. Not to long ago, you did not have to be a classical music affectionado(?) to hear very nice music. Some films had great scores, etc. Our popular culture is very ugly. Will government funding help? I do not think it will. The desire from the people is not there.

Sep. 06 2016 02:53 PM
Donald Alberti from NYC

Thank you for your focus on this fascinating and complex issue. As some of the comments have pointed out, the subject of public funding for the arts certainly extends way beyond the concept of funding individual artists or works. For any future article on this subject, I would be very interested to read your thoughts on the many ways public funding could be allocated and utilized to increase exposure to the arts throughout our entire nation, one neglected community by community, to foster the expansion and growth of culture throughout our nation , through art education in public K-16, performance and exhibit venues, construction projects, public radio,arts organizations, and more. The fulfillment of a democracy's destiny can be measured by the quality and richness of its citizens' life experience and herein lies the promise of the arts. I could go on.....

Sep. 06 2016 12:55 PM
Bruce from NJ

I was originally going to write that since everyone can't think of everything, I'd reluctantly give even the current awful politicians the benefit of the doubt on not thinking to cite positions on funding the arts. There's likely much more they didn't mention. Besides, the info can probably be found elsewhere pretty easily.

But then I found the message from Michael in Texas. Very strange. If censorship is the issue, one of the worst forms of censorship I can think of is where only what sells is what gets produced. So I don't get how government support would facilitate something similar. Using the 'free market', how would one make, for example, Beethoven's music, "better" or 'more marketable'? Change it to a new "Judge Judy" theme? Would the network play the whole score?

Beethoven is great as is. Same for other forms of art. Isn't the issue providing a means for people to come to know and understand them? I got that from college. I wouldn't sell our public schools and colleges to private interests and let them see what sells. We know the result, it's what preceded the decision to make them public in the first place.

Sep. 02 2016 05:02 PM
John J. Christiano from Franklin NJ

We do need government support for the arts. And I don't believe that support would lead to censorship. In fact, I've seen more of what passes for art to fail in the "marketplace of ideas and taste" rather than censorship. We need government support not so much for the artists themselves, but in establishing venues where we can regularly see the arts displayed or performed.

Sep. 02 2016 09:41 AM
OperaGene from Vienna VA

To some degree I think the sides may break out according whether you think the arts are a form of entertainment that should be self supporting or whether you believe as I do that the arts also contribute to bringing us closer to our humanity and each other, and making our society wiser and more compassionate. I would like to see more government funding for the arts. I don't know how it should be done, but I suggest the candidates propose some sort of arts commission populated by artists and arts experts like Fred Plotkin to make recommendations to the President how the funds should be allocated with a major goal of making education in the arts and performances more accessible to all our citizens. I truly feel this will make us a better people and a better country.

Sep. 01 2016 02:57 PM
VESPASIAN from Suffolk

Of course we need the arts. It is a human trait. Early man who lived in caves painted depictions of their life. They knew about perspective.
They also made little trinkets and jewelry to enrich their lives.
We no longer have the Medici, Esterhazy, etc. who supported the arts.
Our souls need the arts.
Thanks Mr. Plotkin

Sep. 01 2016 01:56 PM
Floria from NYC

Michael from Houston....are you crazy???? You bet we need government in the arts. We no longer have the church or the wealthy patrons supporting artists....yet alone opera and ballet companies. Thank heaven for PBS, but it is very stressful when they constantly ask for money; it is equally stressful when you can't attend a performance you'd love to go to because the price is too high for tickets. Yes, we need help from the government in the arts. Germany, for instance, had always supported the arts, even during the war and afterwards....the first thing that was built in many cities was the opera house. Young American singers went there (and still do) to gain their experience, because their own country did not and does not have opportunities for young artists. It's disgusting that sports arenas are built and re-built to accommodate sports and the government supports this private industry. Does the arts need government support....yes it certainly does!

Sep. 01 2016 01:27 PM
Barbara Fracchia from Kensington, California

The "ARTS" do not exist with so many people, but of course do the candidates even know they exist? Do they know that all arts bring in money? Not wars. Didn't King Ludwig favor the arts because they brought in more money to the country than the plunders of wars?

Our culture is being disregarded by uninformed greedy politicians and businesses. Their prime goal in life is to get more and more and sponsoring "the Arts" is a wasteful use of capital. Unfortunately there are millions of us out there who have those special and wonderful talents to perform, sing, dance, play, paint, sculpt, write and many more abilities called art.

I might add that "collectors" purchase past masters for huge sums of money never to see daylight because they are locked away in some secret room and brought out to show important people their acquisitions. Oh Bravo for them.

Thank you,

Barbara Fracchia
painter of fine arts

Sep. 01 2016 12:42 PM
Fern Berman from Madison, CT

There is so much to say about this. I can't at this moment as I'm heading into a meeting. One thing I will say, however, is the the arts in all forms Help make the soul of this country.
Thank you Fred Plotkin for all you do!

Sep. 01 2016 12:23 PM
Michael from Houston, Texas

I'd really prefer as little government involvement in the arts as possible. The last thing we need is censorship and government agenda on stage. Private funding will allow for more opportunities and voices (pun intended) on the stage.
It is our job as artists and creators to tell the best stories we can and collaborate to stay relevant.
Provide value and the money will come.
We don't need government involvement.

Sep. 01 2016 12:13 PM
Cara De Silva from New York City

I must confess that having to confront the election tumult daily meant that this critical matter had passed me by. So thank you, Fred Plotkin, for reporting on the issue and for doing it in such detail after so much scrupulous and extended research. Admittedly, this is a very difficult time in the United States and the world, and also a distracting and deeply troubling one. But what have we come to if our candidates don't even think to address the funding of the arts at a period when we need them, and need to ensure their future, the most? I will be watching much more carefully now.

Sep. 01 2016 11:17 AM
Concetta Nardone from Nassau

We are a nation that wastes so much money on wars, social experiments, etc.
Do not want to get too political or we will have a kerfuffle going. The arts need to be supported because without the arts, we would still be in the trees. the popular culture glamorizes the ugly and vulgar. Real housewives, the view, music that is not music, etc. Too many films are ugly, violent. etc. We need something in our culture that is ennobling and beautiful.
Thank you for this fine article.

Sep. 01 2016 06:56 AM
James Gavin from New York City

Thank you for this, Fred. This is the first I've read of this issue, and your research gives me one more reason to exhale a loud sigh about our two main presidential candidates. I guess the feeling on their parts is that arts support would not win them votes, and therefore was not worth including in their platforms. Thanks for opening our eyes.

Aug. 31 2016 11:48 PM

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