Guess Who’s Invited to the White House?


Since Barack Obama’s inauguration, many in the arts community have pondered what the change in leadership might mean for our field. It’s clear that the new president has some interest in music—he’s got Jay-Z on his iPod and even handpicked “long, strange trippers” The Dead to play at the Mid-Atlantic Inaugural Ball in D.C. But looking past the meeting of tye-dyes and power ties, what does this mean for cultural policy?

There are a few early indications that the new administration recognizes that arts and culture have an important role to play in American life: the June concert with the Marsalis family and Paquito D’Rivera among others, the poetry night at the White House in May, the country music evening in July.

To be sure, the frequent presence of artists in the White House provides us with reason to be hopeful that the new administration will be a good partner for the arts community. But taking advantage of this opportunity will require a dramatic rethinking of the way we engage with policymakers. The previous eight years were spent playing political defense against an administration with little interest in investing in the arts. Now, we’re faced the no less important challenge of transitioning from an oppositional movement to one that’s more proactive. A movement grounded in big-picture thinking, with a vision for how innovation and creativity can rebuild our nation. A movement that understands the role arts will play in shaping a new social agenda.

Because of an uncoordinated government infrastructure, the arts community has, over the years, come to view public policy as highly agency-specific. We’re good friends with the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities, but have until recently been strangers at places like the White House, the Federal Communications Commission, and the Copyright Office. And, though the NEA has long been the most visible symbol of our government’s commitment to art and culture (or in some cases, lack of), its miniscule budget means that its actual impact is largely symbolic and generally limited to touring, presentation, and participation in the traditional and classical disciplines. Yet the entire field continues to grow, necessitating a broader view of policy and public funding for the arts.

In its first six months, the new administration has modeled a more holistic approach to policymaking that prizes innovation and seeks ways to improve conditions for all Americans. There’s a renewed focus on inter-agency collaboration and a sharing of ideas and resources to find creative solutions to our many problems as the nation struggles to repair itself in the wake of the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression.

How large a role can the arts play in affecting meaningful change? Well, a lot of that depends on how we make our case.

Which isn’t always easy. For example, when the FCC was giving away new full-power non-commercial stations in 2007, it was next to impossible for the average artist or community organization to figure out how to apply. The FCC website is complex and difficult to navigate, so funders, public interest, service and advocacy organizations raced against the clock to assist folks like the Milwaukee Symphony and free103point9 with learning about the opportunity, navigating a lengthy application process, and eventually, in the case of free103point9, winning a construction permit (Milwaukee’s application is still pending). The benefit to engaging, however, is immeasurable. A new classical station in Milwaukee to replace the one recently lost has the potential to transform, support, and energize local communities around arts and culture. Such an outcome would make the effort well worth it.

We need a fresh kind of thinking to recognize new opportunities. Take the administration’s prioritization of broadband deployment—part of the stimulus package and potentially a very powerful example of how we can rethink the role of creativity in our society. Currently, the National Telecommunications and Information Association is working alongside the Rural Utilities Service (which is in turn, part of the Department of Agriculture) to distribute four billion dollars in grants to build out broadband to underserved populations. Meanwhile, the FCC has been tasked with developing a national broadband plan that will, by necessity, not only include infrastructural build out, but also plans to increase adoption. And what attracts people to community centers, libraries, and internet cafes to access broadband? What would inspire a rural user to more frequently log on at home? The answer (or at least one of them) is content. In the face of current economic challenges, this could represent a powerful opportunity for the arts and cultural sector.

There are still hurdles. Unlike in 2007, when we had a year’s notice to mobilize around the FCC’s radio spectrum giveaway, the window for this round of grants—which are fast tracked for August 15 as part of the stimulus—is impossibly brief. Considering our current infrastructure, it’s hardly enough time for the arts community to develop strategic partnerships and respond with anything resembling purpose or coordination. That’s why we need to proactively engage with a broader array of federal agencies and departments, with the hopes of being better positioned as new opportunities arise.

Although we’ve been conditioned to a compartmentalized view of policy, new political and economic realities present an opportunity to work towards a more integrated (and hopefully more sustainable) ecosystem: one where culture, creativity, and artists are valued across the board—from the Department of Agriculture to the FCC. But how do we get there? What information might policymakers need from our community to make arts and culture more central to broader domestic goals?

In order to take advantage of new opportunities for the arts in this new era of governing, here are some next steps to consider:

  • Develop the flexibility to respond to opportunities more quickly and be willing to take bigger risks. That means dedicated time and funds.

  • Map potential partnerships and opportunities across all the federal agencies, and share the information in coordinated fashion with the entire field.

  • Learn from those who have already created bridges between the arts and other communities—particularly around policy. Explore coalitions to help advance the arts with unfamiliar agencies.

  • Invest in research that documents the impact of policies and offers the background policymakers need to understand how the arts fit into the bigger picture.
If these ideas sound like luxuries we can’t afford, think again. Every day, the future is shaped a piece at a time, as policies are put in place that will define the landscape ten years from now. Given the administration’s more integrated view toward policymaking, we can’t afford not to participate.

We now have an administration that has shown it’s willing to listen to artists. How far we take this opportunity is up to us.

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Jean Cook is the interim executive director and Casey Rae-Hunter is the communications director of the Future of Music Coalition, a national nonprofit organization that works to ensure a diverse musical culture where artists flourish, are compensated fairly for their work, and where fans can find the music they want.