Will Obama Create an “Artists Corps”?

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Either the ArtsJournal bloggers have been on fire lately or I haven’t paid them enough attention. Both are possible, but I’m thinking it’s the former. Richard Kessler’s arts education blog Dewey21C, for example, pointed me to a fine interview conducted in June by fellow blogger Barry Hessinius with the co-chairs of the President’s Committee on the Arts and Humanities, film writer-director-producer George Stevens, Jr., and Broadway producer Margo Lion. Kessler would have had all the reason to link to Hessinius’ post simply for any interview with these two, regardless of what they said. That they talked about the idea of an Artists Corps, which candidate Obama campaigned on, was motivating. (Obama supported the “creation of an ‘Artists Corps’ of young artists trained to work in low-income schools and their communities.”) Yes, I wish Hessinius had explained what the PCAH is and does, and referred to it in the first instance by its full name, since not everyone knows what it is or, I suppose, cares. But that’s all small bore anyhow. It’s all easily searchable.

While Stevens and Lion certainly touted the promise and even, I suspect, the urgency of an Artists Corps, it is critical to note that neither of them explicitly guaranteed that such a thing would come to pass. My younger self would have immediately reached a pie-in-the-sky conclusion that such an initiative must be happening if they mentioned it, and I yearn for the pulsing electricity that powered my younger self once upon a time. The more I read Hessinius’ interview, however, the more I began to fear that the nation’s political climate could make it challenging to launch such an idea. Trapped between the idealism for which I grow wistful and the cynicism from which I grow weary, I spent time trying to read through the lines.

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For example, Hessinius asked a general question about the co-chairs’ plans for the Committee over the next three years. He received a general, if congenial, answer from Stevens that begged for a smart follow-up. Hessinius dutifully obliged, asking about any possible new projects in the offing. At was at that point that Lion raised the Artists Corps as a possibility:

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Well I think that we’re interested in the notion of the Artist’s Corps (along the lines of the Peace Corps); developing that concept, but doing the research that is necessary first, to analyze the need and the manner in which we can meet those needs to have more artists working, particularly in schools. We begin with a two pronged project. One is to give work to artists, which is very necessary. And the second is to try and replenish and refill, in many cases, those spots for teaching the arts in schools that have been lost. And we hope this project would give artists a chance to add the experience of teaching and ultimately they might decide to stay in (the field of education). We’re in the discovery phase of that right now, but this is something that I think is very important to us. And the economy certainly could use it in two ways, both in providing jobs and also I think the idea that this is the creative economy century for America, and we need to make sure that young people and students coming out to the workforce can think critically, can think out of the box, can be innovative in their approach to their employment. The arts are very critical to developing those skills.

As a journalist, oh, would I have jumped on that: how would it work? would it be created by Executive Order, like the Peace Corps? would it need Congressional approval and funding? what are the numbers of jobs that could be created? how would “artists” be vetted? if the Artists Corps was intended to counterbalance the horrid reduction in arts teachers, how would the teachers union react? what information has been developed in the “discovery” phase thus far? how long is the “discovery” phase expected to last?

Then again, since substantive answers to those questions were unlikely to be disclosed at the time of the interview, Hessinius was right to let the conversation take a more organic course. Reading more between the lines, it seemed to me that the notion of an Artists Corps was right on the tips of Stevens’ and Lion’s tongues anyway. When Hessinius asked a subsequent question on the “four traditional areas” covered by the Committee — preservation, arts education, international affairs, special initiatives — and how they are being prioritized, Stevens replied with this:

Well as I said I think our first goal right now is to do the research for Artist’s Corps, which is a goal in itself just doing the research.

My conclusion is Stevens and Lion really, really want to make this happen. I want them to want it to make it happen.

Yet I’m also going to throw a wrench into the conversation.

Not for the wrench’s sake, mind you, because in theory an Artists Corps would indeed be a job creator and would truly address the grotesque decline in arts education across the nation.

But my concern, again, is the sheer politics of an Artists Corps — and I think the arts advocacy community has a major responsibility in discussing it now that Stevens and Lion have put an Artists Corps on the table, front and center. Just yesterday I was reading about an assertion regarding Glenn Beck’s influence on the socially dangerous — the authors of the assertion were about two inches away from accusing the man, who is unquestionably a Fox-monster demogogue, of inciting to violence. Now, you can offer any take you want on this accusation, but that’s where our political discourse is right now. So one political question we really have to think about is what kind of reception an Artists Corps will likely receive from the right. Here’s another: If Congressional appropriations would be necessary to get an Artists Corps off the ground, how likely is that funding to be forthcoming if Republicans control either house? Here’s a third question: With the 2012 reelection campaign kicking off the day after the midterms, how much raw political capital can the arts expect President Obama to expend on its behalf?

Just to be clear, Lion does say that she’d like to see an Artists Corps “folded” into the Our Town Project at the National Endowment for the Arts, which — hard to tell — could possibly address the legislative and the funding issue in one fell swoop, especially if the President has the power to legally will an Artists Corps into being via Executive Order. (If you know the answer to this question from a legal viewpoint, please share it. I do know that President Kennedy created the Peace Corps via Executive Order, but whether the president maintains legal power in this regard I do not know.)

You can learn more of Our Town by reading the agency’s appropriation request for the FY2011 budget. The program would, in part:

Plan and develop arts districts; map cultural assets and development potential; promote the arts and artists as integral components of community life and essential to community planning; and support innovative approaches by communities to maximize the economic growth potential of their creative sectors.

Place the art of design at the center of the development and enhancement of public spaces and the identification of solutions for more livable communities, while being sensitive to environmental impact. Activities would include encouraging partnerships that link compelling architecture, energetic streetscapes, sustainable parks and landscapes, and the arts.

Promote the arts as core to community livability by enhancing the availability and accessibility of the arts, particularly in new settings. These efforts would include artist residencies; transforming community sites into public art spaces and creating new ways to engage people with the arts; producing festivals, community-wide celebrations, and outdoor exhibitions; and commissioning temporary and/or permanent site-specific public art such as murals and sculptures, including freestanding site-specific art, free public performances, sculpture gardens, waterfront art walks, and artist studios.

So it seems to me the political question has two ifs — if Congressional approved is needed to create an Artists Corps, if it can be created by the stroke of a Presidential pen. Assuming the answers to those ifs are resolved favorable to the arts, the third political question is toughest: Will President Obama do so, and when will he do it?