The Arts and the 2012 Democratic Convention

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We all knew what to expect from the Republican convention in terms of conversation on the Arts. The Republican nominee, former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney, has stated he would eliminate the National Endowment for the Arts. Looking toward the Democratic convention, what should we be looking for?

In the United States, government support for the arts break down along color lines, Red and Blue. With Republicans (Reds) you have to make the case for government support for the arts, and with Democrats (Blues) you can assume support for government involvement in the arts, one way or another. President Obama has stabilized NEA funding after years of decline under President Bush, and he personally hosted a number of arts events in the White House. Support for the arts is not a priority Democratic issue, but in 2008 the Democratic Party platform included:

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“Investment in the arts is an investment in our creativity and cultural heritage, in our diversity, in our communities, and in our humanity. We support art in schools and increased public funding for the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities. We support the cultural exchange of artists around the world, spreading democracy and renewing America’s status as a cultural and artistic center.”

It’s interesting to think of the arts as this kind of political issue. As part of the political platforms, and political machinations, which underlie civic engagement and policy-maker success. Many arts advocates enter the field from the arts side, not the politics side. But on the local, state, and federal level, government support for the arts is a political issue.

Martin Luther King Jr. said that the arc of the moral universe is long, and it bends toward justice. Each generation settles only one or two key issues. Each of the last several generations has resolved an issue or two in education, healthcare, immigration, and other areas of public interest.

The arts issue of our generation isn’t whether or not artists should be able to get visas, or whether or not public art should be included in government buildings, or whether or not the arts will be re-integrated into public education. Those are important issues, but the arts issue of our generation is whether or not the government should be involved in direct financial support of the arts. The New York Times did a great debate on the topic a few months ago, and the Economist is right now running a similar discussion.

In covering Governor Romney’s statements that he would eliminate the National Endowment for the Arts, the National Endowment for the Humanities, and the Public Television Service, Patrick Butler, president and CEO of the Assn. of Public Television stations, said, “What we don’t want is for [this] to be a partisan issue.”

But it is a partisan issue.

While arts advocates don’t need to embrace partisanship, as a political issue we know that support for the arts is like the right to choose in that Democrats tend to support the arts and Republicans tend to not. Arts support is part of a suite of policy priorities that positively distinguish the one party from the other, and as the Democratic Party convenes this week, it will be interesting to see if this policy distinction is substantively addressed.