President and Mrs. Obama and their two girls got a rapturous reception Friday night when they made their first appearance at the Kennedy Center, the crown jewel of Washington’s arts community.
When the Obamas arrived for the sold-out performance of Alvin Ailey at 50, some theatergoers were so entranced they leaned over the balcony above the presidential box to try to shake hands with the first family.
But behind the scenes, the Senate was voting to cut funding for museums, theaters and arts centers – along with casinos, golf courses and swimming pools – from the mega-billion-dollar stimulus plan. As Chicago Tribune theater critic Chris Jones points out, calling funding for the arts “pork” means the country has fallen quite a bit from the Great Depression, when Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s Works Progress Administration made it a priority to put artists to work. This despite the fact that, as the National Endowment for the Arts has documented, unemployment among nation’s 2 million artists is on the rise as both corporate and government funding wane.
Now arts supporters are fighting back. They are hoping that House Appropriations Committee Chairman David Obey (D-Wisc.), a longtime supporter of the arts, will restore $50 million in funding for the National Endowment for the Arts when the bill goes to conference. And former NEA Chairman Bill Ivey, who headed Obama’s transition team on arts spending, is doing some public diplomacy – reminding lawmakers that funding the arts is not pork but will actually stimulate the economy. He told The Boston Globe he was troubled by comments suggesting “that an arts worker is not a real worker, and that a carpenter who pounds nails framing a set for an opera company is a less real carpenter than one who pounds nails framing a house.”
The biggest hope for arts funding in fact may lie in the White House, where Obama, an author and fan of poetry and music, has talked about naming a special assistant for the arts. Maybe that’s why at the Kennedy Center Friday night, one photographer compared the Obamas’ reception to the kind of ecstatic welcome once reserved for the Beatles.