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Obama Plays It Safe With the Arts

By David A. Smith
June 11, 2009

Last week President Barack Obama announced Jim Leach as his choice to lead the National Endowment for the Humanities. Mr. Leach, an Iowa Republican who served 30 years in the House before losing his bid for re-election in 2006, notably went against his party last year by endorsing Mr. Obama, not John McCain, in the presidential race. Now that President Obama has picked Mr. Leach for NEH and Rocco Landesman, a successful Broadway producer, to head the National Endowment for the Arts, the Obama cultural team is complete.

Of the two, Mr. Leach is more surprising—if only because his cultural qualifications aren’t as immediately obvious. But he was a solid supporter of the endowments while in Congress, and both the National Humanities Alliance and Americans for the Arts recognized his contributions. He’s also familiar with academia, having recently taught at Harvard and Princeton.

Still, Messrs. Leach and Landesman are probably not the choices initially expected from a president who was being lobbied just a couple of months ago to do something as bold as create a cabinet-level department of arts and culture. These are the choices, rather, of a president who doesn’t want this to be a political fight. With these nominations it’s also clear that Mr. Obama is not making a statement that great change is needed at either agency. This is not to disparage these choices—both of which, in addition to being rather surprising, are quite good, at least in the eyes of those who think both endowments are already following a wise course. In fact, given the constituencies that rallied most vociferously behind Mr. Obama in the campaign, his choice of these two men ought to elicit a sigh of relief from conservatives.

Taken together, what might these two nominations mean for the relationship between the government and the arts under the Obama administration? Do they signal any new directions for these agencies?

Not necessarily. Both endowments currently enjoy considerable support in Congress and, given the history of the NEA in particular, this is no small achievement. While some supporters of the arts are quite upset with the direction the NEA has taken in the past few years (more about this later), there’s no denying that it’s in better shape than it ever has been. It enjoys broad support in Congress in part because it has steered clear of controversy and extended its good effects.

For its part, the NEH has traditionally avoided the troubles that have periodically plagued its sister agency, and it’s hard to imagine Mr. Leach now endorsing some great change of course. In the past few years the NEH has given tens of thousands of books, classics of literature, civics and history, to public and school libraries. A new program called “Picturing America” distributes high-quality reproductions of famous American works of art to schools, the aim being to help students “learn about our nation’s history and culture in a fresh and engaging way.”

There’s a parallel at the NEA. Such programs as “Shakespeare in American Communities” and a national poetry recitation contest called “Poetry Out Loud” are bringing the arts to people whose direct contact with them has been lacking. Overall, the NEA has undertaken as its primary mission spreading more appreciation for the arts. Inasmuch as the youth of today are the art patrons of the future, the endowments do well to cultivate their interests.

Yet many artists and academics regard programs such as these as bland—timidly designed only to avoid controversy. The primary undertaking of both endowments, they believe, should be to award grants to individual artists and scholars so as to break new and experimental ground. Congress, however, ordered the arts endowment to discontinue this practice in the mid-1990s in the wake of the infamous scandals earlier that decade. But many in the arts community insist that it’s time for the NEA to have this power once again. It will be interesting to see whether President Obama and Mr. Landesman actively lobby Congress to make the change.

On the surface there’s certainly nothing wrong with either cultural agency disbursing grants to individuals. But the debate over such grants highlights the question of who should be the real beneficiary of the endowments: artists and scholars or the public? In truth, the NEA functions just fine without making individual grants. In fact, absent this practice it’s easier to see the agency as its creators back in 1965 intended: one whose primary beneficiary is to be the American people as a whole.

Privately funded art need not steer clear of controversy, but publicly funded art should. In addition to hurting the endowments’ standing in Congress, controversy undermines in the public eye the idea that the arts and humanities are important to civic life and are worthy of public funds.

Both endowments have power to do good things within the broader American culture. If there’s no change in direction for the agencies, it still bodes well for the arts and humanities in the country. Particularly if their budgets can increase, the endowments can continue to evangelize for the arts and humanities in a culture that sadly seems to value them less than business, science and professional education.

Messrs. Leach and Landesman might well be a team that could keep the endowments clearly working for the public good, and that would be welcome.

Mr. Smith is a senior lecturer in American history at Baylor University and the author of "Money for Art: The Tangled Web of Art and Politics in American Democracy" (Ivan R. Dee, 2008). He can be reached at

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