We’ve got a country, let’s put on a show
On November 7, after the media declared that Joe Biden had won the Presidency, the executive director of Actors’ Equity declared that Biden would be “the most consequential President for the arts industry in a generation.” Equity mobilized hard for Biden, so it’s really not that surprising. Breaking news, actors don’t like Donald Trump.
But how consequential can Joe Biden really be?
Your opinion about Trump’s Presidency may vary, but no one can really argue that the Trump Years have been an artistic disaster. Every creative person in America, except for maybe James Woods and Lorenzo Lamas, has dedicated the last four years of their life to passionately opposing Trump. No cultural figures, aside from Kanye West, Kim Kardashian, and Ted Nugent, have crossed the White House threshold since Trump took over. Trump is an epic lunkhead. These have been artless years for sure.
This, of course, stands in direct contrast to the Obama Presidency, which commissioned Amy Sherald to paint Michelle Obama’s portrait, the first African-American woman to ever receive such an honor. Obama poured millions of dollars into artistic organizations as part of the 2009 economic recovery. One of his final acts as President was to have lunch at the White House with Dave Eggers, Zadie Smith, and Colson Whitehead.
Uncle Joe isn’t nearly as sophisticated an arts consumer as Obama, but, as Hyperallergic pointed out in September, he consistently supported the NEA during his Senatorial career, cosponsored the legislation to establish the African-American Museum of History and Culture in Washington, and helped designate March as National Arts Education Month.
His campaign, unlike Trump’s, had a significant arts platform. Biden has pledged to help establish a Smithsonian Museum of the American Latino. His wife is a community college English professor. As a campaign spokesperson told Hyperallergic: “Vice President Biden knows investing in the arts is critical for job creation and he is committed to promoting and supporting the arts in schools as well as the diversity and richness of ideas that keep the artworld alive.”
Kamala Harris’ record on the arts is just as good. She was a trustee on the board of the San Francisco Modern Art Museum and once chaired the San Francisco Symphony’s annual fundraiser. There are good reasons that the art world “rejoiced” when the Biden-Harris ticket won. They represent a sort of restoration for America’s neglected cultural institutions. “The future of who we are lies in the arts,” Biden said during a lickspittle campaign event with Lin-Manuel Miranda. That’s more than Donald Trump ever said.
A Long Recovery
But this recovery is about more than politics. Yes, Trump is tres gauche and now the fancy people are coming back to power. But COVID-19 has completely destroyed the arts in America. Beyond just saying that the arts are important and inviting Wynton Marsalis or whoever back to the White House for a Friday night show, a Biden Administration has got to take some specific actions to make sure that our staggering arts sector recovers from the fear and lockdowns of 2020.
Federal grants to individual artists would be nice. I would certainly love $50,000 tax-free to write a novel, and I’m sure my wife would say the same so she can work on her paintings. But that’s not where the real need lies. And we’re not giving Disney extra money so they can make more Baby Yoda content. TV doesn’t need a bailout.
Here’s my modest proposal for the biggest arts recovery in the last 100 years.
•Creatives, if not employed by an arts institution, need to qualify for the same unemployment benefits that other out-of-work people receive. COVID has forced too many musicians and artists into marginal gig work, while also removing the audience for their creative output.
•Some cultural institutions will need a massive bailout. Much like Obama pulled the auto industry back from the brink, Biden needs to do the same to arts organizations. The larger ones might not need much help, but smaller community-based arts organizations will. They should give special support to smaller theaters, museums, and musical institutions in second-tier cities, which don’t have the same potential for commercial bounce-back as ones in New York, Los Angeles, and Chicago.
•Arts education needs to be a major priority. The Administration should restore any stripped funds, and help struggling school districts and community arts education organizations to purchase equipment, pay arts teachers a decent living wage, and provide scholarships for kids who might not be able to afford an arts education otherwise.
Those are the obvious ones, but I would argue that Biden’s arts initiatives should go bolder. They should provide:
•Financial and material support for struggling art galleries.
•A program to boost film festivals, independent filmmaking organizations, and independent movie theaters, all of which find themselves in desperate straits because of the pandemic.
•A similar boost to independent bookstores and independent publishers.
•Substantial help to small independent musical venues, which will allow bands to begin touring again for a decent amount of money. Subsidies to independent bands so they can tour safely and record new music.
•A multi-million dollar study, which will I will chair, on “How Joe Biden Saved The Arts.”
In some seriousness, though, we all know painters, writers, musicians, actors, and dancers who’ve struggled mightily during this pandemic. We can’t depend on kind neighbors to buy us supplies so we can dance ballet in the snow like in that patronizing Amazon Christmas commercial.
That’s no way for an artist to live. Is that young lady supposed to dance in the snow for no money for the rest of her life? If the “show must go on,” then someone has to provide support so it happens.
The Administration will have to be creative, because the Trump Years and the pandemic have kneecapped our creative life. I’m not proposing some sort of permanent arts dole. We can’t have our culture providers completely dependent on government largesse. That’s paving the road for bland output, or even propaganda. The private sector will play a role from the beginning, and eventually take back the reigns from the bureaucrats.
But there needs to be an immediate robust government response to our arts depression, leading to a real bounceback. And then maybe, thanks to Sleepy Joe, America can get back to rockin’ again.