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The art world put its weight behind Biden. Will he repay the favour?

25 January 2021

The abrupt transition in the White House from a reality TV show host to an experienced institutionalist is promising on innumerable fronts. But assumptions about ensuing benefits to the arts should be kept in check – because the arts in the United States are fuelled not by public policy or public money, but by the top tenth of the 1 per cent.

In 2019, 328 million Americans contributed an average of 47 cents in federal taxes to the arts, yielding an anaemic $155 million for the National Endowment for the Arts – about half the price of one F-22 Raptor fighter jet. The NEA is to receive a 3 per cent increase as part of the $1.4 trillion omnibus spending package passed in December 2020, in total still less than New York City’s budget for culture.

The balance of US arts support comes from the local level – and most of it from wealthy individuals, many of whom will have voted for Trump in 2016 and again in 2020, motivated by deregulation and tax cuts. (See Andrea Fraser’s 2016 in Museums, Money and Politics for an examination of the close links between many of those on the boards of museums and the Republican party.) Realpolitik will prompt Republicans to dispatch lobbyists to Washington in search of concessions for their business interests, but increased arts support won’t figure in their legislative agenda.

During 2020, with the suspension of art fairs, galas and exhibitions – all key sources of private support – the art world has faced an unprecedented crisis. Museums have shed vast numbers of talented and dedicated staff members, many of whom were people of colour, despite expressions of solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement in the aftermath of George Floyd’s murder.

When the pandemic recedes, private donors will return, but federal support of the arts won’t grow by much. Trillions of dollars in economic burdens brought on by the previous administration’s fiscal profligacy and bungling of the health crisis need to be addressed. We may anticipate a revival of the (purely advisory) President’s Committee on the Arts and Humanities, which resigned en masse in August 2017 following Trump’s equivocal response to the racist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia. But the addition of a Secretary of Cultural Affairs to the cabinet will likely remain a pipe dream.

A pot of gold for the arts at the end of the rainbow? The Bidens are presented with Robert S. Duncanson's Landscape With Rainbow (1859) following the president’s inauguration.

A pot of gold for the arts at the end of the rainbow? The Bidens are presented with Robert S. Duncanson’s Landscape With Rainbow (1859) after the president’s inauguration. Photo: Win McNamee/Getty Images

At President Biden’s inauguration, the national youth poet laureate Amanda Gorman seized the public imagination. It was one of many bright spots that day, along with Dr Jill Biden’s selection of the official ‘inaugural painting’ Landscape with Rainbow, painted in 1859 by the Black artist Robert S. Duncanson (1821–72). But these were fleeting tributes rather than promises of changes to come.

It’s worth recalling that federal support for the arts throughout modern American history has been bipartisan. The Federal Art Project (1935–43) commissioned artworks by some 10,000 artists during Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s presidency, while in 1969 Richard Nixon doubled what Lyndon Johnson had previously provided for the newly created NEA. The President’s Committee on the Arts and the Humanities (PCAH) was established by Ronald Reagan in 1982. Beyond the refreshingly humanistic leanings of the new president and vice-president, our best hope is for a groundswell of interest in tax-supported cultural offerings among voters emerging from isolation and pining for authentic human connections.

Maxwell L. Anderson is president of the Souls Grown Deep Foundation & Community Partnership.

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