President Barack Obama
1600 Pennsylvania Avenue
Washington DC 20500
Dear President Obama:
I realize it’s been a busy week, what with the overturning of the Defense of Marriage Act today and the gutting of the Voting Rights Act yesterday. I know you’ve just begun a weeklong trip to Africa and presumably get home just in time for some fireworks (actual, not political) next week. But we’ve really got to talk about this NEA thing.
I’m referring, of course, to the fact that there hasn’t been a chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts since Rocco Landesman stepped down at the end of your first term. While presumably the agency is running smoothly, the fact remains that for six months now, there’s been no notable public effort to replace him. I know how these things go (I watched The West Wing and House of Cards) and there may be elaborate machinations going on behind the scenes, but without a new chair even proposed, you’re giving off the signal that the arts don’t matter.
A lot of us in the arts know that isn’t true. Since you first took office, we’ve been pleased to see you, the First Lady and your daughters taking in cultural events in New York and in Washington and hosting others at the White House. Some of us would lobby for the symbolism of a cultural excursion by your family taking place outside of the aforementioned cities, or your Chicago hometown, to demonstrate how broadbased the arts community truly is, but the girls have school and you and your wife have countless commitments. We get that. But considering how little attention the previous tenants of your house paid to the arts, I would think that your small personal actions would lead you to action on the big picture.
Sure, I know all about the various government positions you’re trying to fill, including serious problems with stalled judicial appointments, and I don’t want to in any way minimize their import. My god, the whole IRS situation alone must keep you awake at night. However, second terms are when people start peeling away from government appointments, not running towards them, since there’s more than likely a ticking clock on their service, depending upon the preferences of the next president. When Rocco took the NEA gig, he knew he had four years guaranteed, said he only wanted four years, and proved to be a man of his word. His successor might only get three years, even if you act soon.
I know you’re not personally conducting a search or vetting candidates; you have a team of people to do these things and bring names forward for consideration. I’m not presumptuous enough to proffer candidates, especially as my list might be rather theatre-centric, and you may not want to follow Rocco with another theatre-oriented person, since the NEA has an impact on so many areas in the arts. Again, symbolism can be important. Beyond having an advocate in your administration who has the unequivocal authority of the office, we need the affirmation that this is important to you and that you believe the arts are important to the American people. It’s the silence that hurts, especially as we’ve watched the agency diminished over time, albeit with some recent gains that don’t go unnoticed or unappreciated.
Now I don’t know Joan Shikegawa myself, but if the trouble of a search is too onerous and she’s been doing well, then give her the full power. Don’t wait any longer. While we appreciate acting in the arts, “Acting Chairman” diminishes authority, rather than enhancing it. It suggests something transitory, and we need some permanence. We’ve spent too much time over the past couple of decades worrying whether the agency, and federal funding, would even survive.
There are remarkable leaders in the arts, who would be great advocates and great politicians. They would do your administration proud and the arts community could take pride in them. There’s very little the average citizen can do to nudge you on this, although I’m quite certain I could rally the troops on Twitter or Facebook to lob ideas at you via social media. But you probably want more decorum.
Now if it so happens that there’s something we can do, reach out. If there are factors contributing to the delay, give us a sign, so we know where we stand. But what I, and I suspect others, want to know is that the arts aren’t forgotten, and that our president believes they are important enough for his concern, his enthusiasm, and his actions. Name a chairman. Please. I look forward to hearing from you. Not by mail, but in the national news. Soon.