President Barack Obama
1600 Pennsylvania Avenue
Washington DC 20500
Dear President Obama:
There was an anniversary yesterday, and I’m willing to bet that you forgot all about it. You didn’t need to send a card, but it would have been nice if you’d made some gesture of recognition, of concern. Presidents often do that sort of thing, especially when they’re stalling about something. But since you were silent, I’ll remind you: yesterday was the one-year anniversary of the day that Rocco Landesman announced his resignation as Chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts.
Now I can understand if you don’t remember the letter I wrote you about this in June, expressing my concern about this issue; it might have registered somewhere in your press office, but there are probably lots of bloggers yapping about this issue or that every day. Yet in August, your inaction on this topic was written about on successive days by Robin Pogrebin in The New York Times and Frank Rizzo in The Hartford Courant, and surely those are outlets that your media team pays closer attention to. But months have passed since then, still without a word.
I wouldn’t, as David Letterman says, give your problems to a monkey on a rock, especially with the current Obamacare debacle and the Senate denying hearings on some of your judicial nominations. But as a citizen who places the arts very highly among issues dear to me, your seeming abdication of responsibility or interest in the National Endowment for the Arts and its empty chairmanship has become not only absurd but insulting. It’s bad enough that the NEA is a frequent and easy target for those who want to carve up the budget willy-nilly or wage some fatuous war on culture, but without the full force of the presidency behind the agency, the government’s commitment to the arts (and the humanities, since the NEH is in the same boat) suggests that they are of no value to anyone at all in Washington, since it is the Democrats who usually speak up most strongly in defense of government funding of the arts.
I said it before and I’ll say it again, if you don’t have the time to have someone on your staff deal with this, then by all means nominate Joan Shikegawa, the acting chair, and let her fully assume the leadership mantle. The agency may be functioning as it stands, but you’re hobbling it by not appointing an officially vested leader. It’s also worth mentioning that in the past few weeks, two key staff positions have also opened up at the NEA, as Ralph Remington, head of the theatre and musical theatre program leaves for a job with Actors Equity, and the agency’s chief of staff Jamie Bennett decamps for ArtPlace America. I’m not saying there’s any connection here, simply that at a time when the agency has important decisions to make very soon, you have proven unable to make one after a full year’s time.
I take no pleasure in watching you struggle these days, but after an almost playful tone in my prior communiqué, my sense of humor on this topic is pretty much gone. I still support you, Mr. President, but I’m impatient now. Surely someone in your staff can vet candidates and get someone appropriate ready for your review. But in the meantime, your silence is sending a very negative message about the future of government funding of the arts and the value of the arts in Americans’ lives. You disappoint me and my colleagues and to be honest Mr. President, when you start making us angry, you’re really chipping away at your base.
Addendum: 20 minutes after I posted this letter, Mark Swed, music critic at The Los Angeles Times, posted an excellent essay about President Kennedy’s one-time role as “arts patron in chief.” It speaks directly to the leadership gap in this area today and throws the problem of the NEA into even greater relief.