This week, President Obama gave a speech at a General Electric plant in Waukesha, Wisconsin, as part of a cross-country tour to extol opportunities for all. The President's talking points included plans to make new jobs, to train Americans to fill those jobs, to guarantee children access to an education, and to make sure "hard work pays off." In his speech the President reflected on how offshore manufacturing took away a lot of American jobs and noted, "A lot of young people no longer see the trades and skilled manufacturing as a viable career. But I promise you, folks can make a lot more, potentially, with skilled manufacturing or the trades than they might with an art history degree." This last observation, not surprisingly, has generated a response from arts professionals. (SFMOMA created the Twitter hashtag #ArtDegreesWork to collect career stories from people with art degrees.) Anticipating a potential outcry from his vast base of art historian supporters, the president went on to say, "Now, nothing wrong with an art history degree -- I love art history. So I don't want to get a bunch of emails from everybody." Yes, Mr. President, when you rile up art historians, the end result is a lot of writing.
Charles Desmarais, president of the San Francisco Art Institute, one of the nation's oldest art schools, posted: "Blue collar family. Barely literate dad. Yet I've had a 30+ year career as museum director and college president." Museums around the country, including the Walker Art Center and the Portland Museum of Art, have also sounded off in support of SFMOMA's Twitter-facilitated dialogue. For its part, SFMOMA posted a quote from Michelle Obama noting, "The arts are not just a nice thing to have or do if there is free time or if one can afford it... They define who we are as a people and provide an account of our history for the next generation."
I've reflected on President Obama's comments with mixed feelings. On one hand, his point is well taken. At a recent dinner party, I sat between two colleagues who spoke about the difficulties of surviving as adjunct professors in the arts. One spoke of teaching at a prestigious school -- we listeners raised our eyebrows appreciatively when he mentioned its name -- but then told us there was no money left over after he paid travel expenses. "It looks good on a resume though," he added. I nodded in agreement, but I also wondered at this curious trend, seemingly singular to the arts, to be perpetually resume-building without increased pay.
The woman on my right talked about the feast or famine compulsion to take every teaching opportunity given; as a result, she was gearing up to teach nine classes at three different schools, spread across the biggest traffic commutes in the Bay Area. "It's alright," she said patting my arm when I went mute, "I know it's horrifying." Paid opportunities are scarce, while unpaid work abounds. Perhaps this is why an art degree has become something of a joke -- more often than not, we might as well carry signs that say "Will Work for Work."
On the other hand, I wonder why the "hard work" of the arts sector doesn't "pay off" in this context? In a recent study titled Arts & Economic Prosperity, Americans for the Arts found that nonprofit arts and culture organizations added $61.1 billion annually to the economy, while functioning as the key promoters of their cities and regions. An additional $74.1 billion was generated by event-related revenue from audiences, including dining, transportation, and even childcare costs.
Certainly San Francisco offers an excellent test case here: Mayor Ed Lee highlighted the national study's local findings. In 2012, the city and county's nonprofit arts and cultural organizations generated $710 million in economic activity and supported the equivalent of nearly 20,000 full time jobs, while contributing $1.7 billion to the local economy in tourism revenue (download the pdf for more regional information). Note to the President: Much of this revenue relies on the work of people with art history degrees. Just sayin'.
Perhaps President Obama should consider the broader ways in which past administrations fostered the arts by creating jobs within social infrastructures across a spectrum of disciplines. We have no contemporary equivalent of Roosevelt's New Deal of the 1930s, which created opportunities for thousands of artists with programs such as the Public Works of Art Project and the Works Progress Administration. In this context, the art community was considered a body of workers on par with any other working community. Creative work was not diminished or marginalized -- artists, art historians and the like were considered just another part of the work force impacted by the Great Depression.
The National Endowment for the Arts, originally founded by President Johnson's administration in 1965 to bring the arts to all Americans and support leadership in arts education, now functions as a shadow of its former self, in large part due to the controversies generated by political conservatives during the Culture Wars of the late '80s and early '90s. The Artist Project of the Comprehensive Employment Training Act (CETA) founded during Jimmy Carter's administration created opportunities for thousands of artists to teach classes and to make public art and performances, but it too was short lived.
"Government can never take over the role of patronage and support filled by private individuals and groups in our society," President Kennedy wrote in 1963. "But government surely has a significant part to play in helping establish the conditions under which art can flourish -- in encouraging the arts as it encourages science and learning." The necessity of the federal government's involvement in supporting the arts as a social imperative has long been clear, but the creation of sustainable models has been a challenge. (Although the CIA was remarkably successful in covertly promoting Abstract Expressionism as a Cold War initiative, under the auspices of the Congress for Cultural Freedom in the 1950s. Maybe there is a useful idea in there for the NSA.)
Certainly not all of the responsibility here rests with President Obama; Congress has stalled his job initiatives at nearly every turn. Don't expect any New Deal-type strategies anytime soon. And yet, when considering the larger initiatives created by past administrations, one wonders what Obama's legacy will be in relation to the arts?
One modest initiative shows promise. In 2011, the President's Committee on the Arts and Humanities announced the Turnaround Arts Initiative, an experimental private-nonprofit program designed to narrow achievement gaps through integrated arts education, premised on the "hypothesis" that arts education raises academic achievement. This, of course, is a foregone conclusion to many workers in the arts, but it will hopefully concretize in government terms what many of us know already: Art matters, not just as an educational tool, but as a vital component of a balanced society. While the arts might not be as well paid as some work, the American government certainly has a long history of betting our future on it. One wonders then why the government isn't also invested in supporting the arts and arts education in more robust ways -- but what would I know? I just have an art history degree.
Check out SFMOMA's collection of #ArtDegreesWork tweets at storify.com.