Obama: The First Arts President?
At the tail end of the presidential campaign, I wrote a blog post pointing out that candidate Obama had put out an arts policy. I hadn't known it existed, but when I read it, it seemed really smart, and like Obama might even do some things to help the field beyond lip service.
What's happened so far?
Well, let's read the tea leaves. We're barely past the first 100 or so days of the presidency. Certainly the extra $50 million for the NEA is good news, and the
appointment of Rocco Landesman is innovative and refreshing. These are
Michelle Obama has already been in New York twice. The first
time was a few weeks ago, when she was making speeches about the value
of the arts, attending the ABT opening, and mentioning that her first
date with her future husband was at a museum.
Then, this weekend, the first couple came to NY to have a date night on Broadway. I got a ticket to the performance they were attending, and the whole thing was quite an experience.
First, the security
was as you would expect, and the NY police do this really well by now.
That is to say, the entire area around the theater was so tightly locked
down that the play ended up starting almost an hour late due to the fact
that half the audience was trapped a few blocks away, unable to even get to the theater. And of course, there was airport-type security and pat-downs of everyone entering the theater.
But once inside, the energy was electric. People were milling around until nearly 9 PM when the ushers started asking people to take their seats. When the President and
the First Lady walked in from a side entrance about two minutes before the show started, the place
erupted in a prolonged, whooping, standing-ovation-type applause more typically found at a baseball stadium. The outpouring of sheer enthusiasm was something I've never seen before for any politician. It seemed everyone had a camera or a cell phone camera and for a few minutes, it
was quite a light show. The Obamas were seated in row K on the aisle, and aside from
being escorted in by secret service, it was just them, no entourage. And, as was reported in the paper, Meryl Streep was sitting a few
rows ahead. The people sitting next to them were astounded as he walked down the aisle and shook hands and flashed his million-dollar smile.
Once the play ("Joe Turner's Come and Gone") started, it took the audience a good five minutes to focus on it and settle down. The
play was good, probably great. Certainly the performances were exceptional. It was a
play about the American Black post-emancipation experience — a personal
story that I suspect is lost on most white Americans. I thought
back to Obama's speech last summer on race in which he spoke of two Americas — the Black American experience and everyone else's. This play was laser
beam into that world.
I'm glad I went. I caught only a glimpse of them, but nonetheless it was thrilling.
And it did get me thinking about the potential for what the Obamas could mean for the arts, going forward. Quite apart from the right-wing attacks Obama has taken for using taxpayer money to fund a trip to the theater, I see things differently. What we have here is a couple that chooses to participate in arts & culture as an integrated and comfortable part of their lives. Even Bill Clinton's sax playing at his inauguration pales by comparison. The last time I remember a sitting president coming to Broadway was when Bill brought Chelsea to see "Rent." This is a very different thing, and hopefully symbolic of more honest and straightforward support of the arts to come.